By: Hailey Stankiewicz
Community interactions with police-based entities within the town of Isla Vista has for a long time been characterized by inequitable political decision making. Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, University of California Police Department, as well as California Highway Patrol have all independently and simultaneously collectively achieved a high level of aggression, violence, and abuse. With four different law enforcement entities that come into play and bombard community members within such a small radius (one square mile), a close examination into the history of this power imbalance as well as current implications is necessary. First and foremost, it should be acknowledged that a critical emblem of the culture and history of Isla Vista (especially in respect to its relationship with municipal structures like law enforcement) is its definition as an unincorporated community.
An Unincorporated Area
According to Annie Bagdasaryan, author of “Isla Vista: What are the Implications of Being an Unincorporated College Town,” an unincorporated community is defined in a conglomerate of different ways. However, it is most commonly attributable to being a “region of land that is not governed by a local municipal corporation (or a city, town, village or borough that has governmental power)” (Bagdasaryan). Because of the idiosyncratic nature of such an area, these localities are typically provided with very limited powers to self government. This is the phenomena Isla Vista has navigated since 1958, when the official opening of Isla Vista had “enticed Isla Vista landlords to receive zoning permits and create infrastructure”(Bagdasaryan). This, coupled with grassroots organizing and community based initiatives to self governance, allowed for the development of Isla Vista as an unincorporated college community.
With Isla Vista being an unincorporated area of Santa Barbara county, it has had a history of struggle for adequate representation when it comes to the various municipal and government entities that parade local politics. Because its positionality as an unincorporated locality has severely disadvantaged Isla Vista residents, the town has tried multiple times to fight to become a city. However, this request has long been denied, ever since the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) maligned the request because it was not “financially feasible” in the 1970s.
It is interesting to note that LAFCO did not even have the authority to properly decipher and use this justification for criteria in whether this proposal for restructuring the geography of Santa Barbara should be eligible to be placed on the ballot. This instance has only further perpetuated the inequality in representation and agency that Isla Vista residents experience in their home community. To put it in perspective, Isla Vista, despite being the most densely populated area of Santa Barbara County, is awarded only ⅓ of the votes in electing one of five representatives on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
A Struggle with Law Enforcement
Isla Vista has long endeavored to address issues of public safety, infrastructure, and community services while hoping to retain the sanctity of local political agency. Community relations with law enforcement are at the forefront of this struggle.
Dating back to the 1960s, Isla Vista has had a violent history of oppression when it came to resident interactions with police. For a long time, prior to the implementation of Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Los Angeles Sheriff's Office (LASO) would, in high occurrences, infiltrate the college community, and tyrannize residents with systemic abuse and fear mongering. This was an overwhelming issue at the time — clear violations of power by the LASO deputies was left unchecked because an entity from an outside county was coming in with no community oversight.
During the Second Isla Vista riots (which is when the infamous burning of Bank of America occurred), police officers actually murdered an Isla Vista resident and UCSB student, Kevin Moran. Shot and killed by the police, LASO tried to maintain the claim that a sniper had killed Moran. Even issuing a description of the suspect, LASO had maintained a scary pattern of violence and oppression that shook the entire community of Isla Vista at its core. It turned out to be a deputy of LASO, who went by the name of David Gosselin, and went out free of charge, essentially unscathed for the senseless murder of an Isla Vista Resident. When KCSB reported this tragedy in hopes to shed light on a clear instance of tyranny, they were shut down immediately — a clear violation of federal law. Instances like this were not few and far between. They spotlighted the necessity for a system of checks and balances between the police and the locality of Isla Vista.
Isla Vista Foot Patrol: It's No Better
Steadfast efforts of grassroots organizing, a tradition near and dear to the hearts of Isla Vista residents for decades, had paved the way for a local police entity to come in as an alternative to the punitive and unchecked powers of LASO. This establishment was made in hopes that community members would have a seat at the table when it came to safety measures and punitive response systems. However, it is clear that this was not the case…
With so many different police entities that come into play in Isla Vista, there is little accountability to check the patterns of oppression put forth by law enforcement in the area. For instance, in 2014, Isla Vista Foot Patrol deputies tyrannized the residents of Isla Vista at UCSB's annual DelTopia event. Forming a barricade and dispersing tear gas on crowds of Isla Vista residents who were in protest against the police, Isla Vista Foot Patrol escalated the situation, and assaulted residents. Deputies also infiltrated the area with rubber bullets fired at UCSB students and community members. This unrest led to over 18 arrests during the instance alone, and over 100 arrests throughout the day. Sadly, instances like this have not been left in the past.
This Year: Halloween and Deltopia
The transition of leadership internally at Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office led to the hiring of a new lieutenant for Isla Vista during the summer of 2022. This transition had directly led to shaky relations between the deputies of Isla Vista and UCSB and Isla Vista community stakeholders. Halloween 2022 is a prime example.
The planning processes preceding Halloween weekend have raised conversations over increased police presence and increased surveillance. The EVPLA office’s understanding at the time was that Isla Vista Foot Patrol was planning to use surveillance video cameras to monitor the streets of Del Playa. With a lack of initiative to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the EVPLA or other local stakeholders that would delineate exactly what these cameras would or would not be used for, what they would capture, and the parameters at which they would be used, or who would have access to them, it was clear from the start that Isla Vista Foot Patrol had their own agenda and there was no shaking it. This had the EVPLA office extremely concerned. This created great urgency and momentum in ensuring students of all backgrounds and identities feel at peace in their community, especially during a weekend like Halloween.
Thus, a community town hall was held in October of 2022 where UCSB students and Isla Vista residents directly asked questions to law enforcement, and demanded answers for transparency with policing and surveillance. However, little to no clarity was provided and a myriad of community members felt uneasy and uncomfortable in Isla Vista, knowing the overwhelming and punitive presence Foot Patrol has had and plans to have. Only days before Halloween Weekend, on Wednesday, October 26th, 2022, at around 10:15AM, did Isla Vista Foot Patrol communicate to other community stakeholders that they decided against using surveillance. While this was a short victory of the Isla Vista community, it did not mark a change in relations between local residents and police.
Deltopia of 2023 was met with the same lack of transparency. When asked about their plans for up staffing during deltopia, or plans for surveillance, Isla Vista Foot Patrol refused to provide any insight. Sighting that it would pose a threat to their deputies, communication was halted and at a standstill. No conversations were provided by the Sheriff’s Department regarding the planning by police for DelTopia, other than the fact that a new change would be implemented— all first response calls would now be dispatched to have law enforcement arrive at the scene as well. This marked a stark and scary change for Isla Vista residents.
Because many feel as though non punitive approaches to safety should be prioritized, the community was startled and upset. This galvanized more grassroots approaches to change for community oriented safety. As a result, UCIV, a public safety program initiated to provide non-police based approaches to community safety was revitalized for Deltopia. This was established in hopes of reaffirming the belief that strong communities make the need for policing obsolete.