Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Andy Mills Answers Questions About Police Body Cams, the Homeless, and Police Review

On Wednesday night, the ACLU Board was surprised to find Andy Mills, the Eureka Police Chief, as a guest to our monthly meeting. Though most of us were unaware that he was going to attend this meeting, our lack of preparation for this opportunity did not hamper the discussion. Andy told the Board that he was open to any questions, an offer which the Board enthusiastically accepted.

Greg Allen began the discussion by referring to our recent activities in advocating the use of police body cams. Mills responded that the cameras would benefit the operations of the department. The City currently does not have any cameras in use, but they are making plans to implement them. One problem with the use of cameras by all police is that computer storage becomes a problem. The amount of video created by one police department in one day will take terabytes of information. Plans are in the works to upgrade the computers at the department. They also are implementing CAD programs, which will be useful in providing GPS information about crimes and other statistics. These statistics will be available to the public, and might permit online queries to the database.  Software is available which may make video records of arrests available through the internet. There are a few ethical issues, which need to be worked out. One relates to the issue of privacy, which might occur if an officer answers a call to a private residence.

Janelle Eggers and other Board members asked about how the police were dealing with the homeless in Eureka. He revealed that he has a strong mandate to clear up the homeless camps. He said that they are making some efforts to deal with homeless people in a humane way, however. He mentioned a new program, MIST, in which a police officer and an mental health professional work together to identify the mentally ill homeless, and to persuade them to accept services. He would like to expand this program, but the lack of sheltering facilities remains a problem. Steven Bridenbaugh asked if clearing out homeless camps increases the stress of lack of housing, and Mills did not dispute this assertion. He says that he is applying for Measure Z funding. This will make it possible to house homeless people who are displaced, specifically those who are mentally ill. He said that most of the police calls he receives are from citizens demanding he do more to rid neighborhoods of homeless people. This is something the police cannot do, but removing camping areas tends to rout out the criminal element that frequents these camps, Mills believes.

Mills would like to improve the existing Crisis Intervention Program by adding activities which are more meaningful to the police in attendance to training sessions. He mentioned an activity in which he participated in San Diego, where actual cases of police violence against mentally ill or intoxicated people were reenacted. Many of the participants did not see any options other than to use their firearms. Several policemen were identified as being unwilling to look at nonviolent options, and were entered into a reeducation program. He said there are training programs available which specifically teach police to reduce their dependence on firearms. One training that is currently scheduled is deescalation training, in which officers learn to prevent an encounters with homeless and intoxicated people from escalating into violence. Mills gave an example: police sometimes start shouting orders to a suspect, and start shooting when the suspect does not respond quickly enough. This type of escalation can be prevented, he said.

Mills said that he has been spending a lot of time going through the individual files of police officers. He has been systematically analyzing the accumulated complaints which are in these files, and he is trying to assess to what extent these complaints reveal a pattern of violence or misconduct for each officer, if any, and to sort out and validate each accusation, to protect the public from officers with a history of abusive behavior. Mills is also investigating the possibility of hiring a few well-respected experts from out of the area, to clear out the doubts which the public may have about past police behavior, and put to rest any issues which have arisen from the lack of transparency in the past. This would cost about $50,000, which he feels would be well worth the money, though it may take some private fundraising, if it is to occur. He says that he avoids the appearance of protectionism by referring any criminal behavior by police personnel directly to the District Attorney's office.

Another issue which Mills addressed is the possible formation of an advisory group to the Police Department. He thinks that some of these organizations are not always very cost effective, but they can provide an acceptable type of police review, not only for personnel issues, but also for many other police activities. There has been resistance in the past against independent police review, due to municipalities afraid of lawsuits, and police unions protecting their members. He feels that an open-ended board of citizen input could increase fairness and impartiality in cases of police misconduct, and provide guidance to the overall operations of the police department.

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