As he walks down Lincoln Street in downtown Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills is blowing off steam.
It’s Monday, July 26, and Mills has spent the day working on the investigation into vandalism on a Black Lives Matter mural that volunteers painted onto Cedar Street last summer. Two suspects, Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner, have been arrested on felonies. Mills says he’s since confirmed that there were also juveniles involved, and SCPD is sending the information to the District Attorney’s Office. Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) officers say that the young men left vehicle tread marks over the mural. Part of Mills’ day has been spent fielding angry messages and phone calls from community members claiming that this was just a couple of kids burning rubber—not vandalism.
“Out of 5,000 street segments in the city, they just happened to choose that one to burn rubber? C’mon,” Mills says. “I’m not that stupid.”
One Pacific Grove resident even wrote in to say that he was “angry” about the police response.
“I said, ‘I’m glad you’re angry,’” Mills explains. “‘Maybe you need to look in the mirror and find out whether you’re biased.’”
Mills, 64, is walking with an open Diet Coke in his hand as we stroll back from Jack’s Hamburgers to the police station. He’s coming up on the four-year anniversary of his swearing-in as chief of SCPD on Friday, Aug. 7. A community hiring committee chose Mills as a more compassionate replacement to his retiring predecessor Kevin Vogel. A more hardline approach to policing—embraced by both Vogel and Deputy Chief Steve Clark, who retired in 2016—had fallen out of favor in Santa Cruz.
Upon Mills’ hiring, he was seen as a champion of liberal values. Four years in, his supporters have as much faith in his compassion as ever. But others have begun to question his commitment to issues like police reform and managing the homeless crisis.
The past year and a half has not been easy on law enforcement officers—with a global pandemic, the difficulty of enforcing shelter-in-place orders and, locally, the murder of Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. Then there was the nationwide reckoning over racial injustice and implicit bias, especially in regard to policing. It was at one of 2020’s first major racial justice protests that a masked Andy Mills knelt down next to a masked Justin Cummings—the city’s first Black male mayor—in honor of George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis Police a couple weeks earlier. A photo of the two taken by Santa Cruz Sentinel photographer Shmuel Thaler became national news.
Brenda Griffin, the president of the NAACP’s Santa Cruz branch, served on the committee that hired Mills in 2017, and she remembers his answers in the interview process being deep and substantive. His responses reflected the experience of a police leader familiar with working with communities of color, she explains.
Since then, Griffin—who now serves on the Chief’s Advisory Committee, weighing in on police policy—says that, since taking over, Mills has been easy to communicate with and very responsive to the needs of the NAACP.
“He’s really trying to make a difference,” Griffin says.
Ayo Banjo, a policy researcher and analyst at UCSC, has ambitious ideas for reimagining police reform, rooted partly in his years of activism.
Last year, as he and fellow Black Lives Matter protesters elevated discussions of police reform, Banjo helped shift the discussion away from “defund the police” and toward “community refund”—the idea being that the focus should be less on taking something away from the police and more about reinvesting in the community. And right now, Banjo is working to plan a local conference about police accountability and reconfiguring how law enforcement operates. “My end goal is creating alternative models,” Banjo says.
Banjo says all his interactions with Santa Cruz Police have been positive, although he can’t help but wonder if officers recognize him as a prominent Black activist and treat him differently because of it. His friends’ experiences have been more mixed, he says.
Banjo freely admits Mills is a better police chief than most communities have. There’s real power, he says, in having a police leader who proudly proclaims that “Black lives matter,” as Mills often does.
But Banjo also believes that Mills—with his mix of charisma and personal connections—puts a positive face on policing to the point that it can stand in the way of deeper systemic change.
Banjo believes the most substantive version of reform might include a new citizens’ police accountability review board with full independence and the ability to investigate complaints against SCPD and its officers with full cooperation from the department. It could also include new crisis response teams that respond to those struggling with substance use disorder and mental health challenges, as well as victims of sexual assault. Eugene, Oregon has a 31-year-old such program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), wherein social workers respond to calls and coordinate with the local police department. The program has earned praise around the country, especially over the past year, but, so far, no other community has adopted the model.
Mills’ standard response over the past year—including on his blog, in an opinion editorial and in remarks to the City Council—has been that Santa Cruz can defund his department if it wants to, but that no one will want to take over the tasks of responding to quality-of-life and crisis calls.
Banjo isn’t so sure. He believes that Mills, in sharing that view, is revealing something that he doesn’t intend to. Banjo thinks others would happily step up to such a challenge if given the opportunity. He says Mills and his officers may not see it that way because they don’t like handling those tasks themselves.
“What he’s saying is ‘we don’t want to deal with these people,’” Banjo says. “You should never say you don’t want to deal with some subsection of the community. You want a public safety model that’s saying that ‘we want to engage with these communities.’”
