.SCPD Chief Andy Mills on Fireworks, Sexual Assault and Crime

Police Chief Andy Mills is coming up on two years with the city of Santa Cruz, as the anniversary of his official swearing in approaches on Aug. 7. According to the most recent data, crime in Santa Cruz appears to have fallen over that span, although Mills is reluctant to take credit himself for any positive trends. 

Last week, GT sat down with Mills at Walnut Avenue Cafe to talk about summer fireworks, police oversight and why he and his wife choose to live and rent downtown. The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) is celebrating National Night Out on Tuesday, Aug. 6, with an open house at the station.

What has the atmosphere been like at the department ever since Santa Cruz Police Officer David Gunter got sentenced to house arrest for sexually assaulting his colleagues? 

ANDY MILLS: I just went through an interview with everyone in our department who has more than a year on, trying to figure out what the things are that bug them. That did come up fairly frequently. I think the issue is not so much that we arrested him as the embarrassment it causes to the profession, to the organization, that there’s victims of this. It’s created a lack of trust among some employees. It’s been a catastrophic event.

Anyone who’s spent the past few summers in Santa Cruz can see that fireworks have dropped way down since July of 2017, just before you took office. What’s been your strategy? How much credit do you give yourself and your department?

I would love to take all the credit in the world for reducing fireworks, but I can’t. I’m not sure why the amount of fireworks has gone down. When I first got here, people told me it was a complete war zone, and I hadn’t seen that. My wife and I had just moved downtown. We live at Soquel and Front. I thought, “Hey, this isn’t too bad.” Then at 3 in the morning, it looked like Disneyland outside. That’s not acceptable in our community. I’m not sure why it went down. We certainly put out a lot of educational media. It could be as simple as it not being as easy to get the stuff over the internet this year. Or some of the suppliers we hear about in Salinas or San Francisco didn’t have enough stock. Or people are being more educated on the effects on people with PTSD or animals. I hope that’s the case—that people are more compassionate.

Why do you live downtown?

This is an amazing city. This is where people choose to go to vacation. It has nightlife, amazing restaurants. We walk to dinner several times a week. There’s entertainment. There’s action. We walk downtown—my wife and I, or individually—every single day. There are throngs of people out enjoying this fabulous city. We love being in the heart of it. Plus, the commute’s terrible. I walk to work everyday, and it’s the highlight of my day. Santa Cruz is the crown jewel of this region. I get the comment a lot, “Hey, we’re afraid to go downtown.” You’re missing out on something wonderful.

I remember hearing that you lived in Capitola? Was that just in the beginning of your time here?

Yeah, we actually rented that place sight unseen. We got online and started looking for places to rent. We went to Santa Cruz first and didn’t find anything that met our needs. The place in Capitola popped up.

We tried to buy a house when we first got here. We knew the market was hot, so we gave ’em a full-price offer. They laughed and said, “No, no, no, that’s not how it works.”

The independent police auditor’s contract just expired, and the Chief’s Advisory Committee doesn’t do investigations. Are there any avenues for police oversight right now?

It expires every year about this time, and it’s managed out of the city manager’s office. And I know they’re going to be putting out an RFP on that. There’s nothing in the hopper right now that’s pressing. That’ll come out in the not-too-distant future. And again, that’s managed through their office, because it’s police oversight. I’m part of the police. My feeling on it was, “We’ve had the same guy for 18 years. At what point does it not become independent anymore?” It was time to put out an RFP and see what else is out there. Someone with a little more independence might apply. They may not. So we’ll see.

You incorporated SCPD’s predictive policing algorithms into a community policing model. What’s the department’s strategy right now?

First of all, community policing has nothing to do with predicative policing. What I like to do is take a look at the data locally and say, “Is this thing that we’re doing helping, or not?” You have to measure before, and then, you have to do your application to measure afterward to make sure it’s being effective. We haven’t done that. I want to make sure that whatever we’re doing is working, and if it’s not, we need to adjust our tactics and move a different way.

