Bernie Escalante’s ascension to the top position comes seven months after he was named interim chief.
City Manager Matt Huffaker made the announcement Friday morning, praising his “depth of law enforcement experience, high ethical standards and knowledge of our community.”
“Bernie understands the unique challenges that the City of Santa Cruz and the dedicated officers of the Police Department face every day,” Huffaker stated.
In making the decision, the city conducted a citywide survey that garnered more than 400 responses.
Mayor Sonja Brunner said she appreciated that Escalante is a Santa Cruz local, having grown up in the Central Coast city.
“He has grown up in Santa Cruz and is highly respected in our community and within the Police Department,” Brunner stated. “We heard from our community that integrity, experience and a deep understanding of our City are important characteristics.”
Escalante has been with SCPD for 25 years, beginning as a community service officer in 1996. He was promoted to patrol soon after that, and, in 2003, became a sergeant.
He has served as a property crimes detective and a tactical team leader, among other assignments.
Escalante became lieutenant in 2009, where he managed the Investigations Division and led the Emergency Services Unit Tactical Team and the Neighborhood Policing Unit. He was appointed Deputy Chief in February 2020.
Escalante grew up on Santa Cruz’s west side. He attended Santa Cruz High, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from San Francisco State University, where he continued to play baseball. Escalante earned a master’s degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership from the University of San Diego. He completed the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training Law Enforcement Command College in 2014.
Escalante says he hopes to address staffing shortages at the department, which were caused in part by the pandemic when recruitment and hiring were frozen for a year.
Currently, the department is budgeted for 94 officers and now has 88. Some of those, however, are injured, on field training programs, or are otherwise not on assignment, he said.
The shortages are exacerbated by the lengthy recruitment and training process that can take more than one year and can impact the department as it struggles to fill shifts.
“I really believe that your men and women need to be physically and mentally well if you expect them to perform at a high level in the field and deal with these really complicated situations,” Escalante said. I want to get our organization staffed where they are not feeling like they are drowning every day.”
The department must also grapple with the increasing population of homeless residents throughout the city and the mental health and addiction issues that plague the region.
“Although we’re a little city, we’re busy with big-city issues,” he said. “At some point, we need to truly sit down and evaluate what our organization should have versus what it does have.”
This is not Huffaker’s first appointment of a local to a leadership position. He appointed Jorge Zamora as Watsonville Police Department’s new chief in December.
“Both Zamora and Escalante have a deep understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities facing our communities,” Huffaker said. “Like Zamora, Bernie has developed strong relationships in the community and has a keen understanding of the department’s needs. I’m confident his Santa Cruz roots and leadership approach will serve the community well.”