Downstairs at Eureka's Wharfinger Building, a man is sleeping on a bench next to his bike. Upstairs, the family of Thomas McClain, a 22-year-old Eureka resident shot dead by Eureka Police Department officers in 2014, wait for their chance to step up to the podium and confront the departing chief. But between these two signposts of a challenging four years in the city of Eureka, there is a packed crowd of people applauding: politicians, staff, off-duty officers, social workers, community organizers and retirees. Betty Chinn is swearing.
Well, her version of swearing.
"You know chief, you take a lot of crap from these people," she says. The crowd and the chief laugh. She tells the story of how the Betty Kwan Chinn Foundation and the Eureka Police Department collaborated to help homeless people.
"Chief, I love you so much, you have helped me so much on my journey," Chinn says. Strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and nonprofits, faith groups and social service providers such as Chinn's foundation was one of the key elements that Mills and his department used to successfully vacate an entrenched homeless camp in the PalCo Marsh, one of the signature events in Mills' nearly four-year tenure. Although Mills credits the support of the council and city staff with accomplishing some major goals, council meetings were often fraught with divergent opinions about how to carry out the city's mission and support EPD, which saw Mills take a public, outspoken role on some issues. Councilmember Kim Bergel, whose career in public office began while Mills was still relatively new to the position, says her initial reaction to meeting the chief was that he was a "Superman."
"I've always appreciated how you treated everybody, everybody in our community with respect, even when they were horrible to you," she says. "It was a short time you were here, but you really made a hell of an impact."
Mills, delivering his own remarks to the crowd, doles out equal helpings of gratitude and good-natured teasing. He tells the story of going to lunch with Mayor Frank Jager early in his time in the area and being "chewed out" for having bought a house in Arcata. He thanks his staff and the community. He thanks his wife, Cathy, who stands in the back of the room next to Chinn. The two women embrace. Cathy Mills has tears in her eyes.
When the microphone is free, Jamie Bowman, McClain's aunt, takes the opportunity to thank the chief and also to demand that the officers responsible for her nephew's death admit that they made a mistake. It's an awkward note in the afternoon but it sees Mills transition back into a familiar position, his hands folded behind his back, listening and nodding intently. He advises Bowman to contact the Citizen's Advisory Board.
"I appreciate it," he tells Bowman, his words just caught by the microphone.
After the crowd has dispersed to line up and shake hands with Mills, Lance McClain, Thomas' father, stands outside rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers.
"My son was 22; that's the only son I had," he says. "My family name ends with me."
McClain's family is in town to pick up his possessions, only now released by the district attorney's office after a federal jury's conclusion that McClain and the officer who shot him shared blame for the death. They're driving an RV that's seen better days, and on one door are the words "Justice for Tommy."
Inside, the line to shake hands with Mills snakes past a table loaded with coffee and cookies. Homeless advocates stand next to city councilmembers. Law enforcement officers and fire personnel tilt their heads to check crackling radios above the din of laughter and chatter. Stories are exchanged, introductions made and the departing chief retains his characteristic, full-faced smile as he shakes hands, claps backs and gives out more than a few warm hugs.
A few days earlier, speaking before the city council meeting last Tuesday after receiving an award from Sheriff William Honsal and Brett Fabri of the California Highway Patrol, Mills had to pause several times to regain his composure.
"I want to say something but I don't want to tear up. It's been, uh ... it's been a distinct honor," he said. "This is a truly spectacular place. We leave with nothing but hearts filled with gratitude."
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.