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Blurred Blue Lines

News1COPSDeputy Chief Steve Clark was transferred after his role as spokesman for both the department and the union attracted councilmembers’ ire

On March 24, former Santa Cruz mayors Chris Krohn and Tim Fitzmaurice appeared at City Hall to speak against the police department’s plan to acquire a BearCat armored truck. They then stepped outside the crowded council chambers into the courtyard for fresh air. As Fitzmaurice remembers it, someone suddenly approached them from behind, shouting, “You got your facts wrong. You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” Fitzmaurice turned around and recognized the man in the jacket and tie as Deputy Chief Steve Clark, one of the Santa Cruz Police Department’s highest-ranking officers.

“It was a disturbing display of lack of control,” Fitzmaurice says. “I didn’t like being confronted by a police officer after I testified to the council. It seemed intimidating.”

Santa Cruz Resistance Against Militarization (SCRAM!) member Dru Glover witnessed the confrontation. “I asked his position and badge number, but the officer refused to identify himself,” says Glover. When Glover told Clark he’d figure it out himself, he says Clark responded, “I’m here on my own time. I don’t have to share my badge number. Go ahead, do the research. It’ll be more exciting that way.”

Glover filed a formal complaint with the SCPD on March 25, writing that as “an employee of the city and a representative of the police, his actions should not and cannot go overlooked or excused.” On June 11, Glover was interviewed in Pacific Grove by Fred Hardee, a private investigator and former police chief with California State University Monterey Bay, as part of what the SCPD has termed an “outside investigation.”

Meanwhile, Fitzmaurice says he spoke with SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel on March 26 and Vogel acknowledged, “He has a history of this.” When Fitzmaurice told the chief he was considering filing a formal complaint he said Vogel said, “I’m not sure if this rises to the level of a complaint.”

Krohn says that in an April 15 phone call, which was transcribed by a third party on the call, Vogel characterized Clark’s remarks as “totally inappropriate.” Krohn says Vogel said Clark has to “change his behavior,” but also that “I don’t know if that is going to happen.” He said that Clark, according to the notes from the conversation, was “totally out of line.”

Clark’s critics say it wasn’t the first time.

Clark rose to the then-$167,268 per year position in 2011, after 24 years with the force. “It’s important to form partnerships and collaborations so the community feels they are a true partner in this,” he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time.

The March 24 incident, however, is one of a number of Clark’s reported actions that have been described as “uncomfortable,” “threatening,” “intimidating” or “scary” by current and former City Councilmembers, activists and citizens. Clark stirred up controversy in his former role as police spokesman, most notably when he referred to a city council candidate as an “anarchist”—potentially influencing the election’s outcome—and when he went on a national news program to make comments about Alix Tichelman, who was arrested on first-degree murder charges for administering a fatal heroin dose to a Google millionnaire, and later sentenced to six years for involuntary manslaughter and administering drugs. Clark was subsequently replaced as SCPD spokesperson. (Clark has made no public statement about his reassignment, and neither he nor Chief Vogel responded to interview requests.)

ANARCHY AND THE SCPD

On Oct. 21, 2014, KSBW-TV ran a news story in which Clark described City Council candidate Leonie Sherman as an “anarchist.” Sherman participated in civil disobedience during the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, but does not call herself an anarchist. The KSBW report aired during the height of the 2014 election campaign period, and included images of protesters smashing windows while Clark referred to property destruction that occurred in Santa Cruz on May Day in 2010, saying, “You take a look at the number of businesses that have been victimized by these kind of actions in the community.”

Response to the story was immediate and heated, with Mayor Don Lane receiving complaints beginning that very night accusing Clark of an “inflammatory attack,” and four-time Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin calling the comment “slander” in a letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Clark officially appeared in the story as a representative for the Police Management union. City Manager Martín Bernal and interim SCPD spokesperson Lt. Bernie Escalante both told GT that Clark was acting within his right to free speech as a union spokesperson in the segment. Analicia Cube, founder of the anti-street crime advocacy group Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), agreed. The group posted a petition on its website supporting Clark, “Dep. Chief Clark is one of the finest, most dedicated officers in our local police department, and     we are lucky to have someone who cares so much about his community … His honest, sometimes blunt observations and statements are frankly a breath of fresh air in a town that has long tolerated too much misbehavior coupled with a lack of accountability for it.”

While Cube supported Clark’s right to call Sherman an “anarchist,” she says that she had reservations about television news’ take on the dispute.