Mills says he’s supportive of launching a crisis intervention team, although he would want to be involved in the discussion, especially if it means reorganizing resources. He notes that the department already employs mental liaisons.
“Ayo can have whatever opinion he wants,” Mills says. “It’s not that the police don’t want to work with a segment of the community. It’s ‘are the police best suited to work with a segment of the community?’ And so if there are people better trained to do something, why wouldn’t we just have them do it?”
Mills adds that he thinks Banjo and some of his young allies don’t speak for the Black community. He calls their ideas “fringe”—a term that Banjo does not appreciate when told of Mills’ remarks.
“There is no one Black voice,” Banjo says. “For you as a white police officer to tell a Black young organizer that his service to the Black community—that he doesn’t get paid for—does not represent the community that he’s serving? The Caucacity! How dare you speak like that.”
Lee Brokaw, an activist who was galvanized by the debates over a controversial militarized Bearcat vehicle that Santa Cruz purchased in 2015, also served on the committee that hired Mills two years later.
A member of the ACLU Board of Directors, Brokaw says he’s had Mills over at his house to eat stuffed padrons and drink wine. Mills, Brokaw says, is the kind of chief who will answer when a community member like himself calls on the phone. Mills is willing to be scrutinized, Brokaw adds.
“What we’ve got with Andy Mills, first and foremost, is a good man and a decent human being, and he’s a cop,” Brokaw says. “And he’ll always be a cop, and there will be times where he and I agree to disagree because he’s coming from being a cop. But that doesn’t take away from the human being.” Brokaw additionally cites Mills’ willingness to reform use-of-force procedures, a process that Mills began before the reckoning over racial injustice sparked by the George Floyd killing.
This is all true, but what’s also true—to my eye, anyway—is that Mills does sometimes show different sides of himself than what Brokaw or I see when we meet up with him personally.
I have, for instance, seen both Mills’ and the SCPD’s Twitter page publicly shame suspects on social media—both shortly after they get arrested (i.e. before they’ve been tried in court) and also after they get sentenced.
Mills says the intent is not to shame people, but just to inform the public.
“It’s a balancing act between the community having a right and need to know what these people might be doing—also what we’re doing—and [the suspect’s] right to privacy,” Mills says. “We tend to put on the more egregious stuff.”
A newly signed law, AB 1427, will stop law enforcement from posting mugshots of suspects unless the suspect is suspected of a violent crime or still at large. SCPD has scrubbed its social media accounts and removed posts that would violate the new law.
In a city with an unhoused population that totals above 1,000, a significant portion of officers’ time will inevitably include interacting with those experiencing homelessness.
Homeless advocate Steve Pleich says that, in between the Covid-19 pandemic and a court decision—Martin v. Boise—declaring many camping bans unconstitutional, outside forces have made it difficult to put together nuanced solutions that would reduce suffering among the unsheltered. Nonetheless, Pleich appreciates that Mills is always open to feedback and to discussion.
“He’s an interesting guy. He’s a complicated guy in the way that Kevin Vogel was not,” Pleich says. “He and Steve Clark wanted to do everything they could to suppress and contain homelessness. They took the part about social services completely out of the equation. They were no fans of the houseless community or homeless advocates at all. We were hoping it would get better when Andy came in. He makes all the right noises, but his policies don’t always reflect that liberality that we’re calling for. But again, he’s in a difficult situation.”
One of the things that struck me when Mills first got hired in 2017 was the empathy with which he repeatedly talked about the plight of those experiencing homelessness to me and my colleagues. He dismissed the idea that handing out citations was even a remotely effective way of dealing with the unsheltered.
I would never forget the things he said at the time because I’d never heard a law enforcement leader talk about homelessness with so much care and compassion.
To my ears, I’ve often heard a different tone in Mills’ rhetoric in the years since, but he insists he looks at the issues the same way he did then.
“I don’t know that my views have changed greatly,” Mills says. “My core values for homelessness is we really need to try to help people, but the reality is there’s a pretty substantial service-resistant population who are more interested in a party lifestyle or the homeless lifestyle than they are in getting the help they need to fix the things that are wrong. Between us and the county’s social workers, we’ve handed out fliers and tried to cajole people into getting housing or getting help, and there’s a significant group of people who are truly not interested. And that’s harmful. There are a lot of homeless advocates here who are really willing to step up to help people get housed. [Housing] is pretty scarce.”
Warming Center founder Brent Adams says that, in mentioning the scarcity of affordable housing, Mills is pointing to the real core of the problem. Adams doesn’t exactly agree that there’s a “party” problem among the unhoused, but he knows drug use is common on the streets and in parks; many users didn’t start until after becoming homeless.
