The death of George Floyd spurred a national conversation over race and policing, and calls for systemic change in how police departments operate. Ahead of a town hall on policing in Los Altos Tuesday, the Town Crier spoke with Police Chief Andy Galea in an extended interview on a range of both local and national issues regarding police. The interview is condensed and edited for clarity.
TC: What was your initial reaction to George Floyd’s death as an officer knelt on his neck?
AG: My initial reaction was surprise, shock, almost disbelief at what I was seeing. And the fact that it was going on for so long – that was probably the most troubling thing for anybody watching the video. Anytime there’s a use of force and a struggle, it’s difficult to gain control of the situation. But clearly, during that arrest, Mr. Floyd was complying and telling the officers clearly that he was having trouble breathing. You’re watching in disbelief, like, “Why aren’t you getting off of him, rolling him over to his side, and making sure that he was OK?”
TC: In the aftermath, protests touched nearly every corner of the nation, including Los Altos. What did you think of the outpouring on the streets?
AG: It reinforced to me what I was thinking all along, what I was seeing on the national and local news. People were outraged at what they saw. Honestly, I thought most, if not all, of police officers nationwide were shocked at what they saw. I know definitely here in the Bay Area, it’s just very difficult to comprehend that could happen. I certainly understand the outrage; people want to protest to ask for reform, ask for change. I’m not surprised, and it’s actually in many ways a very positive thing. People are saying, “No, we’re not going to tolerate this.”
TC: Where does the city stand on the 8 Can’t Wait police reform initiative? Does the initiative go far enough?
AG: My initial reaction is, these are all the things that we are pretty much doing, with the exception of the carotid restraint – which I did ultimately ban. To me, they made a lot of sense. Maybe that’s what’s misleading for some communities. They’re seeing things like 8 Can’t Wait and there’s an assumption across the country that these things are somehow permissible. Truth is, we are really in compliance with that.
Everyone is having an opportunity to really examine how we do business and how responsive we are. So, clearly, law enforcement is evolving. It’s always evolving. We’re taking this opportunity to listen to our community’s concerns and evaluate our policies, our procedures and make changes. I think that’s our obligation.
TC: When people see large numbers next to the police department in a city’s budget, they question where that money is being used. What warrants the millions of dollars going toward policing?
AG: The vast majority of our budget is personnel. We have 32 sworn officers. We have six dispatchers who answer the calls, 24/7. What’s in our budget that a lot of people don’t realize is a lot of other city services. We handle code enforcement, the parking control downtown. We carry the contract for the crossing guards, which is several hundred thousand dollars per year. There’s the regular maintenance, the upkeep of facilities, the training, equipment. It all adds up there. But as you drill down into the budget, you’ll see it’s just not police. It’s a lot of different services that we provide.
TC: There’s been a certain opinion that police are responsible for too much work. In addition to protecting the community, they are answering calls regarding mental health issues, overdoses, homelessness – things that are not necessarily criminal in nature and may not require somebody with a weapon showing up. Do you get any sense that your officers have too much to do?
AG: One of the positive things of this nationwide conversation that we’re having right now is that question is being asked. I don’t think there is a police chief anywhere that would say the police department is the best option to respond to calls of homelessness or individuals having a mental crisis of some sort. I would love to see more options other than calling 911 for individuals sleeping at a bus stop or setting up at a camp underneath a freeway somewhere.
Unfortunately, right now there are not a lot of options. We try to work with our homeless advocates, give referrals. We try to not make social issues police issues. There are mobile mental health teams out there, and they’re available. But my experience has been that there’s just not a substantial enough program to handle all of those calls for services. So, in the end, we’re having to respond to these. But I guarantee you there’s not a group of individuals more willing to see some different options.
TC: In light of the calls to “defund police” and look at how much responsibility we’re putting on officers, would you be supportive of taking some of the money going to police and putting it toward hiring counselors to deal with issues such as mental health, drug abuse and homelessness?
AG: The “defunding” to support these programs, I’ve heard the terms and I’ve heard it applied nationally. But you have to recognize, we are a small department. We don’t have, like some major cities … teams of officers that work almost exclusively with the homeless and then partner with social service agencies, or partner with mental health. We don’t have that model. The reality is we don’t get that many calls on homelessness and mental health. If we were to do that, we would have to make some cuts in other areas.
The other question is what would that model look like? Would it serve the North County area here (Los Altos, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale)? I’d be supportive of certainly looking at the program, but being the smallest city and probably having the smallest budget, I’m not sure what our contribution would be. But I’d be willing to be involved in that discussion if we could really come up with an effective program to serve the community better. Because I think what we’re doing right now certainly can be improved upon substantially.
TC: There are also those in the community who want more police. They want more protection. How do you square those desires with this movement that seems to be about decreasing the amount of policing?
AG: I don’t make my own budget. I can make a recommendation, and ultimately it’s up to the city manager and city council to determine what services we’re going to provide and to what level.
