An arrest, a police chief, a defendant and a conversation that can change a community



It was an atypical meeting, with the police chief sitting across from the defendant in the chief's office. The captain in charge of patrol sat nearby as the two, in kind, measured tones, discussed the matter at hand.

Six days earlier, the chief's officers had arrested the 57-year-old defendant — Christopher "Blaze" Boyle — shortly after dusk on the railroad tracks that flank Eureka's Waterfront Drive, alleging that he obstructed an officer and violently resisted arrest. Boyle, however, sees the incident differently, insisting he was compliant and nonthreatening in the face of aggressive officers who — with fear and anger in their eyes — traumatized him and and lied about it.

Over the course of about an hour, the two men talked about closed feedback loops, humanity, decency, respect and community policing. When they emerged, Boyle took to Facebook, where he called Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills a "bright and careful thinker" and a kind man. Mills, in turn, called Boyle an "amazing guy," touting his creativity and sensitivity.

Together, Mills wrote, he and Boyle have the opportunity to change the community, to "make a masterpiece."

A month later, the charges against Boyle — a felony and a misdemeanor — both remain pending.

"Chief Mills, my trust in your department is badly broken."

— Boyle in a May 3 letter to Mills

The sun had just set as Boyle, an artist and craftsman, left the waterfront restaurant Vista Del Mar on the evening of May 2 and wandered across the street to the old graffiti strewn locomotive, what Boyle calls "a rusted icon to more productive times," that sits perched on the edge of the Balloon Track. Without much thought, Boyle said he decided to climb on top of it to watch the stars come out. He'd been up there a short time when he found himself in the glare of the spotlight from a police officer's patrol car. Boyle said he figured it was time to get down, fully expecting the spotlight was just a visual prod for him to keep moving.

When he climbed down, Boyle was confronted by an officer — later identified as Sgt. Lenny La France — who was shouting commands at him and had his Taser drawn and trained on Boyle, its red laser sight shining in his eyes. Boyle maintains he was compliant — responding to La France's commands and questions with, "yes, sir," and "no, sir" — and tried to explain he is a father, a local business owner and a law abiding citizen.

The particulars of Boyle's and the officers' account of the incident differ. The three officers who responded to La France's call for backup had body-worn cameras on but La France did not, as he came across Boyle on his drive to work and hadn't yet checked out a camera. But footage of the incident seems unlikely to shed much light. It first shows Boyle on his knees on the tracks, his hands being cuffed behind him. He's then raised to his feet and escorted to a patrol car parked on the road.

A dog barks incessantly as an obviously distraught Boyle talks — repeating his address, that he's a business owner, that he'd done nothing wrong. The cops seem disinterested in conversation. When they arrive at the patrol car, one starts the process of patting Boyle down and then something happens. The officers claim Boyle lunged at one of them but the only footage that captures the moment is from an officer's camera that's trained on Boyle's back. All it shows is Boyle turning slightly before being pushed forward onto the hood of the vehicle. An officer then yells at Boyle for kicking him in the leg — apparently alleging that Boyle, his chest pushed down on the hood of the car, kicked backward at the officer's lower leg. Boyle then cries out as an officer wrenches his wrist in the cuffs in a pain compliance hold and urges him to stop resisting. The officers then finish frisking him, causing Boyle's pants to fall to his ankles, and load him into the back of the patrol car. Boyle's pants would remain around his ankles until an officer helps pull them up before walking him into the jail a short time later.

Boyle was booked into jail at about 10 p.m. on May 2 and released about 12 hours later, having spent most of the night shivering alone in a cell, where he stood on his folded up socks in an effort to keep the concrete floor from wicking away his body heat. Shortly after his release, he started writing a letter to Mills.

Mills, for his part, declined to comment on the specifics of Boyle's case other than to say that during stressful incidents, people's perceptions can vary greatly. He said prosecutors felt there was enough evidence to charge Boyle in the case and, ultimately, the question of guilt will be up to a jury.

"At a time when civility seems to be at a very low point nationally, it is nice that two people can sit down, discuss a difficult topic and even laugh together. There was no trenching for position, but genuine dialogue. Discourse such as this brings hope."

— Mills' May 10 response to Boyle

During his years as a commander with the San Diego Police Department, Mills developed a reputation for being accessible. He walked neighborhoods to hear people's concerns and was known to give out his email address and urge people to contact him directly with problems. This accessibility is one of the core tenets of community-oriented policing, a concept Mills has largely devoted himself to during his 30-plus years in law enforcement. So those around Mills weren't shocked when he responded to Boyle's letter with an invitation to come talk about it.

Mills said he was struck by aspects of Boyle's letter that seemed to reach for solutions, for unity, and the parts that spoke to the ties that should bind police to those they serve.

"He was someone who appeared to be trying to be constructive rather than destructive, who appeared to have been horribly offended but was willing to be part of a solution rather than just throwing bombs," Mills said. "That's the kind of interaction that I thrive on because I think it makes us better as a city, better as a police department and better as a people."

When the two sat down together, Mills' said he was struck by Boyle's willingness and ability to see things from a police perspective as they talked about de-escalation, respect and the grind of a cop's job. "This is a guy who truly cares about people, including the officers that contacted him," Mills said.

"There will always be an argument for a coarser hand, yet in every conflict it is incumbent on the stronger party to exercise patience, and strive for understanding. It is a notion at the core of civility."

— Boyle's May 3 letter

Last year, Eureka police combined to contact more than 51,000 people, either through calls for service or officer-initiated contacts, like traffic stops. In those, officers reported using force 253 times. That's less than half of 1 percent of the time.