“KSBW did contact me and ask me if I would go an air, and I said no, because I didn’t know enough about it,” Cube said. “It felt like they wanted it to be Take Back Santa Cruz versus the anarchists. I didn’t like the approach. They wanted me to go on air to talk about what? Anarchists? I don’t want to be a part of a story like that.”

Sherman lost the election by a margin of approximately .7 percent, just 303 votes.

“When a deputy chief of police fails to distinguish between protest and anarchy, we need to reflect on those far more nuanced judgments our police officers are called upon to make every day: about probable cause, the need to arrest, the use of force, etc.,” Sherman says now. “Clark’s behavior reflects poorly on the whole force and undermines public confidence in our police. Most agree that the police department ought to stay out of politics, and the city manager ought to ensure that it does.”

“I have no idea what effect this may have had on the elections,” City Councilmember Richelle Noroyan says now about Clark’s “anarchist” comment.

“Campaigns are complex and unless you do a scientific poll, all discussions on this subject are just speculative.” She pointed to other factors that may have affected the outcome, including low voter turnout and campaign finance disparity. Noroyan, who was endorsed by the Police Officers Association and the Police Managers Association, edged out Sherman for her council seat.

Former mayor Katherine Beiers, however, thinks many people didn’t see a distinction between Clark’s role as official voice of the department and as a political advocate for the union, a distinction that was blurred when he appeared in a television news segment in front of the police station. Clark was identified as a union spokesman and wore a plaid, navy blue shirt. California law prohibits officers from participating in political activities while in uniform.   

“I’m always seeing Steve (on TV) as the spokesperson for the police. He’s polished and pretty good at it,” says Beiers. “I understand his freedom of speech as the union representative. I got that. But most people don’t know the difference. They see him standing there saying ‘don’t vote for this person’ and they think, ‘the police.’ Period.”

POLITICAL BACKLASH

News1 aIn November, Beiers joined three other former mayors—Celia Scott, Krohn and Fitzmaurice—to discuss Clark’s comments about Sherman with City Manager Martín Bernal. “We were asking that at a minimum he be removed as the police spokesperson,” says Beiers. “And he was. It wasn’t just us, but we made it clear.”

“The ‘anarchist’ incident in the last election opened a legitimate debate about the appropriate role of the police department in our local elections,” says Scott. “I don’t want to see that sort of thing happen again.”

Within two days of the KSBW report, Chief Kevin Vogel announced that Clark “will no longer speak on behalf of a police manager’s union to avoid confusion between the roles.” By Jan. 5, Vogel had officially reassigned him. Clark was replaced as SCPD Public Information Officer by Lt. Bernie Escalante on an interim basis. Escalante credited both Clark and Vogel with providing “guidance and mentoring” as he transitioned into the position.

Councilmember Micah Posner wrote an email to his constituents commending the action: “In a positive example of the supervision of our local police, Deputy Chief Steve Clark has been replaced as the police spokesperson after he created an unnecessary controversy during the recent election.”

Mayor Lane had the same view. “I indicated to the city manager that I thought there’s a problem … And so they [SCPD] did subsequently make a change,” Lane said. “I do think that incident had an impact on why that reassignment was done. The two roles that Steve Clark [was] in are really muddled and that’s not a healthy thing for the city.”

However, Vogel challenged this analysis in an email to Sentinel reporter JM Brown on Dec. 21, writing “Councilmember Posner mischaracterized and incorrectly stated the reason for the PIO assignment change.”

In October, Lane told the Sentinel, “The positive community perception of our excellent Police Department could be compromised when a top figure in the department makes partisan public statements—even as a union representative—that do not seem to be supported by evidence.” It wasn’t the first time Lane had been critical of Clark’s blurred roles as union representative and police officer.

LONG HISTORY

Back in the early ’90s, a debate over police accountability flared up in Santa Cruz, with the Coalition for a Police Review Commission (CPRC) advocating for independent oversight and the Police Officers’ Association (POA) attempting to avoid it. Clark was president of the POA at the time.

On Sept. 22, 1992, Clark told the City Council, “If you create a police review board in Santa Cruz, I’ll hold each and every one of you personally responsible.”

