Over the last decade the Santa Cruz Police Department’s strong focus on community-oriented policing has earned accolades from a wide variety of sources. The United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance and League of California Cities have recognized the agency as a national model for community-oriented policing. Yet it wasn’t until a year ago that the department formally recreated the defunct Community Services Section; a dedicated police unit focused on community outreach, education and involvement. Overseen by Sergeant Mike Harms and Officer Joe Hernandez, the Santa Cruz Police Department’s Community Services Section has greatly expanded the department’s outreach into a number of community sectors not often involved in policing; youth and underrepresented communities.
The Community Services Section had been eliminated due to budget cuts but became a priority for Chief Kevin Vogel after he was sworn in as chief. “I believe this section helps make our agency more accessible, visible and accountable to our community.” Chief Vogel said. “We want to reflect the core values of our community, and a police team dedicated to community outreach is an important step.”
So what exactly does the Community Services Section do? Since re-forming into dedicated section last year they have:
- Created a volunteer program that now has over three dozen community volunteers working in all facets of the department
- Hosted the PRIDE Program to prevent youth involvement in gangs
- Facilitated English and Spanish language citizen police academies providing behind-the-scenes looks at the department
- Provided multiple teen police academies for youth interested in policing as a career or learning more about law enforcement
- Instituted a vacation check program
- Overseen community outreach including participation in neighborhood events, school presentations and fairs.
"It’s essential that the community feel a close connection to their local police department,” Sergeant Mike Harms said, “our focus is ensuring that the community has a voice and feel empowered to participate within our department.” Sergeant Harms and Officer Hernandez have worked to focus their efforts on areas with the highest impact, such as youth gang prevention. Through the creation of the nine week PRIDE program (Personally Responsible Individual Development in Ethics), they have successfully improved grades and behaviors of local at-risk local youth. In addition, through the teen police academy the department has obtained new young volunteers interested giving back to their community and possibly working at the agency in a few years.
“In one short year the Community Services Section has greatly expanded our ability to outreach to our great area,” Officer Joe Hernandez said. “We hope to expand the program in the coming year offering more youth programs and opportunities for the community to participate with our department.”