EPD Capt. Brian Stephens recently broke the numbers down for the city council, explaining force includes everything from displaying a firearm or a Taser to pain compliance holds, and just about everything in between. About 60 people reported being injured by EPD officers last year, with ailments ranging from a gunshot wound to knee abrasions. Meanwhile, 23 officers were hurt in use-of-force incidents last year, with injuries ranging from concussions to scrapes.

Officers in the field exercise tremendous discretion in all kinds of area, from whether to contact that person jaywalking to how to contact that person jaywalking. Nowhere is this more evident than in use-of-force situations, where officers have to quickly decide whether force is warranted, what type of force would be most effective and how to use it without hurting themselves or the suspects.

"They have an extraordinarily difficult job where they sometimes have to go from respect to very clear hostility in microseconds because that can literally save people's lives," Mills said. "The hardest part to teach is judgment of when to do that, because it's really time in the saddle. It doesn't come overnight."

Boyle also pointed out that these instances of police force don't just cause physical injury, they can traumatize those on the receiving end. While he once relished the simple beauty of late night walks — the stars overhead or the reflection of the moon on the water — Boyle said his May 2 arrest left him jittery.

"It robbed me of a presence of mind," he said. "I used to feel totally comfortable walking the streets at night. Now — and this is what women go through all the time — I'm walking around looking over my shoulder. It's, 'Check your six.'

"That's what it all comes down to — they're inflicting this trauma and don't realize how deep that trauma runs because they deal with all this shit all the time and see sadness and anger reflected back at them."

In his post responding to one of Boyle's letters, Mills conceded that officers' past experiences shape how they handle situations. And people make mistakes.

"I have been shot at, stabbed, had stiches in my head and broken my wrist and elbow while making arrests," Mills wrote. "These past experiences shape how I handle people and when to make snap judgments to ensure self preservation. Sometimes my judgments are wrong ... I have left people emotionally wounded. For that, I am sorry."

"I know this, the profession changes you."

— Mills' May 10 response to Boyle

Sitting in the Journal office on a recent Monday morning clad in some blue work pants and a red flannel, Boyle shifted his slight 130-pound frame in his chair and seemed to choose his words carefully. "I understand it's hard to be a cop," he said, reasoning that officers are confronted daily with society's failings, from the "walking dead" of methamphetamine addiction to the severely mentally ill.

The stress can wear them down, Boyle said, until they project fear and anger, which people in turn project back at them. It's a closed feedback loop that can lead to trauma.

Mills doesn't disagree.

"Many [officers] crack under the oppressive weight and the long-term grind of stress," he wrote in one of his replies to Boyle. "In policing you get small doses of hell for sustained periods of time. Cops feel like a frog boiling to death in the cauldron of cumulative stress."

Mills pointed out that EPD recently started a wellness program aimed at helping officers cope with the stress and trauma of the job through counseling services and peer mentorships. Additionally, he says the department is actively working to foster a culture of positivity that nurtures officers.

Years ago, while running his own glass contracting business in Arizona, Boyle took a weekend-long program through Omega Vector, which aims to teach "the art of self-knowledge" through a Socratic questioning technique in a group setting. Boyle said the program was hard but had a lasting impact, leaving him with more confidence and a great sense of self. After spending hours thinking about his arrest — the first in his life — and how to break this "closed feedback loop" he sees with police, not just locally but across the country, Boyle said he's looking to bring something like Omega Vector to Humboldt.

Ultimately, Boyle says officers need to learn not to discern which suspects or citizens are to be treated with respect and which need a heavy hand, but that all contacts should come from a place of respect. That takes confidence and purpose, which can be taught and built.

"The question," he said, "is how do you make moral excellence contagious?"

"This trust, so badly bruised, can be rebuilt. Strive for that."

— Boyle's May 3 letter to Mills

His bright blue eyes gleaming, Boyle says he has a happy, rewarding life. He teaches the art of stained glass at Blue Ox Millworks and just stepped down from the Kinetic Grand Championship's board of directors, wanting more time to work on his novel. He performs with fire and is deeply involved in local underground arts communities. He wasn't looking for a cause, he says.

But Boyle also seems like the kind of person who pours himself into things where he thinks he can make a difference. As an example, he started going to Burning Man — the eclectic annual festival that sees an artistic city of tens of thousands of people erected in the Nevada desert then disappear without a trace — about 15 years ago. He wound up on staff and spent the last 10 years managing the festival's airport, a delicate affair that had to navigate the boundary between Burning Man's cashless, ruleless ethos and the rigid world of pilots, police and federal regulations.

So Boyle doesn't seem inclined to walk away from this by reaching a plea deal and quieting down. He realizes that while this isn't a typical conversation that he's started, he's also not a typical defendant. He's not marginalized — he's a housed, employed and educated white male — and has the privilege to take a stand. Mostly, he said he wants to make Eureka an example for others to follow. By engaging with Mills and publishing their correspondences on his Facebook page, Boyle has already started a conversation. It's one Mills seems eager to engage in.

But Boyle is also clear that he wants to see change not just conversation. In a follow up note to Mills after their conversation, he pondered whether the traits he lamented in the behavior of local officers are trained into them or simply a "product of the seeming futility for mortal men to hold law." If it's the latter, he told Mills their work is clear and the chief has his support.

Mills responded.

"Blaze, the EPD ship is turning. Some people may not think fast enough, yet I ask for your continued support and positive interaction. I appreciate how you ended your email to me, and I quote it here. 'The line is one to be illuminated in the field of ethics and painted on the streets of our cities, for ultimately that is the arena where right and wrong is filtered.' We as a community are painting the mosaic of Eureka together. The streets are our canvas and our interaction is the paint. You me and those reading this Facebook post are the artist plying brush to canvas.

"Let's make a masterpiece."

Boyle is scheduled to be arraigned June 14.

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