'Do you want us to get into a gunfight?’ Cannabis industry decries police response to burglaries

'Do you want us to get into a gunfight?’ Santa Cruz Cannabis industry decries police response to burglaries

Santa Cruz Cannabis Businesses Demand Police Action on Sophisticated Burglaries.

Local cannabis operations have increasingly become targets for highly sophisticated burglaries in which masked individuals break into these tightly secured shops and steal tens of thousands of dollars worth of product and cash, cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage, and get away in a matter of minutes.

Eight such burglaries have occurred within the city of Santa Cruz since last year, and businesses in Watsonville and unincorporated areas of the county have also been hit. 

The escalating frequency of these incidents has drawn outcry from the business owners and growing public safety concerns from local officials. This was highlighted in November during an attempted burglary of Decibel Gardens on Encinal Street, the second such attempt on the grow and packaging business this year. Derek Hubbard, who owns Decibel Gardens, arrived before police and intervened, crashing his vehicle into one of the getaway cars and firing several gunshots at the burglars. 

Multiple people in the cannabis industry saw in Hubbard’s actions a release of their own frustrations with local law enforcement, which has, to date, made no arrests related to the string of burglaries. However, law enforcement viewed the incident as reckless vigilantism that returned a property crime with deadly force. Police arrested Hubbard and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon, sending the local industry into a frenzy of organizing, publishing op-eds in local news outlets, calling out law enforcement and pleading with local officials for help.

 “We need law enforcement, and we need law enforcement to respond and to catch the perps,” Chad Maxwell, CEO of 3 Bros, a local cannabis company, said. “We need them to stop sending the message [to thieves] that Santa Cruz is open for business.” 

The city has taken notice. This week, industry stakeholders are scheduled to sit down privately with Mayor Fred Keeley, City Councilmember Sonja Brunner, City Manager Matt Huffaker and Police Chief Bernie Escalante for what’s being presented as a listening session. At the center of this meeting sits a fundamental disagreement between the industry and police over law enforcement’s ability to help prevent, investigate and prioritize arrests for these crimes.

Grant Palmer, CEO of CannaCruz, had his shop broken into in March. He said when police arrived, well after the burglary, they collected some information, but officers told him there was little they could do. After Santa Cruz Roots was broken into in April, CEO Troy Bookout said he got the sense from law enforcement that the burglary was his business’ fault for not having better security. 

Palmer and Bookout said security footage from their break-ins, as well as footage shared in news reports following Decibel Gardens’ burglary, show the crimes are committed with a coordinated, masked team using multiple cars for loading and getting away. The burglars move quickly, and are often not on the property for more than 10 minutes. Bookout said in order to enter Santa Cruz Roots, the thieves had to break into two glass doors that were supposedly unbreakable, three other locked doors and cages, causing about $20,000 in damage.

Business owners are now talking about taking things into their own hands. “Do you want us to get into a gunfight with these people?” Palmer asked. Bookout said he could imagine himself in the same scenario as Hubbard, intervening with his car to block in the thieves. Maxwell, whose 3 Bros suffered $50,000 in stolen product, cash and property damages during a December 2022 burglary, said Hubbard did “what every one of us wants to do: protect our property and our livelihood.” Palmer, Maxwell and three other local cannabis business owners wrote in a Nov. 21 Santa Cruz Sentinel op-ed that “if these issues are not addressed, more business owners will likely feel more compelled to take matters into their own hands to protect their livelihoods.” 

Escalante said he understands the impassioned desire to protect one’s property and business. However, returning what police see as unarmed thefts with gunfire or other deadly force is not justified, he said, and those who take such extreme measures will be held responsible.

“I empathize with the passions of ‘You’re not going to steal from me!’ but it needs to be measured and thoughtful,” Escalante said. “People need to let us do our jobs.”

Escalante said during the November burglary of Decibel Gardens, police were dispatched within 40 seconds of receiving the 911 call, were en route within 14 seconds and arrived on scene within 3½ minutes. “If that’s a failure,” he said, “I’m not sure I can meet their expectations.” 

Despite what Escalante disregarded as the industry’s “stone-throwing,” he said his department is actively working on these crimes; however, he said they haven’t collected enough convincing evidence “yet” to make an arrest in any of the eight burglaries. He vehemently rejected the idea that police settle on a more lax approach to crimes against cannabis businesses, but said the industry is a target everywhere, not just in Santa Cruz. 

“We will follow up with any case or evidence that has a high likelihood to lead us to a suspect; we don’t decipher which cases to work based on the type of business,” Escalante said. He said there have been “too many” of these burglaries in Santa Cruz, but that “these places are high-risk and target-rich environments.” 

Frustrated by the lack of any arrests and priority from the local police, Palmer said earlier this year he and Hubbard hired a private investigator to build a case.

The investigator’s findings have convinced business owners that many of the burglaries are connected and being committed by a crime ring based outside the county. 

Escalante told Lookout that law enforcement believes this as well; however, he said police still don’t have enough information to say for sure. Yet Escalante said he looked forward to receiving any new information the business owners could provide regarding the burglaries. The investigator identified some of the suspected thieves’ names and where they work, according to Palmer, who said they already turned this information over to the police. 

Keeley said he expects this week’s meeting to result in some strategy changes by law enforcement, but does not see a need for the city council to involve itself as a policy-setting body yet. He said the police could view the areas around cannabis businesses as hotspots that earn extra patrols for the foreseeable future. However, he said the spirit of vigilantism inspiring some of the business owners will not help their case. 

“If what happened [at Decibel Gardens] is OK, then why couldn’t you do it at Forever 21 if someone walks out with three armloads of clothes onto Pacific Avenue?” Keeley said. “I don’t think that’s how the law works, and I don’t think that’s the world we want to live in.”

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