The straw that broke Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills' will to stay in Humboldt County seems to have come not through politics or crime reports but, instead, through a pair of familiar local foes: weather and failing infrastructure.
Mills, who announced last week that he's accepted an offer to become Santa Cruz's next police chief, said he recently celebrated a spring birthday at the Arcata home he and his wife, Cathy, bought shortly after Mills took over EPD three and a half years ago. The couple had planned on flying their adult children and grandchildren up from San Diego to celebrate in the 3,800-square-foot home they'd purchased with just such family get-togethers in mind.
But all the flights into the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport were canceled and both U.S. Highway 101 and State Route 299 were closed due to rockslides. The family never made it north and, about a month later, the house went up for sale.
The plan, Mills said, was to sell the house and rent or buy a small place in Eureka. But then Santa Cruz posted its position, a recruiter came calling and Mills started weighing his options.
"Santa Cruz is in a location where I can drive down for the weekend if I need to or fly down in a couple of hours," he said, adding that he has two grandchildren with a third on the way, and he'd like to be a larger part of their lives. "For Cathy and I personally, it's in a good location."
But Mills said the change is bittersweet on a number of levels.
Personally, he noted his pull toward the grandchildren who have entered his life since he took over Eureka's chief position from Murl Harpham in September of 2013. And professionally, the chief said, he likes the challenges Santa Cruz's position brings: The city, which has a population about double Eureka's, has substantial homeless issues, gang problems and needs to continue building a stronger relationship between the community and its police department. Those are things Mills feels align with his strengths.
"It seems like a good fit," he said.
That feeling seems mutual. Santa Cruz City Manager Martin Bernal issued a statement last week announcing Mills' selection, pending a background check, and gushing about the city's first outside police chief hire in more than three decades.
"Andy has proved to be an innovator, an advocate for civil rights, a strategic thinker, as well as inclusive and forward thinking police leader," Bernal said. "Andy went through an extensive review and vetting process that included a nationwide search and community process, and I am confident that he will build upon the already strong department in the coming months and years."
The hire isn't yet final, as it is pending a background check that is only just beginning. If he passes background, Mills would then give Eureka 30-days notice before his official resignation. He estimated that if all goes smoothly, his last day in Eureka will fall somewhere in late July or early August.
When hired by Eureka, Mills was commanding San Diego's Western District in a department he'd worked for three decades. Originally from Michigan, Mills came to Eureka with a strong background in problem-oriented and community policing, and was well known in San Diego for his community walks and general accessibility.
In Eureka, Mills stepped into a department in turmoil. It had been under the direction of Harpham, who was 80 at the time he retired, for two years after the controversial firing of former Chief Garr Nielsen, who'd proven a divisive figure within the department during his four-year tenure.
Shortly after stepping into Eureka's chief position, Mills was tasked with addressing the city's entrenched homeless issues, most notably the encampments behind the Bayshore Mall. Under Mills' leadership, the department also saw the exodus of a number of long-tenured officers and a restructuring designed to make it more responsive to community needs.
There was also controversy, most notably a pair of officer-involved shootings. The first, the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Tommy McClain in his front yard, ended with a federal jury determining officer Stephen Linfoot and McClain were both negligent when Linfoot opened fire and awarded McClain's family $150,000 in damages. The second shooting — which saw four officers combine to fire 43 rounds at a fleeing suspect shortly before 5 p.m. in downtown — remains under investigation.
Pointing in part to Mills' handling of officer-involved shootings, Eureka City Manager Greg Sparks said that Mills brought a "high level" of leadership to his post on a daily basis, no matter the circumstances, and that extended from within the department to City Hall and the greater community.
"In the city's management team, Andy was universally respected and demonstrated strategic thinking," Sparks said. "Whether it was on budget issues, homelessness, crime prevention — the chief's words carried weight."
Mills said he learned a lot from his time in Eureka and is eager to carry that over to Santa Cruz.
"My wheelhouse is really fostering and building a relationship with the community and I know that Santa Cruz has done a lot in that area and whatever I can do to help further that and foster that, I'm really intent on doing," he said.
But Mills said he's also very sad to be leaving behind a group of friends in Humboldt County who have become like family.
"There are truly some salt-of-the-earth, great people here," he said. "We have, I think, as adults, much closer friends here than we've ever had before. We have met people that will be lifelong friends."
As far as EPD is concerned, Mills said he feels like he's helped usher in some progress toward a "more progressive ideology of policing," helped improve the relationship between EPD and the community, and built trust between the department and the citizens it serves.
"That could not have been possible without the men and women of EPD jumping in with both feet," he said. "They were ready for that."
Mills also said he feels like he's leaving some work undone, noting that he and his captains are just now in the process of mapping out which officers will cover which geographic beats in the city, so individual officers can get to know specific neighborhoods and their residents.
"We're thinking through the functionality of how that works," he said.
But Mills said one of the most significant challenges facing the department is fostering a communitywide culture that pulls officers to stay here and reduces attrition within EPD's ranks.
"One of the important things we need to do as a community is help the officers understand how much we love them, how much we appreciate them and how much we need them," he said.
Asked what's next for EPD, Sparks said he'd like to see someone take over who will "build upon the foundation that has been established in the last four years," someone who can manage resources effectively, attract and retain talented staff, and "maintain and expand" public trust in the department.
Mills said he's confident all that work will continue without him, pointing to the good work of his captains, Brian Stephens and Steve Watson, and the city leadership in place, mentioning City Manager Greg Sparks, Commmunity Development Director Rob Holmlund, Parks and Recreation Director Miles Slattery and City Clerk Pam Powell.
"This is much greater than one person," he said. "I'm just one spoke of many and I think this community has a great opportunity ahead of it."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.