Santa Cruz police talk to a person on Pacific Avenue in 2022. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

SANTA CRUZ >> Leaders of Santa Cruz Police and Santa Cruz Fire have a new $20 million training center in their long-term plans to replace outdated facilities inside and outside the city.

The potential facility’s location and funding sources are uncertain, but the idea is already drawing concern from some activists who fear militarization and spending money on law enforcement instead of other public safety efforts.

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The police now train in locations inside and outside of the county, said Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante. Santa Cruz Fire’s training facilities are in Ben Lomond and Watsonville, as well as some parking lots in Santa Cruz.

“We’re in sort of desperate need of something not only updated but centrally located,” said Santa Cruz Fire Chief Rob Oatey. “It would be used on a daily basis,” he said. 

Oatey said a training center has been in his sights since he became interim fire chief in 2022. “Since I’ve taken over, it’s sort of been one of my big goals and targets that I’ve been trying to tackle,” Oatey said.

The Santa Cruz City Council is not expected to consider the project until land and a funding source have been secured, Oatey said. “But I think the more people know about it, and the more people sort of realize that it’s, again, it’s not just for the fire department — I think then you start opening people’s eyes and ears to what it could be,” he said.

The proposed training center is in the fire department’s Capital Investment Projects budget for 2023-2027, but it has not been widely publicized. Each city department has a similar document and it can function as a wish list. The project has been allocated $2 million in the fire department’s budget, which is “like a placeholder,” Oatey said. He estimated that the facility could cost $20 million. City staff are seeking state and federal grants for the project. 

The fire department won’t request more city money in upcoming budget hearings for the next fiscal year that starts July 1, Oatey said. The department may request more money in the future, he said.

Several Santa Cruz police officers stand and speak with residents and activists during a sweep of tent camps at San Lorenzo Park in 2020.

A crowd gathers near Santa Cruz police as officers dismantle a tent camp in the benchlands of San Lorenzo Park in December 2020. (Nik Altenberg — Santa Cruz Local file)

Current training centers

The fire department’s training grounds in Watsonville and Ben Lomond are inconvenient and outdated, Oatey said. The department also uses some parking lots throughout the city, but the constant driving can damage the asphalt, he said.

The center could be used solely by the fire department, Oatey said. “If there’s a grant out there that’s only for fire, I’ll take it,” he said. But he’s more interested in collaborating with other city departments, including Santa Cruz Police. 

A dedicated training center could host SWAT training and active shooter drills, exercises that other fire departments and law enforcement agencies now perform in vacant schools and other buildings.

In a training facility, trainees could break down doors and practice more realistic scenarios, Oatey said. The training facility could include a classroom and modular buildings that can be easily moved and reconfigured for training exercises, he said.

Escalante said police would use a training facility, but he hasn’t been actively seeking funding or land for it. “I agree with the concept, and there’s a need for it for public safety,” he said.

Oatey has searched for land for the facility across the City of Santa Cruz and mid-county, but he said most vacant lots are being prioritized for affordable housing. UC Santa Cruz could host the center as part of the city’s contract to provide firefighting services, he said. That contract is set to be renegotiated soon.

There are “no serious conversations about making UCSC land available” for the center, said UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason.

Activists outline concerns

Some Santa Cruz residents said the proposed training center would be a “cop city” to militarize law enforcement.

Several large regional police training centers have been proposed across the U.S. in recent years, including near Atlanta where the potential facility was dubbed “cop city.” Last year, the City of San Pablo faced wide criticism after breaking ground on a $44 million police headquarters and regional training center.

“The fact that you’re willing to invest, you know, millions of dollars to support a cop city-like facility is definitely counterproductive when it comes to uplifting Black lives,” said community activist Thairie Ritchie. “It’s not enough to kind of do performative activism on the part of elected officials, for them to take a knee or paint a mural,” he said.

At an April 28 public safety forum organized by Ritchie and others, speakers criticized the recent arrest of 29-year-old Teran Whitley. Whitley, a Black man, was riding an e-bike when he was stopped by police on suspicion of a traffic violation on Bay Street and West Cliff Drive, police said. Bystanders and many others who saw a video of the event said the police acted with disproportionate force. 

A police investigation into the arrest is ongoing, Escalante said. His initial assessment was that the officers appear not to have violated any policies during the stop. “But either way, I would say we’re always looking to get better. So even though there may not be a violation of policy, we’re always trying to learn — could we have handled the scenario differently and maybe had a different outcome?”

He said the incident “didn’t necessarily roll out the way it was, maybe, expressed in the media.” Escalante declined to give details, citing the ongoing investigation. Whitley could not be reached for comment.

Many activists at the April 28 event drew a line between the arrest and the proposed training center.

Community activist Thairie Ritchie speaks at a community safety forum outside Santa Cruz City Hall on April 28. Ritchie led the event following the controversial arrest of a Santa Cruz man. Several speakers criticized a proposed public safety training center. (Jesse Kathan — Santa Cruz Local)

Santa Cruz community activist Reggie Meisler said Santa Cruz Police already trends towards more militarization and surveillance. Santa Cruz Police have vehicles, weapons and other equipment that state law designates as military equipment. The department must report the annual purchase and use of the equipment by law.

“They’re buying drones, they’re buying automatic license plate readers, you know, they’re buying robots,” he said. “I know what police do here. I don’t want them to do more of it.”

That the fire department is leading the effort doesn’t assuage his concerns. “I think that the police tend to be tight lipped about, you know, what their intentions are,” Meisler said. 

When Escalante requested to buy drones for the police department, he also emphasized their potential use for the fire department. The city council in January approved $171,000 for a drone program.

The city would be better off investing in “the things that we know we need, like health care services, more housing, like things that are actually going to address these issues that the police are supposedly the only approach to address,” Meisler said.

Changes are already in the works to reduce police responses to mental health crises in Santa Cruz and the rest of the county.  

Leaders respond

Oatey and Escalante disagreed that the training center would lead to militarization of the police force. 

“I think that the training facility would be hugely beneficial for us to continue to strive to get better at what we do,” Escalante said. “We’re called into very difficult situations, where the expectation from the community is that we perform at a very high level. So it doesn’t make sense to me that people with those high expectations wouldn’t want us to have the opportunity to train at the highest level.” 

He said the city should prioritize both social services and police for funding. “There’s times where the social services could be the answer, and could work out really well for the scenario, and sometimes not, and now we’re required or needed to respond,” Escalante said.

“I do understand the concerns,” Oatey said. “But in terms of what I’ve seen, and knowing how both the police chief and myself work and how the city works, I know that we have checks and balances in place, and I know that we would not allow that.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley said he supports giving police more resources and training, and is “unapologetic about investing in public safety.”

Keeley said, “A portion of that is the police. That is not the entirety of public safety. It comes in a whole wide variety,” Keeley said. “I think the better trained police officers are, that’s better for the community as well.”

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow | + posts

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.