Lane was mayor at the time, and two days after Clark’s remarks he wrote perhaps the most strongly worded letter of his political career:

“I was extremely troubled by your remarks on behalf of the [Police] Officers Association … In addition to my perception that you presented an attitude of self-righteousness and arrogance, I found the substance of your remarks offensive and counter-productive. Many people, including myself, will find it difficult to “forgive” and “forget” your stance of obstruction, name-calling and insensitivity to the public’s desire for police accountability and scrutiny … Perhaps you, too, could recognize your mistakes and act to correct them. Until you do so, I believe you will be an ineffective representative of the [Police] Officers Association before the Council and the community.”

After the City Council created a police review board in 1995, it seems Clark made good on his promise.

“I was there [on the council] for 12 years almost. Then police review came,” says former Councilwoman Katherine Beiers. “Steve got promoted and I was mayor, but he would never make eye contact with me. He would shake everyone’s hand around me, but not mine, saying ‘hello.’ When I went back on in 2008, I talked to [City Manager] Dick Wilson about it. I said, ‘I’m back and I’m going to need to work with the police. I’d like permission, if you think it’s a good idea, to have coffee with Steve Clark.’ And we did. He said he remembered incidents and said, ‘I didn’t like police review and I thought you were partly responsible.’ After that, he was, ‘Hello Katherine. How are you today?’ He said he was wrong, and I bought the coffee.”

When Beiers ran for City Council in 1992, a major point of her campaign was supporting the creation of an independent police review board. Now in 2015, she says, “We need independent review more than ever.”

BEST PRACTICES?

Following Tichelman’s 2013 arrest for the overdose death of technology executive Forrest Timothy Hayes, Clark was featured in local and national media calling her “callous,” “glacially cold” and “selfish”—a PR offensive which Tichelman’s defense attorney Larry Biggam says undermined the justice process.

“I’m not familiar with specific ‘best practices’ rules governing police pretrial comments, but it seems fundamentally unfair to charge, convict and condemn an accused—especially with inflammatory language—before her lawyer is even appointed and due process can play itself out,” says Biggam.

Incidents involving Clark and local activists have been captured on video, as well. In one from Feb. 15, 2012, shot and posted to YouTube by Alex Darocy, Clark calls a group of protesters “a bunch of jackassess” during a heated discussion. In another, from Nov. 9, 2011, local resident Eric Zamost began recording Clark outside a rally where UCSC students and Occupy activists protested tuition hikes and bank bailouts, as he was interviewed by local news. “There are 50 officers here,” Clark told him. “Which one do you want me to have arrest you?”

Other activists and politicians who’ve worked with Clark, however, describe positive experiences. In the ’90s, Erik Larsen helped organize an activist group called Neighbors Of Lower Ocean (NOLO). He’s now an SEIU union organizer in San Jose, but when he lived on Canfield Avenue near Bixby Street in the late ’90s, there was a late-night shooting that left three children dead.

“I remember a shooting right behind my house that killed three [El] Salvadorian kids. I remember [Clark] seeking me out on the sidewalk specifically to talk. It was a traumatic event and I appreciated his work in the neighborhood,” says Larsen. “Him and Butch Baker, Patty Sapone and Jim Howes were some of the key people who I worked with very, very closely doing the neighborhood work. Steve Clark and his team did a really good job at community outreach.”

Says former mayor Emily Reilly: “When interacting with Steve Clark, I’ve never felt intimidated, threatened or disrespected. I’ve found him helpful and funny.”

‘If We Were Adversaries’

On March 31 of last year, Clark met City Councilmember Micah Posner at a coffee shop on Ocean Street to discuss whether or not to put the purchase of vehicle license plate scanners on the city council agenda.

According to a transcript Posner typed that day and made available to GT via a public records request, “he did not want me to put it on the agenda. At some point we made the mistake of talking about the vote … he said, ‘I have at least four votes for whatever protocols I suggest.’”

Posner wrote that Clark told him, “Don’t worry, you and I are not adversaries. If we were adversaries, I would find a way to get at you. I wouldn’t do it directly. I’d do it through a third party,” adding, “If there is someone who is screwing up this city, whether he is on council or whatever, I’m going to go after him. I’m not going to let someone mess up this city.”

Posner answered, “I hope our difference in procedural preference [about the license plate readers] doesn’t make you think that I am messing up the city.” Clark said, “I’m just telling you how we can handle this without a bunch of theater. I’ve worked in this city 26 years. I’ve seen councils come and go.”

