A tragic day (week, month, year) in Santa Cruz, California –

Yesterday felt like a bad dream — helicopters circling my neighborhood for hours, streets blocked off, and reports later on that two veteran police officers had been shot to death during a sexual assault investigation on the street that I run and drive on almost every day of the week. For hours we were getting reports that a shooter was still in the neighborhood — and though the report turned out to be wrong, our household got quite a jolt when a door-to-door marketer, with an only-in-Santa-Cruz sense of timing, pounded on the door, hoping to sell stuff. (She was told to please go away and perhaps come back when there was not an active manhunt in progress.)  It was nerve-wracking to see constant updates and national news stories coming over the wire and have no idea if the situation was ongoing.  Later on, I was stunned to hear that one of the fallen officers was Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker, a true professional, and  my go-to guy every time I wrote about social issues downtown while working at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. He was one of the most visible members of the force — an almost constant presence downtown. At one point I wrote  stories about panhandling and street musicians, and a set of downtown ordinances restricting where people could “spare change” (a verb out here in Santa Cruz.)  Sgt. Baker was always very informal and friendly, and more than willing to go about his rounds with a pesky reporter trailing after him, recording his every move. Those were the days when people seemed on edge in this town — so much anxiety when the stakes were so much lower. I got a  small and slightly scary taste of what Sgt. Baker had to go through every single day when I “patrolled” downtown myself as part of my newspaper beat.  These days I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic when panhandling ordinances seemed like our biggest concern in the city. Now it’s 2013, and in the same few weeks we’ve had to deal with the shooting (not fatal) of a student at the bus stop I use almost every day, a fatal drive by shooting of someone right in front of an extremely popular college hangout called The Red Room, an alleged sexual assault on campus that heightened anxieties but turned out to be a false report, a robbery of the same organic food store where a disoriented guy tried half-heartedly to mug me while I was shopping some weeks back. And let’s not forget the fatal stabbing of the owner of Camouflage less than a year ago in broad daylight.

Obviously there is no “upside” to all of this tragedy, but we can all take heart in the people who work hard to keep bystanders out of harms way, the grocery stores that closed early to make sure their employees got home safely, and the generosity and work ethic of so many people in this town. I’m talking about the same sense of responsibility that led Sgt. Baker and Detective Elizabeth Butler out to that house on North Branciforte Avenue yesterday.


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