Enormous challenges bring great opportunity and that gives me hope. Amid all the chaos of the past several weeks, our officers have successfully managed and facilitated peaceful demonstrations occurring nearly every day across our city. The Santa Cruz Police Department is seizing the moment, working with the black community to bring needed change to policing here and beyond. We know that change is needed, and we are up to the task.
Santa Cruz police officers come to work every day to serve this city despite performing under the most trying circumstances. Twice within the past two weeks, we had protests and shootings taking place simultaneously — all during a pandemic. Without hesitation, every available officer deployed to meet the public safety needs of the community. Last week, I also witnessed people screaming some of the most vile things imaginable at our officers. Yet they stood there and listened: stoic, disciplined, and professional. As a result, we have not had to use force in any of the demonstrations. These officers are worth praising and protecting.
There are some residents and students in our community calling to defund the police. This means different things to different people, but my sense from listening to the community is they want more support for social services like homelessness response and affordable housing. These programs are important, but calling for defunding or abolishing the police ignores the reality that ensuring public safety requires a system of preventing and investigating crimes.
By many measures, Santa Cruz is one of the most progressive police agencies in the state. On our own, we decided to strengthen the criteria for the use of force. We proactively and aggressively instituted de-escalation and critical incident training, trained our officers to guard against bias policing, eliminated the use of the chokehold, and are now seeking to eliminate predictive policing and face recognition technology. We are a department who reached out to the black community immediately to learn how we can change and become better.
Santa Cruz budgets for 94 officers to serve a resident population of 65,000 and a tourist population of around 4 million a year. The city is the county seat, and we have an enormous homeless population. The department responds to more than 100,000 calls for service per year, yet its staffing has remained below recommended levels for the past decade. Funding for police operations represents only about 10% of the total city budget, and 28% of the general fund. Police staffing for most cities is two officers per 1,000 residents. By that standard, Santa Cruz should have around 120 cops just to serve its resident population. To reduce the force further would be reckless.
Some have raised concerns about the type of equipment we use or the agreements we honor in our work. A prior administration had the foresight to obtain federal funding for the equipment needed to keep our community safe. Last week this equipment paid off. Santa Cruz police officers used the BearCat to rescue wounded officers and trapped paramedics from a man shooting an automatic rifle and throwing bombs at them. Some people in our community desire to harm others, and your officers stand in their way. I owe it to every cop to make sure they go home at night. These are real threats, not unreasonable fears.
I sent officers to Oakland under the state mutual aid agreement. They went to a riot, not a protest. Rioters threw improvised explosives at police officers and inflicted massive amounts of vandalism. One of our cops was injured with a projectile as he exited the car. When we have a disaster, natural or human-made happening in our state, we are called to help. Mutual aid is how we get help in return.
I recently spoke with a sergeant about defunding. He said, “If someone could take the homeless issues entirely from us and stop us from responding to mental health calls—please, take the money!” The sad reality is that no one else has stepped up as the first responder to these issues. The County has both the responsibility and state funding to provide leadership. In the face of the pandemic, we saw the county begin use their significant state and federal funding to step up in ways they never have before to support the homeless population in our city. It’s a great first step and I applaud the effort, but it’s not enough. Our department has no funding for homelessness or mental health response, yet we see it as our duty to the community to respond anyway. We are committed to protect and serve this community. We are the definition of essential workers.