Video: Watt Avenue property owners tackle crime problem
Natalya Shamshurina stood on the sidewalk on Watt Avenue in North Highlands Wednesday, talking to a man in a pickup. She wore a tight, black mini-dress and carried only jail release papers in a plastic bag.
Her clothing and her interactions with the driver led Deputy Tom Mantei of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to arrest her, he said.
“Please let me go,” the 23-year-old immigrant from Kiev, Ukraine, pleaded repeatedly from the backseat of Mantei’s truck, not wanting to return to jail for the second time in a day, having been booked earlier on suspicion of disorderly conduct. Shamshurina said she was simply trying to get a ride.
She was booked into the jail on suspicion of loitering for the purposes of prostitution and a probation violation, as she has a prior theft conviction and other drug charges. She was released from jail the next day.
Watt Avenue near Interstate 80 is one of the most notorious areas for prostitution in the state, dating back to when McClellan Air Force Base was open. It’s one of the crime problems that has long hurt area businesses, according to Mantei and area business leaders.
While Mantei was patrolling the area when he arrested Shamshurina, he said the department is typically too busy responding to crime to try to prevent it. By Sheriff Scott Jones’ own admission, the county does not have the resources to regularly patrol Watt Avenue or any other portion of the unincorporated area.
Business owners recently came up with their own solution: they formed a property and business improvement district.
For about 20 years, California law has allowed the formation of property and business improvement districts to provide service needs not met by government. In Sacramento County, the districts have been set up in numerous distressed areas, including Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento, Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento and Fulton Avenue in Arden Arcade.
The district will tax property owners, raising almost $500,000 a year. Half the money will go to security and the rest will pay for maintenance, capital improvements and other needs on Watt Avenue from Longview Drive to Roseville Road and to the west near McClellan, which is now a business park. The district was backed by 75 percent of property owners who voted and approved by the county Board of Supervisors last month.
The improvement district must appoint a board of directors and solicit bids before it can award a contract for security, which is expected to provide 300 hours of patrol each month. The contract could go to a private security firm or the Sheriff’s Department, depending on who submits the best bid. The district must comply with the state’s open meetings and open records laws and issue annual reports about how it spends its tax money.
From 2010 through the end of 2014, the six blocks of Watt Avenue in the improvement district averaged almost 200 reported crimes a year, The Sacramento Bee found in a review of Sheriff’s Department data. Prostitution was the top crime, accounting for 21 percent of reports, followed by burglary, larceny and robbery.
Consultant John Lambeth, who helped with the formation of the Watt Avenue district and similar ones across the country, said they are effective because they add private-sector efficiency to public services and bring together business leaders to work toward a common cause.
“There wasn’t much organization on Watt Avenue before,” he said. “This is a new organization, and a new day, and I think we will see a lot of changes.”
The districts have been shown to reduce crime, Lambeth said, citing a 2009 study by the RAND Corporation. The study found that improvement districts in Los Angeles had a marginal influence in reducing overall violent crime rates, but contributed to a significant reduction in robberies.
Like many military bases, McClellan attracted prostitution, said Deputy Mantei, who has worked out of the north patrol division that includes McClellan all of his 25 years in the department. When the base closed in 2001, the area still had features that were amenable to prostitution, in particular a large swath of industrial property that remains empty at night after the workday, allowing prostitutes to conduct business without interference, he said. They have sex behind the buildings.
Prostitution helps explain other crimes in the area, Mantei said. Johns get robbed. Prostitutes use drugs and get assaulted.
Homelessness is another problem in the area. People camp in cars parked along a wooded area on Longview Road, said Mantei, one of the department’s problem-oriented police officers. Watt Avenue business owners complain about squatters on their property. Mantei tries to direct the homeless to social-service agencies, but says he is often unsuccessful.
Seth Astle, owner of The Gun Range on Watt Avenue, said prostitutes work in a hotel near his indoor shooting range, and often gather around his business. “It’s one of the most prostituted areas in California,” he said of Watt Avenue. “It has all these hotels that attract people like cockroaches.
“If you and your family go to an indoor gun range and you see three homeless people, and a woman wearing almost nothing, and a man yelling at her, are you going to go in or drive away?” Astle said.
Dave Kuhnen, general manager of Recycling Industries, said he helped lead the effort to get an improvement district because he saw how one along Power Inn Road in south Sacramento effectively responded to illegal dumping. He said the high level of support for the Watt Avenue district shows that property owners are ready to make changes, and points to recent and current renovations at area hotels as a further example of positive change.
“We’ve got a lot of good property owners who realize we need to band together,” said Kuhnen.