Four months into the job, Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills is armed with a new weapon for crimefighting in the city: data. He wants to arm the community with it as well.
Mills and a few of his officers will be fanning out this week to show the data to anyone who wants to see it at a series of community meetings in each of five city districts. Members of the community are invited to attend any and all of them, starting with Tuesday’s at Victoria Park, 2744 N. Via Miraleste, at 4 p.m.
What Mills and his officers will show are heat maps indicating where each of the reported 2,290 property crimes and 315 violent crimes occurred in Palm Springs last year. Reports of everything from petty thefts to homicides are plotted on the maps, creating a picture that resembles a petri dish of multi-colored blotches throughout the city.
What Mills hopes to gain from educating the public about where crime is occurring is direction.
“We’re going to hand out heat maps of violent crime, property crime, and traffic collisions in our city so people can tell what’s happening and where it’s happening,” Mills said last week as he prepared for the community forums. “Then residents will tell us what their priority is.”
From those priorities will come a mission. That’s something Mills said the department, made up of “a high-caliber of personnel at all ranks,” currently lacks.
“There is no mission,” said Mills, speaking frankly of the division of city government he inherited last November. “We don’t have a direction. What are we trying to accomplish as a department? We don’t have crime fighting priorities. We’re just responding to what is called Constant Acute Political Emergencies.”
What Mills hopes to end is misinformation. It’s one thing to speculate on social media that your neighborhood has more residential burglaries, or that the city is overwhelmed with motor vehicle thefts, but seeing the facts, he said, will give the community a truer sense of the situation.
“I want people to have the data in their hands so they can make a rational reference as to what has occurred prior in this city,” said Mills. “What we’re going to show is a lot of nuisance crimes. And if that’s the case where people want us to focus, then that’s where we’re going to spend our time.”
The approach takes community policing one step further, Mills said. Traditional measures at community outreach — such as hosting coffee with a cop events, or officers leaving their vehicles to play a pick-up basketball game with neighborhood youth — are great for public relations. But if police officers are truly going to increase safety for city residents, they need to know exactly what makes them feel unsafe, and where.
“Neighborhood policing is looking at policing from their perspective,” Mills said of residents. “They hold us accountable, and we hold them accountable. It’s not just a one-way street. We need their help as well.”
Looking at the maps, it’s easy to see that what residents have been saying about crime in the community is true. Most of the violent crimes occur Downtown — especially in an area with a heavy concentration of bars. Neighborhoods in the northern part of the city have more reports of violence than the south. Personal property theft is mainly Downtown, but spreads out to all neighborhoods in the core of the city — districts 3, 4, and 5.
What’s not shown on the maps, and that police will no doubt be questioned about, are drug offenses, particularly those committed by the homeless population, which authorities acknowledge is a growing concern with little hope for solution without a change in approach.
“There has been a change in the environment in the court system at the federal, state, and local level to reduce incarcerations,” Mills said. “It has affected the moral of police. Drugs that were a felony are now a misdemeanor.”
Also affecting his department’s moral, Mills said, is lack of staffing, brought on by not only injuries but a lack of interest in policing throughout the nation.
“I walked into a department with significant morale issues,” said Mills. “I think people want to poke at people, and says it’s this person’s fault or that person’s fault. But it’s really just the state of affairs of policing in America.
“Our cops are exhausted. They have gone through hell in the last two and a half years with COVID, the uncertainty of that, and the tension in the air that is palpable in so many communities. Then there was the terrible murder of George Floyd and the resulting conflicts between communities and police. It has all drained the psychological, physical, and emotional spirit of the officers.”
More information: Interested in attending one of the community forums with police this week? Check our community calendar for dates, times, and locations.