Andrew Mills, the new chief of the Santa Cruz Police Department, was sworn in on Monday, Aug. 7. He began his policing career in San Diego, where he was an officer for 20 years, and then served as police chief for Eureka for the next four. Santa Cruz offered him a position in early June, after a long hiring process that involved a special committee.
As he begins his tenure, Mills talked to GT about his sometimes surprising perspectives on law enforcement issues, and his vision for the SCPD.
You’ve been speaking with community members, civil rights groups and neighborhood activists. What are you getting out of that?
CHIEF ANDREW MILLS: I’m trying to understand what they expect from the police chief and the police department. I want them to have a face, where the chief of police is a phone call away, so I give them my cell phone. Also, anybody in the community is welcome to visit me Mondays from 9-10:30 a.m. I would highly encourage people to make an appointment with my executive assistant Kimberly Steele and come in and talk with me. I’ll listen to anybody.
You’ve mentioned a plan to tackle mental health issues. How should the SCPD prepare officers for encounters with the mentally ill?
We call it the three T’s: time, talk and tactics. And if we can make these [encounters] go past five to six minutes, get into the 15-minute realm, things can normally straighten out a little bit. I’m going to task one of my lieutenants to put this tactical de-escalation training together for this department. All 104 officers will go through this process. It will take one to two days, and we will use simulations. We have a guy sitting on a porch with a gun under his chin—now you have to deal with this guy. We have Health and Human Services with us, coaching us, and [saying], “If you talk with them this way, you may get a better result.” You see, in one of these incidents, a guy with a knife and a bunch of cops standing around. What do you hear? “Put the knife down, put the knife down.” OK, you told him that 20 times. He’s obviously not hearing you, can we now think about talking about something else? “Hey buddy, what’s wrong?” Again, you’re trying to calm these things down, rather than spin them up. That’s what the sense of most people is: why can’t the cops just talk with the guy?
You’ve said that a collaborative relationship in Eureka led to housing 300 people. What approach do you envision for Santa Cruz’s growing homeless population?
I know every community likes to think they’re the worst in terms of the amount of homeless and all this kind of thing, and I’ve heard these numbers bantered about frequently. So 2,200 countywide—people are saying it’s the worst biggest homeless population in the state. Well, it’s not. San Francisco has many more. Los Angeles has many more. San Diego has many more. San Jose has many more. Per capita, we may be up there. Because what happens is you get small numbers and a large group of people—it shows [up] very high. Eureka had 2,200 homeless per 100,000 population, now that has since reduced. A lot of cities are struggling with these issues. The question is, “How do you plan to deal with this?” The answer is “I don’t know yet.” Because what we have to do is come out here and do the analytics, to pull data—not only police data, but community data from the homeless information management system, in terms of the numbers. We need to tear apart the point-in-time count to figure out what are they seeing in terms of homeless, and how confident are they in these numbers? It seems here that there is a lot of pitting against one another: “This is how I believe.” It almost reflects the presidential election. My job is to pull as many people to the center; not the center ideologically, but the center of collaboration, so we can all work together. ’Cause I know one solution isn’t going to fix this problem. This is a very diffused or dispersed model of homelessness. Oftentimes you get these intense locations where you have hundreds of people in one location, maybe driven by services or comfort, but in Humboldt, we had a marsh with 300-plus people. Here, it’s literally all over the city. Consequently, what you get is everyone is impacted by this problem.
You’ve said that you plan to tackle drug addiction in Santa Cruz. What can you tell us about your strategy?
I believe in problem-oriented policing. You look at the problem, and you do as much analysis as you can on that specific problem. For instance, you have a crack cocaine market at a certain location. That’s a very different problem than a methamphetamine problem being sold through a network of tweakers, or a heroin problem being brought in via pongo boats. All of those are different problems that you have to analyze and figure out how to abate. My expectation is that I want our officers to identify those problems, and come up with creative, innovative solutions for each of those problems.
For instance, when I was in San Diego, we had an open-air drug market at 38th and University. It was all crack cocaine, they were using prostitutes to market the drug. And we started an operation called Operation Hot Pipe and Smoky Haze. Our goal was to create the haze of “Are the police here, are they not here? Is this a market, is this not a market?” So we engineered a marketing campaign targeted toward that location, put up billboards, did signs, talked with the prostitutes, told them police are going to be doing a big sweep on Monday. We do a sweep, and then come back a half a week later say, “Hey, police are doing a big sweep on Thursday.” After they see the first sweep, we didn’t do the sweep. Creating this confusion, it became an untenable market for those people, and it abated that location. People who are addicts are going to go someplace. So the other side of that is that you have to market to people to get help. One of the things that we need to do here is make sure there is enough space in programs to help people come off of opioid addiction when they’re ready.
What do you think of the trend of police departments getting more military-style equipment—whether through the 1033 program that circulates excess military vehicles, or through government grants, which is how Santa Cruz got is BearCat vehicle?
We’ve got to be very clear with our officers. What is the purpose of the military? To take life. What’s the purpose of local police? To protect life. They’re the exact opposite. Now occasionally, you’re forced into situations where to protect life you have to use high levels of force. What we need to communicate with our officers is that we’re not the military. Yes, you have to use equipment that is similar to the military because you’re trying to protect life. And I know the BearCat was a significant debate here, and we’re not going to get rid of our BearCat. However, I will, within the first few months here, invite people in to think through the policy. And so, to me it’s much more important that you have the policies squared away and well-thought through and make sure we are on the same page with the communities’ expectations on that policy. There are just enough violent people in our society—active shooters, masked shootings—that we are going to need to have some upper-level of armored protection.
How will SCPD respond to protests?
In a democracy, that’s part of how people express their views to government. So if you have the police there to suppress or to intimidate people from expressing their view, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Here’s when we come into conflict. If there is a group, and we see online that they’re there to create violence or to bust out windows, I can’t allow that to occur. We still have to have order in society, so we will have a police presence. If it’s a large group of people, then we need to have some logistics to help. We may need to shut off a street or re-direct traffic. I’m 100 percent supportive of that, as long as it’s well thought-out and planned. My goal is to communicate with the organizers whenever possible. And there are times that they want to do civil disobedience and get arrested. We will facilitate that, help them get arrested. Walk them around the corner, give them a cite, as long as they don’t go back and create problems again. If you’re there to disrupt the community and create violence, we just can’t allow that. Again, depending on the level, you also may want to talk with them and say, “Hey, what are you looking for?” “We’re going to block this intersection to get arrested.” “Great, let’s work on that together and look at the logistics to make that happen.” But the BearCat will never be deployed on a civil protest or a civil group of people. That cannot happen. Nor will drones or anything else.
Any plans to promote transparency?
Yes, you’ll see some movement on that. Some significant movement toward transparency. Just this morning I told Joyce [Blaschke], my PIO, that I want to have a portal on our website that is called the transparency portal, where anyone can go to get information on policy and procedures, on what we’re doing, on good stuff as well as bad stuff. We just have to have it there so people can examine it themselves. That will be a work in progress. It’s not going to be perfect, but I want people to have confidence that we will be as transparent as possible.
What can you promise will be underway or accomplished by August of 2018?
We will have tactical de-escalation training done. We will create a leadership plan that identifies what the priorities are of this police department, and then how we move in unison with the community. Part of my listening tour is that the first 90 days, I am taking copious notes, listening to people. I’m getting feedback, and then we will create a plan to move forward with the community that we will publish as part of the transparency portal to see if we are gaining or losing ground as a community. And it’s not always about crime. That’s important, but it’s also about the quality of life.