Police Chief Andrew Mills will start his new position in early November. His last day with the Santa Cruz Police Department is Oct. 29.
PALM SPRINGS — For newly named Police Chief Andrew Mills, relocating to this desert community from Santa Cruz is bringing him closer to family, a benefit that tops his list.
Since 2017, Mills has served as police chief of Santa Cruz, a Northern California coastal community of 63,000 since 2017. Prior to that, he served as chief in Eureka.
He’s spent more than three decades serving in police departments throughout the state. The Palm Springs position provides him with the opportunity to practice his craft in what he describes as a “world-class city” that also brings him closer to family.
“It’s very important to me is that I continue to police in a world-class city, which Palm Springs is,” Mills told Uken Report. “It’s distinct among its neighbors from the standpoint that all of the United States knows about Palm Springs, and what a wonderful city it is. When the recruiter called me and said, ‘Please take a look at this,’ I did, and talked with my wife. It worked out for the best. The other I think important thing for me personally, is that Palm Springs has an amazing police department. They have a great reputation, and it’s going to be good to go in and to be able to do what I can do to work with them, to support them, and to ensure their mission and their safety.
“Lastly, from a personal perspective, it’s not too far of a drive for me to get down and see my grandchildren in their plays at school, or playing ball on the weekend,” Mills said. “I’ve not been able to do that up to this point with the work I’ve had. So, I’m looking forward to that.”
Mills, 64, and his wife Cathy, college sweethearts, have been married for 40 years. The couple has three adult daughters and four “different, “spectacular and wonderful” grandchildren ages 1 1/2 to 7.
“Each has with their own personalities, and their own hopes and desires, and dreams,” Mills said. “Part of that is grandpa teaching them how to swim, and ride bikes, and all that kind of thing. That’s why it’s so important to us.”
Mills replaces Chief Bryan Reyes who announced his retirement in May. Reyes served as chief from early 2016 until August, after working through the department’s ranks since joining in 1993. About eight months into his administration, Reyes led the department through the October 2016 disturbance that resulted in the death of two officers, Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny, who were shot while responding to a domestic dispute.
Capt. Melissa Desmarais was appointed acting chief of the department in August. Working nearly two decades for the department, she is the first woman to ever serve as chief or acting chief. She did not seek the permanent chief position.
In a telephone interview with Uken Report, Police Chief Andrew Mills, answered several questions. His answers follow.
Uken Report (UR): What do you think you can bring to this department to elevate and support it?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: “I bring a lot of experience. At 64, that’s a lot of experience. I started when I was pretty young, in my early 20s. I’ve learned a lot over the years. One of the things I’ve learned is to entrust our cops to do their job and get out of the way. That’s not something I take lightly. What you need to do is make sure that you have the correct policies and correct procedures in place to make sure that we’re policing justly, and we’re policing professionally, and without bias. But then you let them do their jobs. To me, that means several things. One is, I want to encourage people to be innovative and creative in how they police. Frequently, our officers will amaze us, if we allow them to do their jobs correctly.
“Then the second thing I think is important is that I’ve had a lot of experiences over the years, from a major city police department that’s well respected, San Diego, to smaller police departments such as Eureka and Santa Cruz. They’re very similar to Palm Springs in many ways. It allows me to draw on that breadth of experience, to be able to find the best path forward working with the management team. Those experiences that help shape you are important, all the way from being in charge of Criminal Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism for the City of San Diego. I’ve got a great depth of background on that. Being a problem solver, and working under the tutelage of Herman Goldstein, the father of problem-oriented policing, to licking my wounds also.
I know that things don’t always go as we plan and sometimes you fail, but you fail forward and you stand back up. You lick your wounds and you move on to the next project, the next level. To me, the only failure is not trying. I’m looking forward to supporting the men and women as they try.
UR: What are some of the initiatives we might expect from you?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: I don’t have a sense at this point what they have and have not done.
