What does it takes to be a police officer in Santa Cruz?
With the many complexities, varying political perspectives, and diverse population that characterize Santa Cruz, the local police department says it must look for officers who possess a higher degree of patience, versatility, and personal judgment than in other communities.
Santa Cruz’s colorful ecosystem of political and ideological viewpoints propels the city’s identity as a place to “keep weird” (which has been challenged in recent years by a community call to “keep Santa Cruz safe”), but that tradition of cultural uniqueness means that the Santa Cruz Police Department must approach its duties and relations in a way that fits the city’s mold.
“Work in conservative communities tends to be less difficult,” says SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark. “This is not an easy place to be a police officer.”
With many progressive approaches to solving societal problems, such as the 180/180 campaign, which aims to move homeless people into housing, and county efforts to mitigate the spread of disease through its needle exchange program, he says Santa Cruz police rely less on traditional regulation.
“Here, often times the law enforcement option is not politically popular, but when that’s the appropriate action, you have to find a way to make that work,” Clark says. “And amidst the voices of dissent, you have to be able to articulate that so you’re not out there constantly upsetting the community.”
Steven DeFields-Gambrel, the pastor at The Circle Church on the Westside, says he believes Santa Cruz might be one of the most difficult cities in the country, if not the world, to police.
“Everyone has an opinion on how police should do their job, and many have a valid point,” he says. “It requires police officers who do not see the world in terms of black and white, which is challenging because I think a lot of people go into law enforcement because they do tend to see the world that way—they believe in the rule of law, and see the world in that context. That works in a lot of places, but when you’re in an exceptionally diverse, pluralistic society [like Santa Cruz], there are many shades of grey.”
Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner imagines that local police work can seem like a no-win situation.
“I think that, to some degree, the community has glorified and even contradictory standards of what they expect from our police,” he says. “I think the police are being given some responsibilities that are problems really beyond their control.“On the one hand,” he goes on, “we want police to operate within a regulated, specified scope of the law, but on the other hand, we expect the police to somehow magically stop meth use and help us feel safe. We want them to have limited powers, but we also want them to solve everything.”
DeFields-Gambrel, who spoke at the Santa Cruz Forum on Community Safety and Compassion in April, believes the SCPD does a good job with this balancing act, though he lends the credit primarily to the officers who have been policing Santa Cruz for many years.
In many ways, SCPD officers Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker and Detective Elizabeth Butler, who lost their lives to a gunman six months ago, epitomize that deep community connection that is crucial for effective policing here, Clark says.
“Butch had a way of understanding the individuals behind the case,” he says. “They were more than just a number, and it was evident in his work ethic.”
To help prepare new officers for the challenges of Santa Cruz police work and convey the legacy of Baker and Butler, writing an essay on the fallen officers and the concept of honor is mandatory training. Upon completion, the assignment earns trainees a pin in honor of both officers.
SCPD has always struggled with retaining officers, often due to the financial difficulties that come with living in Santa Cruz. This can mean losing the valuable years of experience veteran officers accumulate.
In the past year, 12 officers have left SCPD, Clark says. Since January, the SCPD has hired eight new police officers, three of whom are still in the police academy. The three officers in the academy were selected from an initial field of 240 applicants. If all three become staff, the department will still be short six positions.
Officer Brent Northrup, who worked for the SCPD from 1996 to 2006 but then left for a position with the Roseville Police Department, returned to the department two months ago.
“An officer in Santa Cruz has to deal with such a wide variety of mentalities, both politically and publicly,” Northrup says. “We have to be able to articulate, be empathetic, and compassionate with people, and also switch gears very quickly between a criminal and non-criminal type of person. You have to walk a line in between.”
Officer Ricky Trindade, who joined the SCPD in April of last year after transferring from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, says he draws on his prior work experience as a grocer every day.
“This is a customer service job,” he says. “You have to be able to adjust to and deal with any kind of attitude you might come across.”
Posner says the demands on police from all sides of the community have increased in recent years, bolstered by violent crimes, an increasingly visible homeless population, and public drug abuse.
“I think the community has very much raised their standard as to what constitutes civil behavior, and that makes it a lot harder for police,” Posner says. “I think a lot of people who sign up for the police force aspire to be super heroes, which is beautiful that they take that on, but it’s also impossible.”