Talking law enforcement with Santa Cruz chief Andy Mills: ‘I saw that’s not how I want to police’

Andy Mills
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

In an in-depth interview with Lookout Santa Cruz, Mills expanded on the changes he’s making to local policing policy, the struggles of leading a department through 2020 and how his formative years in Michigan helped set his ‘True North.’

It’s been a tumultuous 2020 for police leadership across the country and, even in his progressive city, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills hasn’t escaped the wrath.

Mills, who came to Santa Cruz in 2017 after a stint as chief in the Northern California city of Eureka and many years as a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department, has tried to stay ahead of the curve in terms of forward-thinking policing.

When the ripples from the death of George Floyd hit Santa Cruz on May 30, Mills and Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings sent an iconic message by kneeling together on Pacific Avenue. Not long after, Mills made SCPD the first force in the country to ban predictive policing — a controversial practice of using technology to determine officer deployment — and joined the ranks of others banning the use of carotid chokeholds.

Among other reform measures Mills had already begun implementing before they were heard and recently affirmed by the Santa Cruz City Council are limitations on no-knock warrants and forced entries, and tighter restrictions on when officers could shoot at or from moving vehicles.

Lookout recently sat down with Mills on Zoom. Here are the highlights of the conversation, which includes discussions about officer well-being, crime trends and homelessness, edited for clarity and conciseness.

What was it like for you transitioning into this job from your previous roles, and how it was different?

This is a unique city. It’s a very socially active city, very politically active city. You’ve got a bunch of very smart people here. People want to have a say. No matter what you do, people are going to have an opinion. You just kind of have to know your True North and what you believe. Your moral code and character and then just stay in your lane and keep pushing regardless of all the extremes on the ends.

What made you want to become a police officer in the first place? Did you have family in law enforcement?

No, all my family are preachers and teachers. I can remember as a little kid just standing up in the back of my dad’s car watching a Michigan state police car go by with its red light and blue car thinking ‘Wow, that’s what I wanna do.’

I imagine you’ve seen a lot of evolutions in the field throughout your years. What’s the arc you’ve seen, if you had to connect the dots over those decades?

One is that this is a people person’s game. And then the other thing is that the culture of policing hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion.

It was 1977 when I first started. I can remember being [on the police force] in Battle Creek, Michigan, and at Michigan State University they were trying this new thing called community policing, where they told the officers that we want you to get out of your cars and talk to people in the community and ride bikes through the community.

Information about not-for-profits in Santa Cruz County, compiled by the Lookout newsroom.

The cops [in that department] went berserk. And I was a pretty new cop. And I’m looking around thinking ‘What’s wrong with that? Why can’t you talk to people?’ And [they said] ‘Oh, we’ll get shot if we do that. It’s an officer safety issue. We can’t ride bikes’ and all this sort of thing. And that was a pretty corrupt, brutal police department. I saw that that’s not how I wanted to police.

But it’s interesting how too many police departments across the country, too many cops around the country are still in that 1977 mode of ‘We can’t work with the community’ and ‘We can’t get out of our cars, it’s an officer safety issue.’ Well, if the police can’t walk through a neighborhood, then how the hell can community members walk through a neighborhood without fear?

What do you think is the thought process behind that?

It’s two things: It’s a hyper-vigilant sense that everybody’s looking to kill them. If you look at the data, policing is one of the few professions where you’re murdered for your job. But it’s about 41, 42 people every year. Whereas, if you look at the construction industry or the coal-mining industry or some of these others, it’s hundreds of people a year. So it’s not the most dangerous profession. The difference is, I think, it’s a profession where there are some unbalanced people who may want to take a shot at a cop.

And certainly during this tumultuous time that has emboldened a few, like in that incident in Los Angeles where two officers were shot sitting in their car. And there’s been several of those across the country. So that has the sense to heighten your sensitivity and to heighten your vigilance to make sure you go home at the end of the day. Now, on top of that, there are a lot more cops shot at, a lot more cops injured. I don’t know a cop that has not been injured in the line of duty. So, all that adds to it, I think.

There’s a lot to balance. How do you figure out which direction to lead your officers and department staff?

I think that you need to establish what your philosophy of policing is. And our philosophy of policing is that we’re going to work with the community to solve some of these problems. So our bent on that is neighborhood policing, where we want to have our officers identify problems, analyze those problems with the community to solve those problems.

This is a big adjustment or change in the way we police. You know, the old saying, ‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ And in the community’s mind — you see this on social media here — their only solution to anything is to put people in jail. ‘Well, just put them in jail.’ And that’s what they’ve been taught by this department and other departments: Just put them in jail.

Well, what happens when there’s no jail? Because we’ve over-incarcerated, or we’ve got COVID-19, or there’s problems that are not going to be solved by putting people in jail? Mental health, drug addiction — those don’t get solved by putting people in jail, and so now you have to think more broadly. And the community is really struggling to understand that there are better options than just putting someone in jail. Not saying you can’t put people in jail, but I’d rather save that space for the people who are truly dangerous.

How have you seen your role or your thought process change over the last few months?