Posner describes the encounter with Deputy Chief Clark as an “implied threat,” and within a week Posner discussed the “weird and scary” conversation with City Manager Bernal. He asked Bernal not to tell anyone else because he feared retribution. Bernal recommended that Posner consider “filing a formal complaint” and speak with police auditor Bob Aaronson.

Bernal confirmed to GT that Posner came to him with concerns, “and he asked me not to say anything about it.” Bernal says he advised Posner of his rights but did not report the conversation to anyone, partly because the conversation with Clark had not been recorded.

“He told me it would come down to a ‘he said, she said’ situation,” Posner says.

“A conversation is a conversation. It’s different if there was some concrete physical action or something that would require me to report a conversation,” explains Bernal. “That would be different.”

Indeed, conversations seem to be the basis of most concerns and complaints made by community members about Clark. Perhaps that has made each individual incident of verbal or physical intimidation easier for his superiors to write off, but his critics note a pattern of behavior.

Full disclosure: I was involved in one of these incidents myself, when I helped form the Santa Cruz Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB) and served on the board from ’95 to ’97.

On Aug. 30, 1995 Clark told me that he and the POA had investigated me and that he’d created a file about my political activism regarding police accountability. He said he’d collected information about me including published and unpublished writings. Clark added that he’d gathered information that would be embarrassing if he made it public, and he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He said that having a file on someone was the “nature of politics,” a way to “find out information to use if someone pushes you.” I filed a complaint about the incident, which was not investigated, and have written and spoken about it in a variety of venues.

BearCat and Beyond

Clark handled the grant writing for the Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) scanning systems and helped make the presentation to the City Council last December for the BearCat, when he told the council that Homeland Security grants for the armored truck would be lost unless they were approved that day. Critics of the BearCat acquisition quickly questioned why the public and council hadn’t been notified earlier.

The SCPD has recently acknowledged violating a city policy when they applied for grants for some ALPRs and the BearCat. Council Grants Policy 14.3 requires notification of the City Council at the time of application, not 15 months later, as was done in the case of the armored truck.

Escalante of the SCPD told GT he first heard of the grants policy, “when you sent it to me via email.” The policy was authorized in 1998 and updated in 2006. “I don’t think any department in the city was aware of the existing policy,” says Escalante. “We followed what we believed was the correct protocol.”

But other city departments have complied with the grant policy; for instance, a Nov. 5, 2009 Information Report to the City Manager refers to a “quarterly grant report for FY 10” from the Finance Department, “as required by City Council policy 14.3.”

Critics of the BearCat acquisition say the policy violation should be grounds for invalidating the council’s decision.

“The police department didn’t follow the policy, so the process should be null and void, right?” asks Irene O’Connell of the Resource Center for Nonviolence. “They shouldn’t get the BearCat.”

Analicia Cube of Take Back Santa Cruz agrees. “Whether you’re pro BearCat or against the BearCat, the bottom line is there is a procedure and it should have been followed,” she says.

One city employee who wishes to remain anonymous put it this way: “Either it was purposeful deception or it was unprofessional. Either way, there needs to be accountability.”

Transitional Period

O’Connell is currently involved in a collaboration of community-based organizations engaging Santa Cruz police and city officials in conversations toward a more community-oriented and restorative justice-oriented model of policing. “We would like to see more direct community involvement and communications in policing processes, with an emphasis on anti-racism, nonviolent communication, and violence de-escalation trainings for all officers,” she says.

On April 30, the SCPD announced the hiring of a permanent media spokesperson—Joyce Blaschke, a former marketing director for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. While Santa Cruz’s Police Auditor Bob Aaronson wouldn’t answer specific questions about the complaints against Clark, he did write in an email to GT, “I am concerned about these allegations and am hoping that some sort of investigation into the merits of the allegations is mounted by the city/police department.”

Some documents requested for this story were withheld by the city under a “deliberative process privilege.”

“Clark has a pattern of telling people he’s watching their political and personal activities. It’s like being watched by the state,” says Fitzmaurice. “Now he heads the ALPR program and predictive policing, which brings to mind Minority Report. In his hands it becomes more than a metaphor; it is an analog for surveillance. He seems to have great faith in keeping records and using intimidating behavior and is in charge of surveillance techniques for SCPD.”

“I am very concerned that a high-level city employee could have a long-standing pattern of misuse of power,” says Posner. “This type of behavior erodes the high level of trust between our community and our police department.”


PHOTO: SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel (left) and Deputy Chief Steve Clark.

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