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A 'Masterpiece' Still in Progress 

His case resolved, a Eureka artist looks to continue a dialogue on community policing

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Photo by Mark McKenna

It took more than 14 months and at least 18 court appearances but Christopher "Blaze" Boyle's criminal case is behind him. Now, he realizes, comes the hard part.

It's easy to mistake the conclusion of criminal proceedings in a case for closure, but there's none of that in Boyle's resolution, which will see charges of resisting arrest and obstructing an officer dismissed in 12 months if Boyle stays out of trouble and does 15 hours of community service work. But Boyle still maintains he was assaulted by Eureka police officers, who he alleges then lied about the incident in their reports. EPD, meanwhile, maintains that Boyle was noncompliant when contacted by officers and — at one point — violently resisted arrest and kicked an officer.

But in the absence of closure, Boyle sees an opportunity for dialogue and change, a chance to use his experience to help ensure EPD officers are better connected to the community they serve and better able to navigate the complexities and stress of their jobs. Boyle feels a unique privilege and obligation in advancing this conversation: He has no criminal record to speak of, is gainfully employed, has a broad network of support and had never been arrested before the night in question.

"A lot of people in this situation, they don't have a recourse," Boyle said. "I just want to make it clear that I'm looking for a dialogue that brings us together, not one that just pits sides, which is typical. I've been very patient for this opportunity to advance this dialogue."

Boyle, a 58-year-old artist and craftsman, was arrested May 2, 2017, after he left the Vista Del Mar shortly after sunset, crossed Waterfront Drive to the Balloon Track and climbed atop on old, graffiti-strewn locomotive that used to sit perched on the edge of the property. Boyle had been up there a short while, watching the stars come out, when he found himself in the spotlight from a police patrol car.

What happened next remains in dispute. Boyle says he thought the spotlight was just a visual prod from an officer for him to get down and move along, so he responded accordingly. The officer, Sgt. Lenny La France, however, thought Boyle was attempting to flee the scene. Boyle alleges that he came down from the train to find an agitated La France shouting commands with his Taser drawn and trained on him. Boyle claims he was calm and compliant, responding to the officer's questions with, "yes, sir" and "no, sir," but was treated roughly by La France and three officers who arrived as backup. The officers, meanwhile, asserted that Boyle was noncompliant and became violent while being searched.

Video footage of the incident captured on the responding officers' body-worn cameras and reviewed by the Journal offers little clarity. The only footage that captures the moment officers allege Boyle assaulted one of them is from an officer who was standing behind Boyle, so the camera was trained on his back. All it shows is Boyle turning slightly before being pushed forward on to 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. (This is followed by Boyle crying out as an officer wrenches his wrist in the cuffs in a pain compliance hold and urges him to "stop resisting.")

In the immediate aftermath of the arrest, Boyle sat down with then Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills to discuss his concerns (See "Masterpiece," June 8, 2017), and the two spent about an hour talking about closed feedback loops, humanity, decency, respect and community policing. Afterward, the two continued the discussion on social media, where they exchanged ideas about how officers can retain their humanity and decency while staying safe and making it through the daily grind of policing a city.

Then, as Boyle's case crawled on, that conversation receded from public view and in June of 2017, Mills left Eureka to lead the Santa Cruz Police Department.

Now Boyle is trying to pick up the conversation with Mills' successor, Police Chief Steve Watson, and he wants some answers and some changes. He wants to know why it's necessary for local police to engage local citizens with "military-style tactics" instead of dialogue; why EPD's complaint process is opaque and cumbersome and how an officer can "fabricate" a scenario and falsely accuse a citizen of a felony, seemingly without a true internal investigation.

What happened to Boyle's complaint within EPD seems a bit murky. Watson said it was "handled by Chief Mills well before my tenure and ... no misconduct was found on the part of our officers." Watson added in an email to the Journal that what he's seen of the video supports that finding and "doesn't reflect well" on Boyle's behavior. But Watson also added in a separate email that "the involved officer has gained a better understanding of Boyle's perspective, however, from our conversation and has used this process as a learning experience."

Boyle also sat down with City Manager Greg Sparks after his arrest to bring city administration into the loop on his complaint and allegations. Sparks said he felt that Boyle was "creating a dialogue" but not filing a formal complaint. If that occurred, Sparks said, he never saw it.

Since Boyle's arrest, EPD has streamlined its complaint process to some extent by making forms readily available online. A letter from Watson accompanying the form advises that all complaints will be thoroughly investigated and — after the chief determines their validity — a written response will be provided to the complainant.

Boyle maintains that he's never received any official response to his complaint.

Looking back on his experience over the last 14 months, Boyle said he's grateful for the hard work of several current and former attorneys in the county conflict counsel's office — Kaleb Cockrum, Meagen O'Connell and Jennie Stepanian — who dedicated hours to working his case. He's grateful that he had a clean record and the means — he's largely self employed with a flexible schedule — to repeatedly appear in court during business hours and fight his case as he refused to plead guilty to something he says he didn't do. And Boyle says he's ready to do what he can to advance this conversation.

"It's not fun and it is work but I think it's something that should be done," he said.

A little over a year ago, in an online forum, Boyle told Mills, "This trust, so badly broken, can be rebuilt. Strive for that. ... There will always be an argument for a coarser hand, yet in every conflict it is incumbent on the stronger part to exercise patience, and strive for understanding. It is a notion at the core of civility."

Mills responded that policing as a profession changes you: "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."

The chief went on to tell Boyle that they — and the greater community — are painting 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."

Mills is now in Santa Cruz but Boyle remains, ready to pick up his brush.

"I think I've been pretty clear throughout this process in not wavering," he said. "I've been consistent in my message. I've been very patient for this opportunity to advance a dialogue."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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