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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
THE DEPARTED: Nikki Amy Anderson attends a candlelight vigil at the 7-Eleven where her friend Nikki Schrock was killed in the early hours of New Year's Day.

Make Santa Cruz Safe

Clerk's slaying highlights domestic abuse threat and dwindling resources to combat it

By Curtis Cartier

IN THE misty winter dusk outside the 7-Eleven at Ocean and Broadway streets, Ashley Russell lights a candle in remembrance of Nichole "Nikki" Schrock. It was inside the store, just a few hours into the new decade, when Schrock, an auburn-haired, 24-year-old mother, was gunned down during her morning shift as store clerk in what police are calling a murder-suicide. And Russell, though she didn't know Schrock personally, is here—alongside about 100 other candle-clutching friends, family and strangers—to pay her respects. She also lights the candle, she says, "in hopes that we can have a sense of community again in Santa Cruz."

"I used to feel safe in Santa Cruz. Now I never walk around at night," says Russell above the somber hubbub of the gathering. "Women are especially vulnerable, and I think a lot of them are tired of feeling scared."

Women, and indeed all Santa Cruzans, have cause for concern. Last week, the Santa Cruz Police Department tallied up its Uniform Crime Reporting statistics for 2009, which include the number of homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies, auto thefts and arsons that took place inside city limits last year. Every crime on that list except for arsons and robberies saw an increase from 2008, though most remained within 10-year averages. Larcenies, in fact, went up 61 percent and rapes increased 64 percent. Police spokesman Zach Friend attributed the rise in some crimes, like larcenies, to the "self-reporting system" the department rolled out last year. But the shocking nature of some offenses, like the home burglary and rape of an elderly woman on the Westside, the stabbing murder of 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio near the Laurel Street 7-Eleven, the serial groper downtown and now Schrock's brutal slaying, have catapulted public safety to the forefront of community dialogue.

For Kathy Agnone, coordinator with the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, two particularly important crimes that aren't front and center on the Police Department's UCR report are domestic violence and sexual battery. The former is as ambiguous a legal term as can be found, and entails physical, sexual and emotional abuse, acts or threats against a family member or other close relationship. Sexual battery is more specific and is loosely defined by California law as touching someone's "intimate part(s)" against that person's will. And while domestic violence incidents went down 15 percent below their average of 363 in 2009, sexual battery reports nearly doubled their average of 18, to 34 over the same time period.

"I think when people see the kind of numbers of sexual batteries that were committed in 2009, they will be shocked," says Agnone. "I also think our group and Walnut Avenue Women's Center, through programs like our self-defense courses, have played a part in getting domestic violence calls down. The fact is, women have always been victimized, but it's getting to the point in Santa Cruz where we can't stand for it anymore."

Care More With Less

At the CPVAW's latest meeting on Jan. 6, the all-volunteer commission began work on what it plans to be a strongly worded demand for more resources from the city of Santa Cruz. "I think we should aim high" was a statement voiced by Commissioner Karren Zook and echoed by several of her colleagues. But with 2009's steep cuts to social services from county, state and city governments expected to continue in 2010, if not worsen, groups like the CPVAW and the Walnut Avenue Women's Center will likely hear the familiar exhortation to "do more with less."

"Our No. 1 priority right now is just to keep our doors open," says Kristie Clemens, director of Domestic Violence Programs at WAWC, who has shown up to hold a candle at Schrock's vigil. "We're seeing the level of violence in people's relationships escalate. But we're getting no help from the state government, and donations have been hard to come by. It definitely makes it harder to help the people that need it."

Under the fiscal year 2009–2010 budget, the city of Santa Cruz cut funding to WAWC by roughly $27,000 and to the CPVAW by nearly $33,000. On the state level the picture is even grimmer. Having cut financing completely for all 94 of the state-sponsored domestic violence shelters last year and forced state legislatures to borrow temporary funding to keep shelters open, the latest state budget proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to offer no financial support to domestic violence programs like WAWC. The results have been axed staff—Clemens had five associates in her department in 2008 and has two now—as well as shorter hours and longer waits when women come in seeking help.

What's been a "saving grace," says Clemens, is the number of volunteers who have offered their help and the grassroots efforts of other women who pledge their time away from the center. Isabelle Rosenlund is one such volunteer. Her unnamed group of about six local ladies was at last week's CPVAW meeting. They're here now, at Schrock's vigil, with candles in hand.

"Women need to stand up and demand action," says Rosenlund, who has organized a Jan. 28 "Women Take Back Our Streets" community march through "the darkest places" in Santa Cruz. "We can't depend on the city or the state to help us. We've got to do it ourselves."

THE WOMEN TAKE BACK OUR STREETS MARCH starts Thursday, Jan. 28, at 6pm at Santa Cruz City Hall, 809 Center St., Santa Cruz, and continues through downtown. Organizers ask participants to dress warmly and bring a candle.

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