We’ve been working really hard with members of the Black community. Because, let’s face it, that’s been the focal point. There’s certainly injustice in other communities, whether it’s LGBTQ, the Latinx community, the Asian communities. There’s all kinds of injustice. But, for the most part, the focus has been on the Black community because of pretty obvious and visual stimuli that says we need to address it. We’re really trying to take a look at this and not overreact but respond appropriately. But too many of our colleagues, I think, are taking the position that if I hide from this for long enough, this will blow over.

I’ve been pretty clear with my colleagues around the state: this isn’t blowing over. And it shouldn’t blow over. And even if it were to blow over, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re policing justly, so why would we allow it to blow over? And so I’m pushing my colleagues to really be thoughtful about how we police and change our thought process.

With the kind of year it’s been, how do you deal with the potential burnout officers might be facing?

I’m very concerned about that. We started in February with COVID. And while everybody else was sheltering in place, our officers were working 12 hour days, and we took their days off and vacations away. Because we didn’t know what this was going to look like. Then we loosened it back up, they had days off, they were able to take a couple of days off here and there. And then George Floyd hit. What’s interesting is morale was really high because they were united as a mission, to protect the city, to keep these stores from getting burglarized and so forth. Then you get Sgt. [Damon] Gutzwiller murdered [in June], a huge emotional toll. And then the fires.

One of the items on your list of 20-something recommendations was to publish field/traffic stop data by 2022. Why couldn’t you accomplish that sooner?

We’re purchasing a records management system, that’s hopefully gonna be launched here by April. Most of the agencies in the county will be on that: sheriff’s office, Watsonville, Capitola, us. Most of the stops we do in the field, that’s not captured anywhere. All that’s captured is how many tickets we write. And so if you stop a person of color, over and over and over again, you aren’t capturing that. Only if you write up a citation. So this will demand that anytime we stop them, period, you have to collect that data. Now, the tough part is you’re supposed to make assumptions based on appearance, not how people identify.

So I don’t know how effective it’s going to be, but I think we need to do it as best we can and recognize that there may be some discrepancy in our calculation of how we look at that data.

When you look at Santa Cruz’s homelessness crisis, in an ideal world, how would our response and strategy work across various agencies and departments?

A lot of the people who are homeless here are from Santa Cruz. Now what does ‘from Santa Cruz’ mean is up for debate. Does that mean you were born here at Dominican Hospital? Does that mean you moved here as a kid? Does it mean you graduated from high school here? We need to help those folks get to a better place. Those who are just travelers, that have come here because they just want this lifestyle, I have no problem saying we need to enforce it and say, ‘Pick that lifestyle where you grew up in your hometown.’

But then you’ve got that third, maybe — a significant group — that are either mentally challenged or drug addicted. They need resources. Some of them don’t know that they need help. We have to be a big enough society to say, ‘You’re going to get help whether you want it or not.’ And until we can do that lawfully, we’re going to continue to be challenged with this problem.

That’s the county’s responsibility. They’re the ones with the behavioral health unit. They’re the ones with the ability to put people in the beds. The city does not do that. Now, we can help them with that, given the correct statutes and laws that can compel drug treatment, for example, or mental health treatment. But those laws really aren’t there at this time, so we’re really going to have to work together to figure that out.

Do we really have a good sense of who is here and why they’re here?

Every other year we do a point-in-time count of the homeless folks. And it’s amazing to me how we really don’t have a good handle, a good analysis of how many people are consistently here in what state, in terms of mental health and drug addiction. I don’t think we have enough detailed analysis, on what we truly have, in terms of mental health. Because one day, you’re talking to this person, they’re fine. The next, they’re acting out.

What crime trends are you seeing now?

What I look at are those things that are likely to get reported, to take a look at the consistency of our crime and view it from that perspective. But if you take a look at crime for the first half of this year, it’s down significantly. So we’ll have to take a look and figure out why. Was it COVID-19? We didn’t see that initially. We didn’t get the reductions others got. We had a lot of burglaries, but we’ve got a lot of people in custody for those burglaries.

Is there any truth to the idea that a lot of the city’s crime can be attributed to its sizable homeless population?

I think a lot of our petty theft certainly is homeless-related. Because when you see a pile of 50 bicycles in a homeless camp, logic would dictate that they’re stolen, that some of them are stolen. And we go and check them and occasionally we’ll find a few stolen ones but a lot of them just aren’t registered. We went on a registration campaign not too long ago. Homeless individuals are, like, 18 times more likely to be assaulted and 21 more times likely to be a suspect in assault. But most of it’s with each other.

If you were to take that out of the crime rate — which you can’t, because they are people that are being victims of crime — then you would see a much lower level of crime in our city if you just took the homeless-on-homeless crimes out. So yeah, it does affect our rate.

What do you hope to accomplish in 2021?

We can do several things as a department. No. 1 is that we focus on neighborhood policing, on solving problems for our neighbors. And working with them to really reduce crime in neighborhoods so that people feel more safe and people feel the comfort of working with the police to solve these problems. And then the second thing is that we police more justly. That we are a department who becomes the standard-bearer of just policing, in how we treat people.