I have an analyst named John Mitchell, who’s freakin’ brilliant. He talks, and I try to grasp what he’s saying. The latest in crime analysis worldwide is you take a look at the standard deviation of the data. And whatever goes outside of that deviation, that’s when we have to become more concerned—why is this particular crime up more than others? We make sure we’re looking at this properly on a monthly basis. We can see if robberies have gone up and it’s outside of the range. Then, you have to say, “Do we need to change our focus?” That’s predicative policing, and it can work in that way.

Community policing is working to solve problems in this community. We choose to do a strategy called problem-oriented policing. You take a look at problems, you analyze them as best you can, and then, you figure out what kind of application you need to fix that—working with the community, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. I want this to be an actual relationship with the community.

Crime was down overall last year, according to data SCPD submitted to the FBI. And five out of the seven individual crime categories of crime were down. The FBI warns not to use these stats to determine department effectiveness, but is there something you’re doing right?

There’s a lot we’re doing right. We have some young officers and older officers that really get out there and get after it and work with the community, manage these problems. This is our officers working with a great community to solve some of these bigger problems. There are a lot of things that impact crime rates.

Ten percent of people account for 51% of crime. Well, you’ve got to take a look at that 10%. One of the things we found out in taking care of the un-housed population is they’re 20 times more likely to be the victim of a crime. That’s a concern. They’re 18 times more likely to be the suspect of a crime. So what does that mean? What can we do to intervene in that? That’s how you’re able to affect the crime right—by being as smart as possible about it.

Eighty percent of property crime is a crime of opportunity, so if we can help educate people to take stuff out of cars at night and lock their cars, it ceases to be the honeypot where people can go. People shouldn’t steal from those vehicles, but if you can reduce it, you want to do that.

You’re 62. How much longer do you think you’ll be chief?

I’m here until either we work with the community to fix these problems or I get Bernie Sanders’ age. I have no plans for going anywhere. We love this community. We enjoy the people we work with, both in the community and in the department. 

Your department currently has two mental health liaisons, provided by the county. Up in Oakland, the East Bay city’s new budget includes $40,000 to study the possible implementation of a program to send mental health workers to many calls instead of cops. Is that something you would support for Santa Cruz?

Super interested in it. I gave direction to my principal management analyst, “Let’s look for grants, so that we might be able to hire a couple [more] mental health liaisons.”  That is vital. A large percentage of our calls are people with mental health problems. But we can hire all the mental health practitioners we want. The reality is we lack beds. Some money from the county needs to be spent putting beds in place for people.

In the homeless area, we’re seeing a few kinds of homeless people. One are those who want and need help. This is a really generous community. I think this community wants to help those who want and need help, by and large.

Then you have the mentally ill and the drug addicted, who don’t necessarily know what they want or need. They’re just so incapable of thinking that way or so addicted. Government is going to have to step in to help. The sheriff can’t be the largest mental health institution in the county. For the drug addicted, there needs to be beds. I was in San Lorenzo Park, and a guy walked up to me. He said, “Hey chief, I’m a meth and heroin addict. I need help. I’m ready today.” I start making phone calls. Eight weeks away. That guy’s not ready in eight weeks. He won’t be around to back for this ‘appointment.’ He needs help right now. These are the folks who Santa Cruzans complain about the most—people stealing, petty theft and the people walking down the street screaming at the demons in their head.

The third tier is recalcitrant. They know there’s no jail space for them. The courts aren’t going to put them in prison for drinking a beer in public or urinating or defecating. I understand that. We write 11,000 tickets per year. Ninety percent of those: never appeared on. What are we going to do? After five tickets, you send them to collections. So we’re sending people with no money, who are trying to get housed, to collections. We have to come up with a better way.

You’re an active Twitter user. What’s your strategy with social media?

For Facebook, it’s about how I’m proud of my kids and grandchildren. And we have a lot of friends, both here and elsewhere that want to see what’s going on with the police. Twitter and Instagram are more informational. I want people to see what’s going on and to communicate to send messages of what my philosophy of policing is. I did a post on the officer who threatened AOC. I’m sending a message to cops: “This isn’t acceptable, and if you do that, I’m gonna fire you.” … I’ve tweeted about DACA in the past and ICE. We don’t have a relationship [with ICE]. I’ve said it 18,000 times in 9,000 ways to every politician who will listen. We don’t work with ICE, we don’t collaborate with them.

