Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Looking beyond Mills: Leaders, activists speak about what they want in next Santa Cruz police chief

After Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills announced his resignation last week, discussions have kicked into high gear among politicians and activists about what qualities his successor should have.

As Santa Cruz waits on the naming of an interim police chief, discussion has begun on what the law-enforcement philosophy of Andy Mills’ successor should be.

For his part, Mills — who announced last week that he was stepping down — believes that he has viewed the job differently than many.

“It’s all about relationships, not only within the department, but within the community as well,” he said. “Without these relationships, policing doesn’t make sense.”

Throughout his tenure, Mills said he has committed to leading by example.

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“When you’re transparent and visible, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to lead,” he said.

With regard to his successor, Mills believes it is time for someone with a new perspective, rather than someone to simply fill his wingtips.

“Each leader is unique, so I think it’s time for someone with a different kind of shoes,” he said. “It’s very important for the next person to be focused and understanding of the current state of policing nationwide.”

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Justin Cummings said he is looking forward to involving the larger community in the process.

“Given the state of our nation, it’s important to hear from the people,” he said. “Now that Mills is resigning, we want to bring in a chief supportive of restorative justice and a better future for policing.”

Since Mills’ resignation was announced last Tuesday, some have reached out to Cummings with the desire to be involved.

“I’ve already spoken with the Black Kings of Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz County Black Coalition for Racial Justice and Equity,” he said. “As more people find out, more will want to be involved.”

Cummings said he has a good idea of what he’ll be looking for.

“To me, it involves eliminating racial profiling, holding officers accountable over use of force, and fostering a better relationship between the community and law enforcement,” he said.

Above all, Cummings believes the next chief must commit to forming relationships with all facets of the community.

“The police chief plays a huge role in the relationship between community and law enforcement,” he said. “Mills did a good job forming relationships with those who historically have negative interactions with law enforcement, and we need that to continue.”

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Local activist Thomas Sage Pedersen knows that Mills’ departure leaves big shoes to fill.

“He’s probably the most progressive police chief I’ve met,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems with the police as a system, and I appreciated his dedication to building trust within our community and especially the Black community.”

Pedersen, co-founder of the Black Kings of Santa Cruz County, said he and his group are looking for an open line of communication with the new chief, and a chief who works to understand the broader community.

“The Black Kings is not a monolith,” Pedersen said. “Some of us have different opinions and views and that’s what’s important — it shows the diversity of Black men in our community.”

While Pedersen appreciates the efforts Mills made to connect with the community, he said there is still work to be done to move toward a system that better emphasizes restorative justice.

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“We’re pushing the boundaries of the system, and so having a police chief willing to go through that discomfort and willing to be vulnerable is essential,” he said.

Activist and community organizer Joy Flynn spoke highly of Mills and his efforts to change the community for the better.

“I personally feel that Andy’s a kind-hearted, compassionate, genuinely good human being who wants to see change happen,” she said. “He used his privilege, power, and position to implement change in our community while doing his best to make sure those changes wouldn’t be reversed.”

After working alongside Mills during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd last year, Flynn said she is concerned about the potential for regression.

“I’m really nervous for what might come back in, like it might be a step back,” she said. “We’ve had this really great step forward, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and I’m just concerned that it will be halted or stalled in some sort of way.”

Flynn said the next chief needs to have a rehabilitative and equitable law-enforcement philosophy.

“Any sort of punitive action has to be the same for everybody, and there has to be an aspect of bringing that particular person back into the community to acknowledge the harm done and working with the community to repair that harm,” she said. “Finding someone to replace Mills needs to have an understanding and proven history of implementation; I don’t want this to be a new concept for them.”

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As a panelist for the Neighborhood Courts, a community-driven program designed to keep low-level misdemeanor offenders out of the criminal justice system, Flynn said she knows that most punishments do not address the cause of criminal acts.

“We ask the participant, ‘What was going on that day?’ It’s not just about looking at the action and attaching it to that person,” she said. “If you just look at the end result, you’re not looking at what led up to that and what could have changed that person’s decision at any given point.”