On Tuesday, Forest Brown became the fifth officer sworn in at the Scotts Valley Police Department this year—and the first welcomed with a public ceremony.
The tide is finally turning for the law enforcement agency, after a tumultuous year that saw 25% of sworn personnel leave.
“It’s very exciting,” Brown said, after he’d raised his right hand and taken the oath at the afternoon event. “I grew up here in Santa Cruz.”
With a contentious bargaining process, wildfire evacuations, uncertainty about the novel coronavirus, and the death of 38-year-old Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller on a call multiple Scotts Valley officers responded to, 2020 was challenging for the force.
In fact, SVPD Chief Steve Walpole says, the last year was the most difficult in the police department’s history. So he was elated, he said, to get to usher new faces into the fold.
“It’s great progress, helping us fill our ranks,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with them for many years to come.”
Scotts Valley is the kind of place where, when an officer shows up at the local coffee shop, the barista says, “Thank you for your service.” Mayor Derek Timm said it’s this local charm that makes the place so unique.
“The community loves the safety in Scotts Valley,” he said, noting he was finally able to introduce himself to a couple of the new recruits while at Starbucks the other day. “The police have a less-than three-minute response time.”
Last Saturday morning, during National Police Week, Timm was out distributing lawn signs to the families of high school seniors alongside Chief Walpole, as they both have children graduating. But operating a small-city police department also comes with downsides, something that became crystal clear in recent months.
“One of the disadvantages, being in a community our size, is everyone has to wear a lot more hats,” Timm said, noting that stress, coupled with low pay relative to nearby jurisdictions, makes officer retention tough.
Early in 2020, things were looking up, as the community approved Measure Z, which hiked the City’s sales tax from 9% to 9.75% and was expected to bring in $2 million annually. Plus, the police department had signed up four rookies. Rank-and-file officers, too, were hopeful a raise was in the cards.
But the pandemic sent Scotts Valley’s finances into a nosedive, and upended officer training plans.
Chief Walpole says, not only was he worried about officers spending extended amounts of time in an enclosed police vehicle with a recruit (the effects of the coronavirus were still unknown at the time), but there was a dramatic drop in calls for service.
Ultimately, one of the trainees decided to rethink a career in law enforcement after being dispatched to the tragic incident in Ben Lomond that Sgt. Gutzwiller didn’t return home alive from.
In addition, contract negotiations that were supposed to wrap up in June dragged on through the end of the year.
On December 15, the Police Officer’s Association launched an alarming Facebook missive titled “Stop the Bait and Switch with your tax dollars and save your PD,” which questioned the reasons behind the abrupt departure of the city’s finance director and blamed the municipality for a spike in criminal activity.
“Our officers deserve better than this!” Megan Bowen posted in response. “The citizens voted in Measure Z in good faith for our incredible police department.”
Timm, newly elected to mayor’s chair, replied to her, noting Scotts Valley’s balance sheet was 20% off the mark, with hotel revenue down 30%.
“To have our Police Department feeling undervalued breaks my heart,” he wrote. “We hold our PD in such high esteem, and their importance to us this year cannot be overstated.”
Within weeks, the city doubled both the new officer bonus (from $10,000 to $20,000) and the lateral officer incentive (from $20,000 to $40,000).
When the dust settled, officer pay had jumped 5% and sergeant pay had increased 8%.
“That was completed for our last bargaining session,” Timm said, noting that due to a quirk of negotiation cycles, they’re already into the next round. “The department is in the middle of rebuilding and restoring.”
Timm says he expects the parties will be able to come to an agreement by the end of June, this time, and says Scotts Valley is planning to add another three officers by the end of the year.
At the swearing-in, Brown’s father, Eric, proudly pinned badge #64 on his son.
“I know he’s going to do a great job,” said Eric Brown, a corrections officer of 28 years. “He’s got a great heart.”
Chief Walpole says he’s looking at having a special event for the four officers who joined the force in February, so they can celebrate with their families, too.
According to Brown, the police academy wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, but included training on things such as de-escalation techniques.
“There’s a lot of written tests and quizzes,” he said. “I think what I’m most looking forward to is being able to help people at their time of greatest need.”