Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

A fire, pandemic and death of a deputy: Sheriff Jim Hart reflects on a frenzied 2020

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart talked to Lookout Thursday about his support of Black Lives Matter, losing a deputy in the line of duty and his office’s future challenges.

Santa Cruz County’s top law enforcement official is no stranger to disasters in his back yard.

One of Sheriff Jim Hart’s first major incidents as a patrolman, just months after he graduated from the police academy, was the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area. He called it “a real eye opener” as far as how to manage a disaster and disaster preparedness.

Some 30 years later, a frenzied 2020 would test those lessons learned, throwing about as much at Hart and his agency as anyone can imagine in a single year: a ravenous fire, a shooting that killed one of his deputies and injured another, a virus outbreak that sidelined a number of correctional officers, budget cuts and more.

All against the backdrop of a pandemic that continues to strain health care systems and resources, and calls for racial justice and against police violence across the country.

Lookout recently sat down with Hart on Zoom. Here are the highlights of the conversation, which includes discussions about his open letter supporting Black Lives Matter, losing a deputy in the line of duty and challenges for the agency in the future, edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: You are a third-generation Santa Cruz County native and a longtime veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, what drew you to law enforcement initially?

When I went to college I was looking at a business major — my father was a real estate developer, my brother is the same thing — and I took an introduction to criminal justice class as an elective, and I had a great instructor in that course. And it really made me aware that, of myself, that I didn’t necessarily just want to sit behind a desk, that I wanted to be involved in the community and be a part of the solution. That one class was really life-changing for me because after I took it I knew that I found my calling and that’s what I wanted to do as a career.

Q: You’ve now had a few months of separation from the CZU fire. How have you been reflecting on that crisis and the role your office played?

I’m really proud of the way that my office performed. We were in that burn zone for 38 days. Our people worked 12-hour shifts, some of them for three weeks straight without a day off. Trying to, first of all, evacuate the areas and get people to safe zones and then after that, protecting property and livestock and people’s personal possessions and then trying to work with communities to allow people to get back in, to get the things that they need. It was a much more complex incident than people think. And so, as I look back where I’m very proud that we were able to evacuate 70,000 people safely without incident. And then, in a real organized and methodical manner, get them returned back home. We still haven’t ended that disaster. We’re now planning for debris flow and mudslides. So we transition right from the fire, returning people home, recovery, and now we’re planning for the next phase, which is the debris flow and I hope it doesn’t happen but we’re certainly planning for it.

Q: How have you seen the job evolve over the years? How are the challenges today different than maybe 10, 20, 30 years ago?

I’d say it’s a much more complex job for a patrol person today than it was in 1989 when I started or 1988. It’s more complex around technology. I think our community is much more aware of police interactions. And we have a very involved, educated community who wants to know why we do things and is there other ways of doing them. And back then we just, we weren’t asked those kinds of questions to the degree that we are now. And then there’s also a lot more issues around technology and the appropriate use of technology. And we have to be real careful how we use technology in the police world so that we’re not getting over-involved in people’s lives.

Q: Are you talking about predictive policing systems or something else with technology?

I mean it’s really anything. It can be LPRs (License Plate Readers), it can be any kind of artificial intelligence, it could be facial recognition, the use of drones, you know, how we access cellphones, when we access cellphones and other types of computers and laptops and all the different devices that are out there. So, what we did a number of years ago, back around 2016 when we adopted the 21st Century Policing platform that came out of the Obama administration, we completely changed our policing model. And one of those areas that we changed was how we use technology, and so what I’ve committed to is that anytime we’re examining the use of a piece of technology, either we’re going to use it or we’re going to purchase it, that we’ll bring it to the community and we’ll do a community presentation. We’ll allow public comment. And then we’ll also allow a 30-day public comment period before we purchase or go forward with the use of that technology. We’ve done that twice now. We did it around our drone program and we did it around the temporary use of some LPRs on Soquel Drive when we had a series of shootings. . . . In those two specific instances where we’ve done this, it’s worked very well. And we went ahead and used the drones and used the LPRs without any public concern.”

Q: You penned an open letter earlier this year, saying “enough is enough” when it comes to institutional violence against people of color. What drove you to write that?

Obviously, George Floyd was one of the triggers, but it was the multiple incidents that we saw across the country and, you know, most police officers that observe those types of videos cringe when they see that. And that’s not how we want to be painted and that’s not who we are as individual police officers. And that’s not how we are as an agency here at the sheriff’s office. And so I wanted to make sure that people knew that there’s a lot of policemen and policewomen out there that don’t agree with that type of force, and that we’re committed to not using force when we don’t have to and that we’re committed to the sanctity of life. And that we’re here to help. We’re not here to make things worse.