I need to get in and find out what exactly has been their strengths, and what they really have taken a great stand on. But I can tell you a couple of themes that you’re going see from me in working with this police department, and if they’re already doing them, fantastic. That just makes it a lot simpler as you come in. One is, problem solving and community policing. I’ve done this since the early 80s. I’ve worked with San Diego, Eureka and here, in neighborhood policing and making sure we’re listening to the community, that we’re solving problems as best we can within the scope and the jurisdiction of the police. I’m leveraging relationships and collaborating with our communities and other city departments in a wholistic governance approach. That’s what is going to be important to me.
It looks like Palm Springs has already been very far down this road, and I applaud them for that. The second thing is I want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to avoid the lethal use of force, but doing so in a way that protects the men and women who are forced to confront these situations. One of the things that’s really important to me is that we do everything to make sure our officers are safe, but then have the high expectation that we do everything to protect life. There’re ways to do that, but I’ll wait to see, and they may already be very far down that road. We’ll wait to see what exactly it looks like.
UR: What is the first thing you will do as Chief?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: Absolutely No.1 is bifurcated responsibility. One is, to sit down with every person inside the police department, both the sworn and civilian staff, and get a very deep understanding of what they want, what their hopes are to move forward into the future. Then give that feedback to them of what I’ve learned, and at the same time giving to the community, and do exactly the same thing with as many community groups and as many community members as I can. And to be available to them and to learn from them what their hopes and dreams are for the police department as well as for the City of Palm Springs. That will take a little bit of time. It’s a heck a lot of work, but I think what it does is it helps us steer the ship the right direction. We’ll get that feedback as quickly as possible.
UR: Chief, how would you describe your leadership style?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: This might be a shock to you, but I’m engaging and I’m an affable person who is engaging and approachable. I think that you’re going to see that I am very visible publicly. Out on the street, I walk as much as I possibly can, maybe not on the days that are 122. But by and large, I think people will see pretty quickly that I’m a pretty visible and approachable person who they can reach out to quickly. Most everybody will have my cellphone, and they’re welcome to call me, as long as they’re not trying to go around the dispatch center.
UR: What do you see are the biggest challenges?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: I think the biggest issue right now is the crisis that we’re seeing on policing nationwide. There’s a lot of pressure on the police to perform, and to perform correctly, and we should. But at the same time, this last year and a half has been an unbelievable push for our officers, especially in terms of how we went from the uncertainty of COVID when there were no vaccines, and no personal protective equipment. Yet, we expected our men and women to show up 24 hours a day, put them on 12-hour shifts. We took away their vacations and their days off because we had no idea where this was going to go. Then on top of it, there was a bunch of crises. On top of that, we had George Floyd murdered. Then on top of that, we had a massive civil unrest. I don’t know all the particulars in Palm Springs, but we had 60 protests here in our city, none of which turned violent though.
It has been a year and a half of a very difficult time for the police. So, to keep them engaged and to help them work through this so that we don’t lose the traction that we’ve made over the past four decades of policing, or since the 90s anyway when crime started to fall, is going to be a high priority. We can’t deal with the problems such as homicide, the increase in violence without the men and women of law enforcement being fully engaged, and feeling supported. That will be priority No.1, as we deal with that. If we can keep them engaged, and if we can keep them focused on crime issues, I believe that we can have a positive impact on the crime rate by working with other organizations. Same thing with the difficulty of the unhoused community. That is, working in collaboration with others in this area, because as we know, just writing somebody a ticket alone is not going to fix anything.
That can be part of it, but that is not going to fix in and of itself. There needs to be compassion and accountability. Of course, you have mostly two extremes: those who want just compassion and those who want just accountability. It has to be a good mixture of both.
UR: As you prepare to put your boots on the ground here, is there anything that you want to add?
Police Chief Andrew Mills: I’ve just been really looking forward to getting to know the people of Palm Springs, and obviously the police department and all the other city employees. Please, feel free to come up and say, ‘Hi.’ I don’t care if I’m mid-bite on a hamburger.
- Taking a Knee: (Photo by Shmuel Thaler)
- Police Chief Andrew Mills: Photo used with permission from Santa Cruz Sentinel. (Photo by Dan Coyro)