Q&A: New Santa Cruz police chief Bernie Escalante takes on staffing woes, COVID impacts and mental wellness

New Santa Cruz police chief Bernie Escalante
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After serving as interim chief following the resignation of former chief Andy Mills in October, Bernie Escalante moves into his role as new police chief with goals to build staffing and trusting relationships with the community. Several days after his official appointment, he told Lookout about his vision and the department’s challenges.

After serving 25 years in the Santa Cruz Police Department, Bernie Escalante is now the agency’s new chief.

Bernie Escalante

Escalante, 50, steps into the role as the department, like many agencies in Santa Cruz, picks up the pieces from the COVID-19 pandemic’s wide-ranging impacts: economic turmoil, increased rates of homelessness and staffing shortages. The department continues to address calls for ending systemic racism and improving policing practices.

The city appointed Escalante interim police chief in October, when former chief Andy Mills announced his resignation.

The Santa Cruz native says he will rely on his deep understanding of the city and his policing experience to move the department forward. When thinking about having a department that can confront these challenges in the way he wants, staffing is top of mind for Escalante.

“At one point about a month ago, we had almost 40% of our workforce out,” he said.

The department’s roster has 94 spaces but it currently counts between 60 to 64 working in the field. Of the 89 on its books, the department currently has 15 recruits at three different police academies. Three more officers are in the department’s field training program, and six to seven are recovering from long-term injuries. That’s what adds up to that range of 60 to 64 officers in the field.

In March, to make up for its low staffing numbers, the department had to change its shifts from 10-hour days to 12-hour days.

Escalante emphasizes that his main priorities as chief will be to build a fully staffed and healthy department, and to build on the community relationships developed by Mills. Lookout spoke with him about those priorities and also the rollout of the 988 hotline.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: A pandemic. George Floyd. An affordability crisis. These are some challenges the police department, and all agencies, are facing in Santa Cruz. How would you describe where the department is right now as you take on this role?

Bernie Escalante: I think that probably the most significant issue for us is staffing. So much of what I’d like to do revolves around staffing. Whether it’s providing a different level of service to the community or providing a more healthy, mentally and physically healthy, place for people to come work. It’s a difficult job right during a difficult time. It’s hard to recruit good people for this profession. They want to do the job and do it well, and do it professionally.

So we’re challenged by staffing, and COVID really set us back. We had several positions, 10 positions frozen for a year. And then the process itself probably takes a good 18 months from application to having an officer in the field by themselves. So really, that one year kind of set us back by almost two to two and a half years. And we lost a few officers as a result of the national narrative; they kind of just didn’t want to do the job anymore. Our staff works hard. We’re a busy city. They’re going constantly. So it’s really one of my primary goals: to staff the organization back to a point where people don’t feel like they’re drowning. And also create opportunities for them. There’s usually a lot of specialty assignments that people strive for in their careers. After you do so many years in patrol, then you start looking to do some special assignments. And currently, we don’t have those. We don’t have the staff to put them in.

New Santa Cruz police chief Bernie Escalante
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: On July 16, a mental health hotline will launch across the country with local agencies like the Family Service Agency beginning to take those calls. Eventually, mental health response teams will help respond to calls involving mental health crises. How do you see the police department’s involvement in the rollout of the 988 hotline and future mental health response teams?

Escalante: It depends on who you ask, because some people would say that law enforcement shouldn’t be a part of it at all. I think that some of the social workers would say that they want law enforcement somewhere nearby, that some of these situations are dangerous or very unpredictable. I fully support us not trying to resolve some of these difficult mental health issues that are going on, and we’re probably not the best tool for that particular job.

But again, it’s a matter of what exactly does it look like 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year? CAHOOTS [an Oregon-based community response team made up of a crisis worker and a medic] is a model people talk about a lot, and I’m not opposed to that sort of model. I haven’t seen any data about how successful they are at getting people off the streets. They’re successful at going out and handling an issue and kind of putting a bandaid on it, but I don’t know how successful they are. Maybe getting that person into some sort of different housing or dealing with the addiction issues or mental health issues. The thing is, what does that look like, going out at 3 in the morning? I don’t know — I mean, I’ve heard everything from this should be fully social service workers to there should be a blend of some law enforcement or EMTs. I’d support either one.

Lookout: Suicide is among the top reasons for police deaths. How does the Santa Cruz Police Department address police officer mental health?

Escalante: Wellness is a huge topic for us. We have a peer support group that focuses on wellness. I like to use the analogy that if you want your car to run well, you gotta take care of the engine. And that’s one of my major focuses. When I say the engine, I’m talking about my staff. If I want them to be out in the field performing at a high level and performing well, they need to be well, I need to take care of them. I need to take care of their mental health, their physical health. I think as a profession, the stigma around reaching out and getting help is lessening, I see more people that are more willing to ask for help. That was one of the bigger hurdles from the profession in general, and I think that’s kind of breaking down — which is good. I think that we do a good job, but we can continue to get better. It takes an investment, it takes money. When we’re going through cuts, those are the sorts of things that are usually pulled away first, unfortunately.

New Santa Cruz police chief Bernie Escalante
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We’ve had a peer support group for at least 10 years. We try to get our peer support group to be a little bit more proactive in engaging people in conversations. And that part is still tough, because people are still struggling to divulge to their peers. But at least my goal is to make them aware of the services that are provided not necessarily just by the city, but there’s a lot of services out there. We’ve also worked on a partners group. We’re trying to get officers’ partners [personal life partners, spouses, etc.] involved in a quarterly meeting or whatever it may be to talk to them about the services that are available for them. And also talk about signs and symptoms of certain behaviors that they might be seeing at home that can help with the overall wellness.

Lookout: Can you talk about any crime trends the police department is aware of?

Escalante: Well, it’s a really difficult question to answer because of the pandemic. That really skewed all kinds of stuff. Our numbers from 2020 to 2021, we had some increases, do you attribute that to society opening back up? And some people were in some dire situations financially. There was probably a lot more theft and that sort of thing. So it’s really hard to compare that. I think there was an increase in 2021, but you’re comparing it to 2020. Looking at the larger five-to-10-year window, everything is kind of within an average. No real significant spikes in one particular crime.

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