by Brad Butterfield
After a spring semester that saw The University Police Department’s force spread so thin that single-officer patrols were a norm, they have recently hired two new dispatchers, promoted an officer to sergeant, and hired one new officer. While slightly better than before, the department’s staffing issues have forced many members of its small team to still work long hours with few days off. Despite the successful recent hirings, the department remains without a permanent police chief and ever-cautious in its search for a new one. The still understaffed force has had to rely on its committed team working overtime to remain functional.
As many students will have been made aware of through the UPD’s advisory emails, it has been a hectic start to the fall semester. The last two weeks have seen an uncharacteristic barrage of criminal activity on our typically peaceful campus among the redwoods. From “Suspicious Bags Found in Wildlife & Fisheries Building” to “Trespassing Arrest at the Children’s Center” and a tragic “Collision That Injured Student” at one of the campus’s few intersections which left a student in critical condition, this has been an unusually chaotic start to the semester.
Throughout this spring semester, Lieutenant Peter Cress filled the role of police chief in addition to his normal duties as lieutenant. Currently, Fernando Solozano, a retired police chief from Long Beach, has stepped in as interim chief until a permanent one is finally hired.
Unfortunately, a timeline for the hiring of a permanent chief is difficult to nail down with so many factors at play. Even if the perfect candidate showed up on Harpst street tomorrow, they’d still need to go through a full background check, potential recertifications and additional police academy training (depending on where they transferred from). So, it will likely be exactly a while-longer before Cal Poly Humboldt has a permanent police chief.
On top of all that, hiring a police chief for a university – especially one as unique as Cal Poly Humboldt – has a number of additional hurdles as compared to your average city police department. Most notably are the Clery Act and Title IX federal civil rights, which affect police operations on a university campus distinctly from those at a typical city police department.
Moreover, the bureaucracy of a college campus means that a very unique skillset and experience is necessary to perform the job tactfully.
“The CSU system has its own challenges in different ways. It’s not just a police department in a town where you can go to your mayor and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ We have our presidents and we have our chancellor, so we have lots of different steps… What would be nice is if we had somebody who is familiar with the CSU system, who is eager to grow a police department, and comes in with knowledge, all those things,” Martin said before adding, “we’re not looking for a unicorn, but I mean, kind of we’re looking for somebody who can do all of that.”
The chief of the police sets the tone for the entire department, Martin explained. They look fifteen years down the line and act as captain of the ship, adjusting course towards innovation and progress. The fact that the department has been absent a chief for so many months and remains not only functional but reliable, serves as testament to the unwavering dedication of each member of the department. Importantly, though the search for a permanent police chief remains a top priority for the department, they are not rushing the process and will not pull the trigger unless the fit is perfect.
“Our VP [Sherie Gordon] has a very set criteria of what she wants to hire. She just doesn’t want to settle. She wants somebody who’s going to do justice to the police department and our campus,” Martin said.
Martin’s explanation for the still vacant chief position hinted that perhaps having no police chief is better than having the wrong police chief.
“It’s about finding somebody who wants to be here, who is willing to put in the work,” Martin said before continuing, “Somebody who’s progressive, understands what we’re trying to do here. And we’ve struggled at finding a very qualified person that can slide into that role and help our police department grow.”
This spring saw the lean department frequently functioning with only one officer on duty at any given time.
The recent new hires have eased that strain slightly but they’re currently still running some single person patrols, as they are having trouble finding qualified officers.
Aware of the mounting need for more personnel, the UPD have put together an incentive package and have hired a firm to recruit nationwide to find fitting candidates. A common theme in talking about the difficulties in hiring was UPD’s emphasis on hiring the right candidate. They are not interested in hiring just anybody so that they have additional boots on the ground. They’ve got to be the right boots. And of course, this is Humboldt – they’ve got to have the right vibe.
“We are not just filling boxes and trying to put a cop in a seat just because I need a number. I’ve got people who are willing to come here,” Martin said. “We just want people who are going to be a positive addition to the police department and how they interact with our community and how they’re willing to change and how they’re willing to grow.”
“We are looking for the right people to be a part of that police department as we grow,” Martin emphasized.
Remaining a community based police force appears to be a top priority for the department when considering new hires.
“Our community as a whole is more laid back,” Martin said. “100% we want to be able to be part of that culture.”
The understaffed department has relied on its indomitable staff to keep the peace on campus.
“It’s been the staff. The staff is really the reason that we’re still moving forward and getting stuff done,” Martin said. “A lot of overtime for different people, a lot of hours are being put in and everybody’s just still getting the work done.”
Martin put in about thirty hours of overtime last month, with this month’s overtime hours quickly racking up. Impressive as that is, dispatcher Jennifer Gomes’ work schedule borders on super-human.
“I have, technically, one full day off this month. My normal schedule is day-shift Sunday through Wednesday,” Gomes said. “But I’m covering graves for the second half of the week right now, and then my one day off for the week is the day that I rotate back to day shift. So, I sleep all day to try to accommodate coming back to day-shift.”
With two new dispatch trainees set to complete their training in October, respite is on the way. The dispatch ‘family’ will be back to three days off per week with just one dispatcher role left to fill. An unsung hero of Humboldt, Gomes explained her reasoning for weathering the recent tough times at the UPD.
“Everybody’s pulled their weight, come together kind of as a family and just pushed through the staffing issues,” said Gomes. “Just push through the hard times here, we’re all coming out of it.”
With millions upon millions being put toward Cal Poly Humboldt’s expansion, it seems the unstoppable force of dollar-driven change is also working overtime here in Humboldt county. Change is a comin’.
“As our faculty and our staff grow, there are gonna be different expectations as we modernize our campus and in the directions that we had. So, we’re also gonna have to keep up,” Martin said. “We want to maintain that same service that we’ve had, we want to be able to have these conversations. We want to be able to play pool with our students and whatever events and be accessible and always there. And that’s one of the things we look for when we’re trying to hire people.”