Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills' plans for overhauling the department, and the way it polices, will largely rest on the shoulders of two officers: Stephen Watson and Brian Stephens, two men Mills recently promoted to the rank of captain.
Back in February — just a few months after he'd left the sunny streets of San Diego for the gray skies of Eureka — Mills announced his intent to restructure the department, turning to a geographic policing model that would split the city in two, with one captain overseeing each area. The idea, Mills said at the time, is based on "accountability methodology" and, when done right, offers a host of benefits. It will allow the captains to better understand the nuanced crime problems in their areas, Mills said, and will make the captains individually accountable for making sure they are being addressed. Additionally, he said, the new structure will give citizens a specific person to contact with their problems.
Coupled with a new crime data management system the department is hoping to acquire next year that will allow it to track crimes by time, type and location, the new structure is designed to result in a more proactive police force that's better connected with the community it's tasked with protecting. "It should be a more seamless process, allowing us to better identify problems, as opposed to just responding to incidents," Mills said back in February.
After a lengthy process that included internal testing and interviewing, a trio of panel interviews in which candidates for captain were questioned by community members, city department heads and law enforcement professionals from outside the ranks of EPD, Mills tapped Watson and Stephens for the posts. (Full disclosure: This reporter participated in the community interview panel and scored the candidates' responses. As a part of the process, he agreed not to discuss details of the panel interviews.)
In promoting Watson and Stephens, Mills has tasked men with contrasting styles and histories within the department to chart its course forward. Stephens is a former member of EPD's SWAT team who has worked in Eureka his entire career and found his professional legs in the organization that Mills is now trying to reform. Watson, on the other hand, began his career as a sheriff's deputy in Santa Cruz County. A relative newcomer, he came to EPD in 2005, and quickly became the face of its community policing efforts after being tasked by former Chief Garr Nielsen with leading the department's Problem Oriented Policing team and acting as its media spokesperson.
Both Stephens and Watson said their success will largely hinge on the connections they are able to forge with the community. In that vein, the Journal recently chatted with EPD's new captains to get an idea of their backgrounds, and their feelings on the state of the department and its direction.
Born and raised in Kentucky, the 41-year-old Stephens joined the U.S. Army in 1993 and served with the Military Police until 1998, when he moved to Humboldt County, where his wife is from. Having enjoyed the service and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than himself, Stephens said he decided to enroll at the College of the Redwoods Police Academy with his sights set on joining EPD or the sheriff's office. Ultimately, he said he opted for EPD because he enjoyed the more "urban" environment.
Stephens has worked his way up through the ranks of EPD, serving on its SWAT team and acting as a field training officer. Folks will likely recognize Stephens' name from his involvement in the September officer-involved shooting death of Thomas "Tommy" McClain, who was shot and killed by an officer after allegedly reaching for a realistic-looking BB gun in his waistband. The incident, which occurred during a surveillance operation being carried out under Stephens' direction, remains under investigation, though Mills has said the officer's actions appear to have been justified. The fatal shooting represents the second in recent years at which Stephens was present but didn't fire his weapon, as Stephens was also on scene for the 2010 shooting of David Sequoia, who was fatally shot by officer Patrick Bishop and Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez as Sequoia struggled with another man over a handgun in a carport. The California Department of Justice investigated that incident, and officers were found to have acted appropriately.
Stephens is tasked with overseeing policing efforts in the area of Eureka south of Seventh Street, which includes the bulk of the city's residential areas, as well as the Henderson Center business district. The new captain said his first order of business will be getting his boots on the ground and talking to people, adding that he's already got a day of door-to-door visits planned. "I just want to introduce myself, become a conduit for the community and hear first-hand what people's concerns are," he said, adding that he already knows property crimes are "constantly plaguing citizens."
Having been with EPD through a number of leadership changes, Stephens said he's excited with the department's direction under Mills, noting the chief brings a wealth of new ideas to the table. "The direction we're going, I think, is ideal," Stephens said. But change, Stephens said, will take some time and community perception will be the ultimate barometer of the department's success. "When our community starts telling us that they feel safer and that they can feel the change, I think that's when we truly know we're on the right path."
Born and raised in Fortuna, the 43-year-old Watson took a circuitous route to police work. "I left home at 18 to join the Army and see the world, and they sent me to Kansas," he said with a chuckle, adding that he got his honorable discharge before enrolling in college. After getting a degree in church leadership, and then an elementary education teaching credential, Watson spent some time as a long-term substitute. It wasn't a fit. "I decided to do a job that was easier and safer than teaching, so I went into law enforcement," he joked. Watson soon found himself working as a deputy in Santa Cruz County, where he stayed for seven years, which included stints on the county's SWAT team and in its community policing division as a school resource officer.
Longing for life in Humboldt County, Watson and his wife packed up and came back, with him taking a position at EPD in 2005. He's quickly worked his way up the ranks, overseeing the start of the POP team and working as a field training officer.
In his new role as captain, Watson will be tasked with overseeing the area north of Seventh Street, which includes pretty much all of the U.S. Highway 101/Broadway corridor, as well as Old Town Eureka and much of the greenbelts and other areas that draw homeless encampments. Watson said he's already had a chance to talk to some community groups and organizations, and says the primary issues in the district seem pretty much unchanged from when he did a community policing survey as a part of the POP team about four years ago: drug-related crimes, property crimes, transient issues and traffic problems. Watson said he sees the drug issues and the property crime issues to be hugely connected, adding that what most in the community complain about as "transient issues" really stem from those homeless people with substance abuse and mental health issues.
Ultimately, Watson said tackling these will have to be a community endeavor. "We can't arrest our way out of the problem," he said. "That's not going to happen. That's very clear."
Both Watson and Stephens said they are eager to hear from and connect with community members and urged those who might see them out and about to introduce themselves and tell them about neighborhood concerns.