Day 1 for city’s new police chief starts with credit to staff and predecessor, reflection on the role of police

Palm Springs’ new chief of police started his first day on the job Monday much like you or I would: “I signed on to the computer system and promptly lost my password,” he said.

Thankfully, Police Chief Andrew Mills reported that he had “Mr. Tech” to lean on, quickly resolving the issue.

“Mr. Tech” is Lt. William Hutchinson, a 23-year veteran of the city’s police force who has seen his share of recruits but was more than happy to help this one. The technical assistance followed Mills’ first order of business: Having coffee with Acting Police Chief Melissa Desmarais, who replaced retired Chief Bryan Reyes this summer.

Making sure he returns the favor by supporting command staff members such as Hutchinson, Desmarais, and Capt. Mike Kovaleff, as well as every officer on patrol in Palm Springs, will be among Mills’ priorities as he settles into his new role.

“I’m not cleaning house,” he said during a media meet-and-greet in his office late Monday morning. “I give immense credit to Melissa and Mike. They did an amazing job getting ready for this process and carrying on Bryan’s legacy.”

“It would be nice if things were simpler like they were in the 1950s. Policing has changed forever since those days. But the point of the job is still to support justice.”

— Palm Springs Chief of Police Andrew Mills

Reyes spent more than two decades with the police department. He is often credited with not just bringing positive changes to the department, but also improving the bond between police and the community. You wouldn’t blame Mills if he was nervous as he makes his initial rounds in the city, shaking hands, introducing his wife, and listening to citizens he will be sworn to protect after a City Council ceremony later this month.

He has little to sweat based on his welcome Monday morning and during the city’s annual Pride parade Sunday.

“I walked into this great reception,” he said of the moment he entered police headquarters off South Civic Drive. “I’ve had a lot of very sincere welcomes. But the proof is in the pudding on all that.”

Andrew Mills, the city’s new chief of police, pauses to take a selfie during Sunday’s Pride parade. (Photo courtesy City of Palm Springs)

Mills comes to Palm Springs from Santa Cruz, where he had led that police department starting in 2017. Before Santa Cruz, he served four years as chief of police in Eureka. He began his career in 1983 as a patrol officer with the San Diego Police Department, rising to the rank of captain and commanding officer in 2011 and overseeing the San Diego Police Department’s Western and Eastern divisions.

The chief’s job, and the job of all in law enforcement, is likely tougher today than it would have been when he started in San Diego. Crime rates are on the rise throughout the country, and it’s being noticed. Gone are the days in Palm Springs where you could leave a bicycle parked unlocked while grabbing coffee. At the same time, officers called upon to find those bicycles when they are stolen are also tasked with being on the front lines of the battle against homelessness and addiction — all while policing 95 square miles of the desert while the department is understaffed.

Mills said it’s easy to see why nerves would be on edge in any American city. He hopes to take a long-term look at crime data here, pick out times when the crime rate was high and when it was low, learn what led to spikes, and replicate what worked to quell them.

“In any five-year period, if you look month-by-month, it will seem like an EKG chart,” Mills said of crime rate charts. “For the average person, they see the chaos, and it makes them uncomfortable.

“It’s a very emotional issue. But you can’t have an emotional argument with data.”

Mills will take two essential emotions into his role: empathy and a sense of duty.

Among family photos and memorabilia collected during his years in service, he proudly points to a pair of Norman Rockwell prints hanging on the wall of his new office. “The Runaway” shows a child at a lunch counter with an officer and radiates the comfort and safety police can offer; “The Problem We All Live With” shows four deputy U.S. marshals shepherding 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to school after threats of violence against her.

“It would be nice if things were simpler like they were in the 1950s,” he said. “Policing has changed forever since those days. But the point of the job is still to support justice. I feel strongly about those paintings. That’s why they’re here in my office.”

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