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'Lawlessness'

A bar row stabbing highlights Arcata's spiking violent crime rate

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Initial reports are that the altercation that ultimately left a 26-year-old Eureka man bleeding to death on an Arcata sidewalk began over a hat, or some other piece of clothing, according to interim Arcata Police Chief Richard Ehle.

"What it was probably about is too much testosterone and too much drinking," Ehle said, adding that both Peter Samuel Triantos and the man who allegedly stabbed him, 27-year-old Brandon Matthew Watson, were both heavily inebriated at the time of the altercation, which occurred about 1:40 a.m. on Oct. 25.

Triantos' death is the latest in what's now a six-year spike in homicides and violent crime in Arcata that's unmatched going back more than three decades. Consider this: Arcata has now recorded eight homicides since the beginning of 2013, after seeing just five in the 22-year period from 1991 through 2012. (It's worth noting that three of those recent eight killings occurred on or near bar row, with highly intoxicated victims and/or assailants who had been drinking in the bars prior.) But it's not just homicides. According to Department of Justice data, aggravated assault and violent crime rates are also up substantially.

Ehle, a more than 45-year veteran in law enforcement who came to the city about five months ago to fill in for former Chief Tom Chapman until the city taps a permanent replacement, said the rate of violence in the college town is surprising.

"The level of lawlessness and assaultive behavior is pretty bad, and I did 25 years in Oakland so I'm not immune to having seen an awful lot of violence over the years," Ehle said. "We've really got to look at the level of dysfunction, the drug use and the drinking."

Details are still sparse as to what exactly happened between Triantos and Watson, but Ehle said they knew one another. Though the two were not friends, Ehle said they were familiar from frequenting the plaza bar scene and overlapping social circles. Ehle said indications are both men were drunk when something — possibly the dispute over a hat or other piece of clothing — sparked a verbal altercation while they were inside a plaza establishment. This led to a physical fight outside that was broken up by bouncers. Then, Ehle said, the pair apparently moved down the block and around a corner, where Watson allegedly stabbed Triantos, who stumbled about a block before collapsing near the intersection of H and Ninth streets.

When paramedics arrived on scene, Ehle said Triantos was still conscious but died after being taken to Mad River Community Hospital.

Through witness statements and what he described as "definitive" surveillance footage, Ehle said officers were able to identify Watson as the suspect and arrested him Oct. 27. He's being held on $1 million bail.

Triantos' killing — which Ehle described as "tragic" — puts the Arcata Plaza and the city's recent spike in violence back in the spotlight.

"This was just ridiculous, quite frankly, but these things start and then they just get carried away," he said.

Mayor Sofia Pereira said she's increasingly heard violent crime brought up as a point of concern for residents. This, she said, represents a shift for the city, which has been "really fortunate" to have gone years-long stretches without a homicide and with relatively low rates of violence. But the sense is things are changing.

"I think we are seeing some things happen with our nightlife in our community and we need to find a way to address that that makes sense," Pereira said, adding that she feels the city has made some headway changing the culture around the Arcata Plaza during daytime hours with increased police patrols and other measures, but that it needs to find similarly effective solutions for the party culture that takes hold after hours.

It's worth noting that the recent uptick in violence isn't unique to Arcata. For 30 years, Humboldt County had recorded an average of about nine homicides a year until 2013. In the five-year period from 2013 through 2017, the county has averaged 16.4, including a record 23 in 2016. So far this year, the county has recorded 11 homicides, putting it on pace to log more than 13 in 2018.

But what seems to set Arcata apart is how quickly its violent crime numbers have spiked and how starkly they contrast with its reputation as a peace-loving college town. In the 28-year period from 1985 through 2012, the city averaged 31 aggravated assaults, 47 violent crimes and 0.46 homicides a year. From 2013 through 2017, the last year for which full statistics are available from the Department of Justice, the city saw an average of 42 aggravated assaults (a more than 25 percent increase), 69 violent crimes (a more than 31 percent spike) and 1.4 homicides (a 66 percent jump).

Speaking to the Journal a few years ago, then Police Chief Tom Chapman said he'd like to call the spike in violent crime an anomaly but couldn't ignore what he was seeing: more weapons, more mental illness and more drug and alcohol abuse.

"It's frustrating," he said at the time. "There seems to be this devaluation of human life."

That's a sentiment that has been since echoed by county officials, including District Attorney Maggie Fleming, who said it appears people are seemingly more willing to turn to acts of violence then they used to be.

So what does a police department do to combat this? What is APD doing to keep the city and the plaza safe?

Ehel said his department has some plans. First and foremost, he said most of APD's calls for service originate from the plaza, most of them coming late at night or early in the morning, Thursday through Sunday.

"We need to bolster our presence there and keep a higher profile," he said, adding that just having multiple officers on scene when the five bars on or around the plaza close down can help deter fights and rowdy behavior.

But Ehle said that will only go so far and the department will have to work with the bars, as well.

Ehle said he plans to work with the state Bureau of Alcohol Beverage Control to offer trainings to local bar owners and their bartenders, counseling about the signs of inebriation and the risks of over serving.

"I'm afraid there's a lot of over serving," Ehle said, adding that if you go down to the plaza as the bars empty out Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights, you're going to see a lot of "very, very intoxicated" people. "At some point, you have to cut them off."

Ehle also expressed some hope that relief is coming to APD in the form of a pending ABC decision. After a four-day hearing, an administrative court judge is currently weighing whether to recommend that the bureau revoke the liquor licenses currently held for two plaza bars, Sidelines and Toby and Jack's, in the face of allegations that both establishments allowed widespread narcotic sales to take place on the premises. During the hearing, Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer testified that 40 percent of Arcata's police service calls come from the plaza, with about half of them drug and alcohol related. Over the last four years, the two bars ranked as the most frequent locations to which police were called, save for one year when Toby and Jack's ranked third.

The interim chief said bluntly that closing the two bars would make Arcata a safer place, though there's currently no indication either Watson or Triantos set foot in either establishment the night of Triantos' death.

"It would have a profound impact," Ehle said. "It can be huge. One, it sets the tone for other establishments. Two, it eliminates two problematic locations where there have been rather flagrant narcotics sales and other violations."

Pereira was more diplomatic, saying time will tell what comes of the ABC case. But she did say she sees a structural problem on the plaza.

"I think there was a point in time where in Arcata it made sense to centralize bars and I don't think it makes sense anymore for our community," she said. "I think we have seen over time, and especially in recent years, that it creates issues to have that high level of concentration of people, especially at closing time. ... This is a priority. We want people to feel safe, no matter where they are or what time of day it is."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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