In February of 2017, before you took office, the department took heat for collaborating with ICE in a raid, where some immigrants ended up being arrested purely based on immigration status. Two years later, some activists wondered where SCPD was when another round of ICE raids was happening. What’s the department supposed to do? 

People have questions about what took place at that raid. You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t want us to have an official relationship with ICE, they don’t exactly invite you to the table. They did this raid. We had a detective sergeant two blocks away, in case emergency medical was needed. … We still do need some level of relationship [with ICE]. They have a lot of terrorism information. They have some human-trafficking information that can help us and aid us in investigations. I can get that in other ways, but that’s a good source of that information, but when it comes to immigration, that’s an absolute no-go for anyone in my department.

Many think of Santa Cruz as a liberal town, but it also has a very loud public safety community. Do you have different messages for each camp, or do you try to stay consistent and talk to everyone all at once?

I try to be fairly consistent in my messaging. If you get in that game, where you’re playing “talk tough with this group and “social justice” with this group, it gets all muddled. I’m pretty pragmatic, and I try to just drive forward with what I think is important and what I think is right. Yes, I know there’s a group that’s very interested in taking things back to the way they were in the ’70s. The difference is it’s almost 50 years later. Things have changed. That doesn’t mean we can’t strive to have as much safety as we can, where the children feel comfortable riding down to the wharf, but this is a sizable city—65,000—and it’s growing. In fact, it’s gone down in size from what it was several years ago. It was at over 100. We’re budgeted for 94. We’re authorized for 99, thanks to our city manager. Daytime population swells significantly, and throw in about 3 million visitors per year.

You mentioned the police force’s size. Hiring more cops was a popular idea in 2013, when the Public Safety Task Force wrapped up. Former City Council candidate Greg Larson, who finished fifth in the race for four seats last year, said he wanted to hire more officers. Do you think you need more officers?

I do, based on the city’s size, with as much as we have going on. The CPSM study, which came out a year and a half ago, looked at the size of our department, size of the city, calls for service. They said you have to do one of two things—either increase your police force in size or cut down the calls for service you have. It takes about $1 million for every five police officers all packaged in. That’s a pretty big nut in a community that’s struggling with PERS obligations. The only other thing you can do is cut down on calls for service. We’ve tried to do that and met some resistance.

Our officers get dispatched to see if there’s poop in the gutter. Is that what we want a $75-an-hour police officer to do? I don’t think so. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It becomes my responsibility to figure out how to cut down on those calls, and when give our officers time, they’re spectacular. …

Yesterday, an officer was giving me a ride to a meeting, and it got canceled. He said, “What do you want to do? I said, “Let’s go find someone to put in jail.” I had never gone through the jail booking process. We went to Coral Street, and there was a guy there under the influence, acting out. We arrested him for being under the influence of methamphetamine, took him to jail. He wasn’t cooperative, fought with the jail staff, flipping out. Jail staff did an amazing job, helping us get this guy booked and processed and into the cell. But it’s a two-hour adventure, and I’m taking a cop off the street for a misdemeanor crime that probably will never get filed. That’s why this is such a tense and difficult thing. And we arrest thousands of those people a year, so how is the DA’s office going to issue all those complaints and then try all those cases when don’t have the staff for that? They’re hunting murder investigations and sexual assaults and domestic violence. The jail’s at 120% capacity.

Where’s the value in looking for someone to put in jail?

It’s part of our responsibility. There has to be some level of order. Even if we’re taking that guy off the street for five, six hours, I think that’s worth it. That’s five, six hours, where he can’t inflict harm on other people. But again look at the effectiveness. If this isn’t effective, let’s find a different way.

SCPD will celebrate National Night Out on Tuesday, Aug. 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. at 155 Center St. There will be activities, station tours, live demonstrations, and snacks. Info: cityofsantacruz.com. Other law enforcement departments will celebrate in Boulder Creek, Capitola, Scotts Valley, and Watsonville.



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