Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills is no stranger to warm welcomes in the community. He’s also used to answering tough questions. Tuesday evening at Hunter’s in The Arenas District, he got to experience a little of both.
During a 90-minute town hall with members of the LGBTQ community — put on by the police department’s LGBTQ Outreach Committee — Mills answered questions on topics ranging from his department’s handling of potential threats from outsiders to the recent arrest of a local man believed to have violently attacked men in the city after meeting through the Grindr hook-up app.
The latter appeared to be top of mind for many of the roughly 200 people who attended the event, one of several similar gatherings held since the committee formed in 2001 but not held since before the pandemic.
Mills, who received a standing ovation when introduced by moderator Lex Ortega, directly addressed the lingering sense of frustration in the gay community over the fact an arrest in the case, which happened in mid-May, didn’t come until months after the first report of violence. Like other violent crime cases, he explained that building a solid case that can be prosecuted takes time.
“There are homicides where we know exactly who the suspect is, but it takes time,” he said. “With this case, we needed to get the person in a position where we could arrest him.
“It’s tough when these cases start with a consensual relationship. With victims being brave enough to come forward, even anonymously, that allows us to put everything together that can result in a conviction.”
Still, the chief said, “There are things we could have done better,” including better communication with the community about the investigation’s status and advice on how to protect yourself if something doesn’t feel right in any intimate situation.
To that end, Mills and others in his department vowed to work on producing materials to educate the public about precautions they should take when dealing with someone they don’t know who they meet through an app.
“No means no,” said Mills. “If somebody is doing something you don’t want them to do, stop means stop.”
Responding to questions about outside hate groups that could make appearances in a city with a substantial LGBTQ population, especially at a time when drag queens and the rights of trans people are being threatened throughout the country, Mills said his department relies on assistance from the federal government to monitor potential threats.
“That’s a tough situation because people have constitutional rights,” he said in response to one question. “I don’t have the staff to monitor the dark web. But we can still work with authorities to know about any potential threats.”
“People are going to come and voice their opinions,” he said. “But let’s be the adults in the room.”
Mills also addressed a common theme at public meetings he’s attended throughout the city that surfaced again Tuesday evening: police response times. In a city that often swells to twice its listed population and stretches 95 square miles, he said tough decisions have to be made about which calls get answered first.
“On any given night, between the hours of midnight to 7 a.m., there are four officers on duty,” said Mills. “If there’s a serious accident, that takes two to three officers.”
“We’re thinly staffed,” he said, adding that it’s not due to a lack of support from city officials. “We have 109 sworn officers for a city of 49,000, but on any day we have 70,000 to 80,000 people here.”
Afterward, Mills said his first town hall with the LGBTQ community left him hopeful that the dialogue with such a significant part of the city’s population could continue.
While many tough questions were posed, “There was a lot of interest and a lot of energy and positivity,” he said. “… Any relationship worth it is worth working through it. I don’t mind saying we were wrong. That’s what it takes to work through it.”