Do you feel safe? - Morgan Hill Times: Crime Fire Courts

Do you feel safe?

Despite some high-profile crimes, residents feel safe in the city

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013 12:00 pm

A survey designed to gauge Morgan Hill residents’ feelings about local safety showed overwhelmingly positive results, but police and City officials plan to use the data to identify areas where they can improve their public safety efforts in order to reach desired long-term outcomes.

The survey commissioned by the City Council for $37,500, and conducted by Godbe Research, showed that about 81 percent of those surveyed feel that Morgan Hill is headed in the right direction, and 90 percent or more of those polled trust the local police department, which is viewed as competent and professional, according to Godbe’s report presented to the Council last week.

The telephone survey was conducted over three days in November.

Godbe pollsters contacted 406 residents who participated in the 18-minute survey that asked respondents a lengthy list of questions relating to where and when they feel safe in town, why they feel safe or unsafe and what residents see as the biggest challenges facing the City. Godbe Research reported a margin of error of about five percent of the overall targeted “universe” of about 29,600 Morgan Hill residents.

Police Chief David Swing said the department and the surveyor will spend the next few months broadcasting the results to the public, and analyzing areas that need improvement, as well as how to continue doing what the department already does well in the eyes of residents.

“Overall, it is a good indication that the police department and the city are headed in the right direction,” Swing said.

Parts of the survey already show some areas where City officials think public safety services are lacking, or at least need improvement.

One of those is the contrast of how the public views law enforcement’s responses and efforts to crack down on crimes against people, versus crimes involving property damage or theft, Swing said. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed are satisfied with the way the police have handled crimes against people, but only 67 percent are satisfied with how police respond to property crimes.

“We are well above the national average in (solving) person crimes,” such as the 2011 murder of 14-year-old Tara Romero for which police arrested five suspects (who remain in Santa Clara County Jail awaiting trial) within hours after the incident. “But we are below the national average when it comes to property crime. Person crime is more significant to the victim, but property crime affects a lot more people.”

One way the City could improve the solvency of theft and vandalism, for example, would be to assign another detective to that area as more resources become available, Swing said. The police department currently employs only one property crime detective.

Other recent highly publicized crimes against people that resulted in arrests include the case of Marcy Erico, who pleaded no contest earlier this month to using her 10-year-old daughter to attempt to steal groceries from Safeway. Although Erico abandoned her daughter at the store before police arrived, and fled the state with her infant son, according to police, she and the children were returned to Morgan Hill unharmed.

Another example is the Memorial Day 2011 accidental kidnapping of an infant from the parking lot of St. Catherine Church, when Maribel Mejia stole an idling car without realizing there was a baby in the back seat. Mejia was arrested and pleaded guilty in November 2011 to child endangerment.

Mayor Steve Tate said he was “overwhelmed” at the vastly positive results of the survey, but he too sees some areas where improvement is needed. Tate and Swing noted that when asked where and at what time of day residents feel unsafe, significantly more survey takers (15 percent) said “alone downtown at night” than any other category. Other possible responses to this question included alone in one’s neighborhood during the day or at night, or alone downtown during the day.  

“I think there’s going to be a lot of outreach to find out why they feel unsafe downtown,” Tate said. He added one idea the City could explore is whether or not there is enough lighting in all the areas that people visit downtown.

Downtown Morgan Hill resident Laura Gonzalez-Escoto said the downtown has been “on a positive roll” lately when it comes to safety, as compared to a stretch of violence and disregard for personal property and residents - fueled largely by nighttime revelry - that calmed down about two years ago.

The survey is not over, and in the spring Godbe Research will conduct the “economic development component” of the survey by targeting visitors to Morgan Hill, Swing said. This in-person survey will ideally take place in the area of City sports facilities on Condit Road, during a weekend in which a youth soccer tournament and swim meet are occurring simultaneously.

This survey will help determine where else (other than the sports facilities) visitors go when they’re in Morgan Hill, why they go to those areas and where they spend their money, Swing said.

Economic development, and even an improving economy that place “more eyes on the street, and more feet on the street” are among the best means to improve visitors’ feelings of safety in the downtown, Gonzalez-Escoto noted.

“The restaurants downtown are full (lately), and they’re doing very well. The better the economy, the safer you feel because you’re one of many on the streets,” Gonzalez-Escoto said.

The last time the City conducted a scientific survey of residents was in 2008, in preparation for a local ballot measure that would have funded more police officer positions through a utility tax. That survey targeted likely voters only. The measure ultimately failed in the 2008 election.

In the most recent survey, one question asked what residents feel is the “most serious” problem facing the City, and respondents were offered a list of about 12 choices. More survey takers (20 percent) responded “education/public schools” than any other problem, followed by “gangs /youth violence” (17 percent) and “too much growth and development” (14 percent).

Swing noted that MHPD will continue to work on efforts – some of which were initiated recently such as the South Valley Youth Task Force ≠ to prevent and respond to gang and youth related violence, which often go hand-in-hand with other types of crimes such as drugs and theft.

Although local Morgan Hill Unified School District officials were not immediately aware of the survey results, they agree with Swing that education and public safety are closely related.

“When you start talking about priorities with a child’s education, safety is number one,” MHUSD Board of Trustees President Don Moody said. “A child can’t learn at their full potential if they’re not safe. Safety is my primary concern as a school board member, with academic achievement coming in second.”

He added that education topping the list of problems in the survey may not necessarily indicate a “negative” perception about local schools’ performance, but rather a “priority to the families” of Morgan Hill.

MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith declined to comment on the survey results because he is unaware of its methodology and reliability. But he noted that academic performance at the district’s schools is improving, and “we continue to narrow the achievement gap.”

The City employs a full-time school resource officer who responds to incidents at campus and works with students to prevent unsafe activity at the schools. Swing pointed to the recent arrest of a 14-year-old middle school student on suspicion of bullying as an example.

Plus, even before the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. made national headlines, Morgan Hill police started working on an effort to visit the district’s elementary schools more often to make their presence known and to interact with children, Swing added.

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