With Black Lives Matter protesters across the nation filling the streets in daily calls to action against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the city of Santa Cruz and its police department have reached out directly to the public.
On Wednesday, June 3, Mayor Justin Cummings, City Manager Martín Bernal and Police Chief Andy Mills held an online discussion titled “Changing the Culture of Policing” and looked at how it will change in the future.
Hours later, roughly 5,000 people attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter march along West Cliff. One faction broke off and went to the police station, where they spray-painted graffiti like “Fuck Cops” and “Black Lives Matter! He Couldn’t Breathe.”
Cummings rushed to the scene to try to calm the situation.
“‘If you’re claiming Black Lives Matter, then I’m one of those individuals you’re trying to represent,’” Cummings recalls telling the crowd. “I’ve worked really hard to be elected as the first Black male mayor of Santa Cruz, a city with less than two percent Black people, I was really trying to tell people, ‘Here’s my story, my thoughts and how I’m trying to make the community better.’”
He says that, while many members of the group listened, some did not. People yelled at and over him, he says.
“If you are protesting to support a movement, it’s important to make sure the people you’re representing are a part of the narrative,” he tells Good Times. Cummings said the crowd was mostly white, and he said the people that he saw spray-painting the station were white.
The vandals continued downtown, marching to Pacific Avenue, where they tagged several more buildings and broke a Bank of the West window before being peacefully disassembled. Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) spokesperson Joyce Blaschke tells GT there have been no arrests.
Earlier in the night, Cummings opened the online discussion by saying it was Mills who reached out and initially started the dialogue.
“We decided to pull together this forum for our community, so people could speak directly to their elected officials and police chief while social distancing,” explained Cummings.
After that, the floor opened up for a few words by local activists and organizers of the most recent local Black Lives Matter protests—one of which was happening at the same time as the webinar. Another protest happened on May 29, when a picture of Chief Mills and Mayor Cummings taking a knee together went viral. When it came Mills’ time to talk, he wasted no time discussing how he is changing the policing policies of his department.
“Today, I issued an order to my entire department that we’ve changed our policy and will no longer use the carotid restraint, also known as the ‘choke hold,’” he said. “It’s done.”
Floyd was killed not in the carotid restraint but with a knee on his neck, a controversial maneuver that became infamous after the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City Police. Since Floyd’s death on May 25, dozens of police departments in California, including San Diego and Watsonville, have banned the technique.
“It’s low-hanging fruit, but it’s a good place to start,” Mills said.
He continued to say that, for the last two and a half years, the department has worked on de-escalation tactics and creating a closer community with neighborhood policing. Mills said that, as a result, there were “at least” five instances in the last year when police “would have been justified in using deadly force,” but instead, talked people down or used “other means” to de-escalate the situation.
“This is how change happens,” he said. “It started with policy. Then, it went to training and now we have action and reward for that.”
In a move praised by the American Civil Liberties Union, the city and police will also move forward with Mayor Cummings’ surveillance accountability ordinance, legislation that prevents the government from using new technology without public debate or oversight. Several other communities—San Francisco, Oakland, Davis, Palo Alto, Berkeley, and Santa Clara County—have passed similar legislation. In addition, Mills said the city is moving forward with legislation to officially ban both predictive policing and facial recognition technology.
When asked after the conference if the city will also ban use of possible license plate reading technology that was being evaluated earlier this year, Cummings says that the proposed legislation does not, but the technology is still “under review.”
When it came time for the public questions and comment portion of the discussion, many comments were about the viral pictures circulating online of SCPD officers in riot gear in Oakland, taken the same weekend as the picture of Mills and Cummings kneeling side-by-side in peaceful protest. The police chief responded to accusations of hypocrisy by explaining SCPD’s policy of mutual aid—sending first responders to other jurisdictions during “disasters.” Mills said that, if the response to a peaceful protest gets out of hand, he wants his officers to pull out and leave.
“It’s not to manage a protest; it’s to restore order when there’s a riot. There’s a very clear distinction,” he added.
The city is keeping an eye on the policy, though.
“There’s talk about what mutual aid looks like and when it should happen,” Cummings tells GT. “It’s important to discuss and know what our role is, if any.”
Another controversy raised during the discussion was one that’s followed Chief Mills from Eureka, where he previously served as police chief. In 2017, Mills alerted the then-Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Bill Gillespie about a firefighter wearing a Black Lives Matter pin on his uniform. As GT reported last year, Mills was photographed around the same time wearing a “Police Lives Matter” bracelet during a racial equality workshop.
When asked about the issue Wednesday night, Mills said the bracelet was under his uniform—not a part of it—and said it was in honor of the officers killed in the 2016 ambush killing of five Dallas officers. He said the firefighter’s Black Lives Matter pin was not prior-approved, and that’s why he raised the issue with Gillespie, adding that he stands by his decision.
“A number of officers have come to me and asked to wear a variety of things to wear on their uniform, some of which I felt were inappropriate,” he said. “I did approve our officers to wear a wristband on their arm, not their uniform.”