Additionally, Adams and fellow community activist Denise Elerick wonder how “service-resistant” unhoused residents really are. Both activists say the problem is not that people resist services, but rather that available services are much too far and few between.
Elerick, cofounder of the Harm Reduction Coalition, expresses skepticism at some of Mills’ other claims. She says she’s seen countless interactions between SCPD officers and those experiencing homlessness, and she’s never once seen one hand out information on how to get help. She’s shown up to police sweeps of homeless encampments, and she says she often just saw SCPD officers walking around with their hands in their vests, making passive-aggressive comments about trash.
Mills says he values the opinions of people like Elerick and Adams who regularly work with the homeless community and that many of his understandings of the unsheltered are based upon multiple one-on-one conversations with those living in large unmanaged encampments.
Adams says the challenges extend well beyond matters of leadership at SCPD. The real problem, he says, is that Santa Cruz has repeatedly failed to create enough safe spaces to sleep.
Mills will point out that it isn’t just Martin v. Boise and the pandemic that are changing policing.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared overcrowding in California’s prison population unconstitutional, California passed a series of reforms—AB 109, Prop 47, Prop 57. The gist of these changes involved the state shifting some inmates from state prisons to local jails. This also meant more local inmates getting shifted from local jails to parole.
The chief recently wrote an op-ed about the headaches, as he sees it, caused by a shifting prison population. He shared it with the county’s four other law enforcement leaders, all of whom signed off on it. Mills sent the op-ed to the Sentinel, which ran the piece. In it, Mills briefly explained the case for realignment—including that over-incarceration led to disproportionately large numbers of people of color behind bars.
But Mills also suggested that some of the more recent realignment efforts may be contributing to an increase in crime, and implied that it may be about to get worse. One passage that jumped out at me was Mills’ acknowledgement of community complaints regarding quality-of-life issues.
“Many residents are fed up with petty crime,” he wrote. “Residents do not want to be panhandled for money at an intersection or see someone pushing a shopping cart. They tire of the adverse effects of social issues such as homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness. From Davenport to Watsonville, the greater Santa Cruz community tells the police they want more rigorous enforcement of quality-of-life crimes. We frequently hear, ‘If you are tough on crime—they will leave.’ Others want criminals to fear the police and going to jail.”
When I ask about the op-ed, Mills tells me that his point is it’s time for an honest discussion about local roles and community expectations. And his piece does go on to argue that if people feel frustrated with the state of public safety, everyone needs to get together to collaborate on a different path forward. It also goes on to say that Santa Cruz repeatedly supported realignment efforts at the ballot. But when I ask Mills if he’s frustrated with the state-level criminal-justice reforms himself, he says that he isn’t, and it wasn’t the point of his op-ed.
“I just wanted to tell people, ‘Look, you want to bark at the chiefs and be angry with the chiefs and the sheriff for not putting people in jail for long periods of time, you voted for Prop 47 and 57 and the legislators who implemented AB 109 and Prop 36—by a 75% margin in this county. And now you’re complaining that there’s people in the streets. And what we frequently hear is there’s a homeless guy there; why aren’t you putting him in jail? OK, I just want to get it straight. We’re really trying to understand: you don’t want this burglar in jail… but you do want this homeless guy in jail?’” Mills says. “It’s a mixed message that needs to have a robust community discussion. If you think that all these problems are solvable by incarceration, then you need to build: fund a bond, give the sheriff a couple hundred more deputies and build a big prison system here in Santa Cruz—if you think that’s going to work. And I think that the academic literature would tell you that that’s not going to work.”
Splitting the Difference
It sometimes seems like Santa Cruz is a difficult place to take important stances on contentious issues. This area certainly has its quirks. All-Democrat City Councils have wielded power for well over a decade in a town where progressive activists know how to make a lot of noise—but so do conservative public safety activists. We so often see debates over policy devolve into abstract, partisan squabbles over whether Santa Cruz is doing a poor job living up to its liberal reputation on the vanguard of progressive policy—or if it’s alternatively gone too far already and needs to pull back.
But Mills says he doesn’t think too much about that stuff. Those schisms happen in every community, he says.
“It’s not any more difficult here than anywhere else. Every chief has to deal with this,” he says. “A lot of people have opinions. Of course, if they read it on social media, they become an expert. That’s modern-day policing. I take it with a grain of salt. People can be angry and hate all they want. If you don’t have tough skin, you’re not a chief.”
Mills says he has no plans for retiring or going anywhere. If it helps Mills’ case, the city of Santa Cruz’s roster has thinned out a bit both above and below him, so his experience stands out.
Mills says he has the energy to keep working on Santa Cruz’s most pressing issues. And that’s what he says he plans to do.
“I’m a young man. I have no plans of retiring. I’m in my 60s,” he says. “I figure, if Joe Biden can become president at 78, what’s another few years for me?”