As a sheriff what do you think you can do on a local level to sort of effectuate that change when it comes to interactions between deputies and people of color?

There’s that old saying, right? That all politics start at the local level, right. I mean, I think at the local level is where you can actually get things done. And we’ve seen that in our 21st Century Policing platform when in 2016 I made a pledge to the community when we bought body-worn cameras that we would release any officer-involved shooting video within 72 hours of that incident occurring. And we had a couple remarkable events after that, and we did, I did exactly that. I released that information to them. And so now there’s agencies that are talking about doing that now, five years later.

I brought ICAT (Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics; which teaches deputies how to deal with someone who has a weapon that is not gun and resolve the situation without harming the person) training to this county back in 2017 and invited every agency to participate in that training. Nobody took me up on it. But now here we are three or four years later and now all those agencies are asking for that training. So, you know, we’ve been ahead of the curve in a lot of areas.

Q: Earlier this year in June, you had one deputy killed and another injured in a shooting. What does that do to the psyche and morale of a department?

That was by far the most challenging moment in my career. And I had a personal relationship with (Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller) as did many of us here and he was a really good man. What I focused on was just being here 24 hours a day, being present, being with our people, talking with them, listening with them, and then sharing as much information as we had. Oftentimes, you’ll see a department insulate, and you’ll see the leadership insulate during times of crisis. And so, we didn’t do that and we shared as much information as we had, as we could. Within six weeks of the incident, we had a full debrief that we presented to all of the police officers and deputy sheriffs that were involved in the call. And then you offer services. We had therapists and counselors here 24 hours a day for the first few weeks and anybody could take advantage of those services. And then it just takes time, you know, it’s like any unexpected death or any death really, it just takes time to get through that grieving process.

Q: What crime trends are you seeing right now and what problems or issues keep you up at night?

Any issue in the jail, right now, especially with COVID, you know, the jail is a very challenging place to work and to operate. And we have people there, almost half have some level of mental illness. We have people with a lot of sickness. And there’s people in there for some very serious charges, as well. And so the jail’s always a challenging piece of what I do.

In terms of crime trends: Our homicide rate is up for the county. We’ve had six this year. We’ve had five-year periods where we’ve had one or two and just this year we’ve had six. And that’s a national trend that we’re seeing with the violent crime going up a little bit. There’s no rhyme or reason to the local homicide rate. It’s not like we can say it’s just domestic violence or it’s just gang-related, it’s sort of all over the map. And then we’ve seen these catalytic converter thefts just skyrocket where there’s a group out there that are cutting out catalytic converters and selling the materials inside those converters. But we’ve had hundreds of those between the county and the four cities. So we’re doing some work on that. We hope to put an end to that soon.

Q: What challenges has the pandemic presented to law enforcement in Santa Cruz County and how have you adjusted to that?

Well, first of all, we had to go on 12-hour shifts to make sure that we had enough staff available. We were getting some early numbers from our county epidemiologist that we could expect up to 40% of our staff being out any given time due to illness or taking care of a loved one at home. So we had to make some plans for that. We had to beef up our coroner’s division because we were anticipating, based on the epidemiologist’s number, a lot more deaths than what we’ve experienced. And then just the way that we operate. Most police agencies are pretty close. You have roll calls, there’s a lot of interaction and we’ve had to separate. And we don’t hold those roll calls anymore. Everything is like this. It’s all, a lot of it’s virtual on what we do. And then, trying to enforce a very unpopular health order has been a challenge and it’s not something deputy sheriffs or police officers enjoy doing. There’s a lot of pushback from people, and when you have to go issue somebody a citation for sitting on a beach it’s just, it’s so counterintuitive to our community and to who we are and to what we’re used to doing that it feels wrong.

I understand, and I support the health officer’s order, but the enforcement side of it has been a challenge and that’s no discredit to her or the governor or anything like that, it’s just an unpopular order.

Looking forward a little bit, 2021, what do you hope to accomplish? What are your big-picture goals for that year and maybe beyond?

We had significant budget cuts last year, and potentially if there’s no federal stimulus to local counties and municipalities, we’re looking at additional budget cuts. And, you know, it turns out, at the end of the day, that in order to run jails and run a police force you actually need people and so my goal is to try to maintain a level of staffing that we can adequately respond to our calls and run our jail facilities. And so it’s a challenging time in terms of budget right now.