The first step is admitting we have a problem. But we can't seem to get past the anger.
Humboldt's headlines last week were dominated by news of Marcia Kitchen, the 39-year-old Fortuna woman accused of hitting and killing two 14-year-old girls, one of them her own daughter, in an alleged July DUI crash. Kitchen has now been formally charged and arrested in the case, and is free after posting $750,000 bail.
The scene on Sept. 15 at the Humboldt County Courthouse for Kitchen's arraignment, a brief appearance during which she entered not-guilty pleas in the case, could aptly be described as a media circus. Almost all local news outlets sent reporters and some sent a couple. One newspaper had photographers stationed at the courthouse exits to ensure it got a shot of Kitchen as she left, and a television cameraman followed Kitchen and her attorney down the street to get some footage and press her for a comment.
The interest is understandable. Two 14-year-olds run down on an evening skateboard ride is unthinkable in and of itself. Add the maternal relationship, the hit-and-run nature of the crash and the California Highway Patrol's two-months-long investigation, during which it released painfully little information about the case, and the community's thirst for information makes sense.
The troubling part is what we've done with the information we've got. There's no question that if the allegations facing Kitchen are true, she made a series of horrible decisions —criminal decisions — on the night of July 12. It would mean she got behind the wheel while intoxicated and then when she ran over two girls, she fled the scene. Nothing in this column is intended to offer an excuse for that kind of conduct because, well, there is none.
The problem I have is that we're failing to see the forest for the trees.
While the specifics of Kitchen's case may be more shock and horror inspiring, the underlying facts are the same as those that play out with astonishing regularity in Humboldt County. A couple weeks before Kitchen's arrest, a 23-year-old Arcata man allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk. Just a few days after Kitchen's arraignment, Kade Chandler, 21, stood before a judge who was to decide whether there's enough evidence to hold him to stand trial on charges that he drove drunk and killed two young women, one 19, the other 21.
According to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, 622 people were booked into county jail on suspicion of driving under the influence between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, putting us on pace for more than 940 drunk driving arrests this year. This after 19 of last year's 28 county roadway deaths were drug or alcohol related. For the record, that's four more people lost to impairment on the streets than homicides in 2015.
Yet we seem to be ignoring most of this data. Instead, collectively, we seem to be treating most DUIs as shrug-worthy, something akin to waking up with a dull headache after a night at the bar. That is, until something truly horrible and tragic happens — like young people with full lives ahead of them dying in the streets. When that happens, we muster our collective ire and unleash it without reflection on a single perpetrator, Kitchen being the most recent example.
As I read through online commenters calling Kitchen things like "child killer" and urging society to push the justice system aside and string up a noose, I couldn't help but think back to 2007. I was a new reporter in Humboldt County then, when Cody Baker had too much to drink, crashed his car into Ruth Lake and killed four of his young friends, tearing Ferndale apart in the process. I covered his trial a couple of years later and reported on the multi-faceted tragedy, the bitter anger and the heart-wrenching loss.
Now, I wonder what we learned. It seems Baker's case — as much as it was splashed across headlines over the course of more than three years, as much as it crushed the families involved and made us all take notice — did little to bring about a real community conversation about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The cold, hard truth is that, as a community, we have a problem that we all need to own. That means recognizing that the difference between driving after a couple of glasses of chardonnay and picking up your keys after a full day of drinking isn't as stark as we'd like. It means planning ahead for a safe way to get home if you're going to drink and expecting the same of your friends. And it means confronting those around us who don't abide by those simple rules. I wonder how many people were out with Kitchen having a good time after Rodeo on July 12, and how many of them had unspoken doubts as they watched her head for her Jeep that night?
Stemming the tide of this epidemic means having real and difficult conversations with our kids, teaching them never to get behind the wheel while under the influence and never to ride with someone who does. Perhaps more challenging, it means modeling that behavior for them, showing them how to plan for a sober ride home and how to speak up when you see someone who is about to put lives in danger.
In a county that's more than 4,000 square miles and has two taxicab companies, it also means pushing our local governments to do what they can to increase transportation options — whether it be recruiting Uber drivers, expanding bus routes and hours or investing in shuttle services — to make sure locals have easy, safe options when they don't plan well or a night gets out of hand.
We can continue to vilify the Kitchens, Bakers and Chandlers of the world. There will most assuredly be more of them, and it obviously gives us as a community some reassurance that we're OK, that our having a few glasses at Arts Alive or a handful of pints at the Crabs game, and driving home is fine.
But if we really want to bring something positive out of these tragedies and really honor those we've lost — Kiya Kitchen, Faith Tsarnas, Savannah Kindred, Kendra Lewis, Stephanie Hubbard, Nathan Titus, Jessica Toste, Steve Shroyer, to name a handful — we need to recognize that this isn't solely about Marcia Kitchen. It's about all of us.