If Santa Cruz wants more accountability from police, we need to repeal state Peace Officer Bill of Rights

Mike Rotkin at the garden in honor of two Santa Cruz police officers killed while on duty.
Mike Rotkin, five-time mayor of Santa Cruz, sits in front of the garden in honor of two Santa Cruz police officers killed while on duty.
(Via Mike Rotkin)

The Santa Cruz Police Department is among some of the best in the country, but it wasn’t always, writes five-time former mayor Mike Rotkin. If we want a police department that is fully accountable, he says we’ll need to change the state’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights. He’d like to see that happen.

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Mike Rotkin

I have not always had an easy relationship with the police.

Shortly after being elected to the Santa Cruz City Council in 1979, I discovered the police had pinned a photo of me in the police ready room with a bull’s-eye over it. They took it down when City Manager Dick Wilson made them.

I was a progressive. A self-declared socialist-feminist in a city that was one of the most conservative in California. When the progressives took the majority of the Santa Cruz City Council in 1981, I became mayor and clearly, the police were not pleased.

Within months of becoming mayor, a police trainee came to me to report that several members of the police department were regularly arresting and beating up unhoused people — often while they were in handcuffs — to send a message that the homeless were not welcome in Santa Cruz. Eventually, the department fired six officers over this behavior, and the district attorney found enough evidence to bring four of them to trial charged with felony assault.

But a jury acquitted them all.

In an informal poll of the jurors, half said the officers were unfairly singled out and that the real criminals were police leaders, who instituted the policy of harassing homeless people. The other half of the jury more or less said somebody had to beat these “undesirable transient bums” who were ruining our town.

Luckily, the trial led to major police reforms. Virtually the entire police management group resigned or retired, including Police Chief Gino Pini, and about a third to half of the department either took early retirement or lateral transfers to other departments in California.

That’s when Santa Cruz’s era of modern, more progressive police leadership began.

Today, we have a Latino police chief — Bernie Escalante — who worked his way up from being a patrol officer. We have a commitment to hire and train a more professional, better educated and more diverse police force. Bilingual officers receive a pay bonus and officers receive training in how to respond to calls of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In 1981, voters did two things to facilitate this shift: They passed an initiative creating the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women (CPVAW) and voted progressives John Laird and Mardi Wormhoudt into power. As a result of that initiative, every Santa Cruz police officer received and still receives new training on how to respond to calls involving domestic violence and sexual assault.

But — more than two years after George Floyd’s death and the national call for police reform — we still don’t have an effective civilian review board.

We need one. There is history behind that, too.

In the 1990s, public demands led the city council to create a citizens’ review board to investigate all complaints about police abuse. However, we quickly discovered a 1976 California state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown: the Peace Officer Bill of Rights, which limits the ability of any citizen’s board to effectively review police practices.

The board was allowed to subpoena witnesses, including police officers and police files, but couldn’t reveal anything it learned to the public. If it did want to tell the public what they learned, it lost the ability to compel witnesses to testify and to access police files.

This made the review board — and any review board today — completely ineffective. The council disbanded it in the late 1990s.

In its place, the city hired a police auditor to review complaints against police. The auditor reports to the city manager and can compel witnesses and see all files. But the auditor can only issue a statistical report on police practices and complaints once a year.

Again, no specific information or much useful information for the public to know how our police are behaving.

For almost two decades — from 1992 to 2010 — as a member of the council’s Public Safety Committee, I exhaustively reviewed every complaint against police officers in Santa Cruz. But I, too, could not comment publicly on individual cases and could only issue general and statistical reports. I could, however, make private recommendations to the police chief.

Even now — decades later — I can’t comment on what I learned, because I might be violating those officers’ privacy.

It also is impossible for Santa Cruz residents to find out what happened to their complaints — did police consider their complaints valid or dismiss them? What punishment or training did officers who were guilty of bad practices receive?

This needs to change.

And we need to start by repealing the state law. Only then will we have meaningful citizen police review in the City of Santa Cruz.

How reform can happen

In April 2021, Maryland — which was the first state to create a police officers bill of rights in 1974 — became the first state to repeal its law as part of a larger package of policing reform measures.

California should do the same. Sadly, there is no current legislation moving in that direction.

I believe the Santa Cruz Police Department is excellent — among the best in the country. Our officers wear body cameras that allow investigators to get a more objective view of what has happened when there are questions over police behavior. Of course, there are exceptions, but by and large, our police are well-trained and respectful, including in their dealings with the unhoused.

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About 10 years ago, a systematic study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the Santa Cruz Police Department was not disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color.

Our police do a difficult job well.

Santa Cruz gets about double the number of calls per officer than the average city in California. Mostly, this is because we are a tourist destination, and we have about twice the number of alcohol outlets per capita as the average city in California. In the 1990s, the Santa Cruz City Council passed an alcohol ordinance that made it more difficult to open such outlets and placed a lot of regulation on serving policies, but we still lead the pack when it comes to calls related to alcohol abuse.

However, if we want more community control, we need our police to be accountable to us.

I don’t support “defunding the police.” I support more and better policing. And a robust citizen review board.

We need a citizen review board that protects the reasonable rights of officers, but also gives the public confidence that an independent body will review complaints fairly. This will help increase public trust, which is a key element police need to effectively protect and serve our community.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lecturer and director of the Merrill College Field Study program at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 53 years. His previous piece for Lookout, Measure D is over. The RTC needs to go after federal and state money.” appeared in June.

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