Early one morning, Blue Oak Coffee Roasting co-owner Bernadette Sebastiani parked her car in front of the business on 20th Street in downtown Bakersfield to begin work when she was approached by a man.
He began slamming his fists on her trunk and yelling gibberish at her. When she told him to back off, he sat down at the table in front of the coffee shop, and began masturbating in front of her.
Incidents like that aren’t new for Sebastiani and co-owner Cynthia Price. Since they opened up shop in downtown Bakersfield in 2017, Sebastiani said they've been frequently yelled at by addicts demanding food and had food and money stolen from the shop.
Sebastian wonders why she hasn't seen any police officers doing foot patrols downtown, something she thinks could have a big impact on the area's chronic problems with vandalism and vagrancy if done on a regular basis.
“That would be amazing,” she said. “If they want to come in for free coffee, they would always be welcome.”
Sebastian recalled one time when a transient followed her into the freezer, where an altercation occurred.
“We have a lot of problems with the addicts that come in,” Sebastiani said. “It gets really dangerous for us, and it’s gotten to the point where we question whether we want to stay here.”
Price said sometimes officers will park their patrol cars in the Fox Theater parking lot across the street from the coffee shop, which immediately deters any troublemakers, even if officers don’t get out of the car.
However, officers usually only stay there for an hour or two before leaving.
“It would not take a lot of presence to make a difference for us,” she said.
Gaby Schmidt, owner of Soapterra on 18th Street, said she would also like to see officers regularly walking around the downtown area.
“There are some scary characters downtown that make me and other business owners a bit vulnerable,” she said. “Police officers doing foot patrols could help make us feel a little more secure, and not so worried about what could happen.”
Schmidt said foot patrols would also be useful for BPD in building a relationship with the business owners and the community they serve.
“I want them to patrol in a friendly way,” she said. “I want them to get to know the community, to have a friendly presence, not necessarily the kind that scares people.”
The challenges of foot patrols
Bakersfield Police Department Public Information Officer Nathan McCauley acknowledges that foot patrols aren’t a priority for the department right now due to staffing limitations and an effort to make the most efficient use of officers’ time.
McCauley said the 14 officers in the department’s Impact Unit, which largely deals with the homeless in downtown and Old Town Kern, do some foot patrols depending on need.
Officers will also do patrols around the city for special events, such as the Kern County Fair.
“Our city is too spread out for us to be doing that all the time. That wouldn’t be an efficient use of officers’ time,” he said. “It’s great for protecting a building or two, but in terms of response time, if you’re not by a patrol car, it really limits the area where you can respond to. I’m not sure how effective it is.”
However, McCauley said the department still recommends that officers get out of their cars when they’re not out on a call to build relationships with businesses and community members.
While most police departments have some level of foot patrol, it has not been as common in the past decade or so, as departments have had to grapple with budget cuts that makes prolonged foot patrols infeasible.
“We used to have officers dedicated to certain areas of town full-time, and they would often spend their time on foot,” McCauley said. “As the city has grown and there’s been more ground to cover, that became less and less practical, especially when the (economic) recession hit.”
Now, as the national economy has bounced back, foot patrols are becoming more frequent at some departments across the country.
A study published by the National Police Foundation in 2016 examined five police agencies that are implementing significant foot patrol efforts and found that it comes with many benefits and a few challenges for them.
Besides building a better relationship with the community, the study also concluded that foot patrols can change how the community views police officers and can provide departments with an increased sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the community.
The study also concluded that foot patrols are rewarding for officers and can be emotionally beneficial for them.
However the study acknowledged the difficulties of foot patrols, including the fact that they are manpower-intensive and make it difficult for police departments to adequately measure the productivity of officers.
“The agencies that we studied had made a conscious effort to bring foot patrols back as a way to better engage with their communities,” said Brett Cowell, who co-authored the study. “At the same time though, most agencies are facing staffing shortages, and having an officer on foot only exacerbates that problem because an officer on foot can't respond to calls for service like a motorized officer can.”
Hope for the future
Sebastiani said she understands BPD’s perspective on the feasibility of foot patrols.
“I understand they’re understaffed, and they have to prioritize based on what’s the most dangerous things going on at a given time,” she said. “I know they’re dealing with their own set of issues and are doing the best they can. They can’t be everywhere at once. I don’t know what the solution is.”
Things could change in the near future, however. Bakersfield voters narrowly passed Measure N last November, which allowed the city to increase the sales tax from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent starting Monday. Revenue from the measure will largely go toward bulking up public safety efforts.
The police department expects hire 100 officers within three years, starting with 40 new hires in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
McCauley said the extra officers could lead to an increase in foot patrols in the coming years. The department is still working out exactly how the new officers will be utilized. BPD already has around 400 officers.
“I think it’s something that could definitely grow with this,” he said about foot patrols. “We will continue to evaluate what is the most effective use of these new officers.”