I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a few town hall meetings in the Bay Area. My experience is, there are very legitimate concerns being raised about the use of force and policing in the Bay Area.
But at the same time, I’m also hearing community members call in with a concern about safety. They do not want public safety resources reduced. That is going to be a balance for every community as to what that’s going to look like. Our core function is and always will be to protect everybody in the community. We are a full-service police department. We go to calls here that some departments won’t go to. Any significant reductions and we would have to prioritize what we’re doing.
TC: Los Altos is, by any standard, a very safe city. We just had our first murder in 25 years. The violent crime rate is well below the median rate both statewide and nationwide. Why do you think this is the case?
AG: As much as I would like to take the credit for all the things we do – because we have a relatively low crime rate – we are a very responsive police department. If you have vandalism, we’ll come out, we’ll take the report and do the best investigation we can. A lot of departments don’t do some of the things we do.
We have a very engaged and passionate community. When the residents suffer a burglary or two in a specific area, whether it be through Nextdoor or our crime prevention newsletter, people take notice. People are concerned and people get the word out. I don’t think that takes place in every community. When there is a crime, people take notice.
People ask me what we’re doing about it. People ask our city council, and the city council is very responsive to the community also. I think it’s a combination of the police department and our level of service, but it’s equally as important to the partnership with the community. They care about crime. They care about the condition of streets. They are concerned about quality of life. They are concerned about things like vandalism. When they see it, they have a low tolerance for it and are quick to report it. So, it’s clearly a combination of all those things.
TC: Los Altos is a predominantly white and Asian city. African Americans and Hispanics – the two racial groups most disproportionately affected by police violence – make up just a tiny fraction of the population. What is your message to the Black and Brown people who may be just a small fraction of the demographic but want their voices and concerns to be heard?
AG: My message to everybody is we have very clear policies, procedures, guidance and philosophy in this department on how we interact with the community, how we treat people, the use of force.
My message is that if anyone ever feels that their contact with a Los Altos police officer, a dispatcher, a records clerk, code enforcement, parking enforcement – if there’s anything less than what they would expect from a police department professional – that I hear about it. People are pretty good about letting me know about interactions they have with members of the organization.
One of the better technological advancements in police work is the body-worn camera. I believe Los Altos was the first department in the county to use body-worn cameras for all of our officers. I think that has been really a benefit to the community. There may have been some initial reluctance on the part of our officers. But now I think they see the value of the body-worn cameras. It’s clearly an independent record of what was done. We strive to give great service to everybody: any member, resident, nonresident, someone working in the city or just driving through. If there’s anybody who has anything less than what I would expect to be a positive interaction with a member of this organization, contact me directly.
TC: Have you had conversations with local activists, and how have they gone?
AG: I was at the demonstration that started at Los Altos High School. I had a very brief conversation with the organizers. I’ve gotten emails and a few phone messages. I’ve had conversations with members of the community. I think every interaction for me has been relatively positive. The common theme is people want change. People want the dialogue.
Obviously, there’s the conversation of “defunding.” Again, that is a little abstract for me right now to wrap my head around really what that means. I’m not really sure if anybody has a really good idea of what that is going to look like. I’m not sure if there’s a real viable alternative right now that we can support once we do defund.
For the most part, I’m anxious to hear what people have to say. It’s really forced me to take a hard look at what our agency is doing, and our policies and procedures. I think that’s a really healthy conversation to have.
TC: You’ve been in policing for decades. You worked for 30 years in a major city — San Jose — before moving to Los Altos. So, you have a good sense of how police departments, small and large, operate. The concerns that are being brought up now involve pretty drastic police reform and changing the way police do their work. Did you hear those concerns prior to last few months? Why do you think these issues have taken so long to address?
AG: I have been at this for quite a while. I think having that video of the George Floyd killing made everybody sick – anybody that watched it. You just cannot deny that there’s some serious issues within any type of police organization that would allow something like that to happen. And I think what is really prompting this is, there’s been other incidents now, whether they be police shootings or other issues of force, or issues with how police have responded to demonstrations. People are asking, “Can this happen here?”
I think a lot of times, people see police officers as police officers. When you see a police officer in Los Altos, Mountain View, San Jose, San Francisco, I don’t think most people stop to think, “Oh, this is a Los Altos police officer,” and make the distinction between other departments.
What people saw was just very disheartening and a very sickening situation. People are really concerned about the profession, as they should be. My hope is I’m able to talk to more members of the community, whether it be through interviews such as these, our town hall meetings, and as I’m able to report what information I have regarding how we’re doing as a police agency, people will feel more comfortable about the Los Altos Police Department.
I did work quite a long time in San Jose. San Jose’s a big department. When I was there, it was 1,200 sworn officers, well over 1,500 employees. That’s a lot of people to keep track of. That’s probably the biggest benefit to a community like Los Altos that has their own police department. The community here has very high expectations. And 32 officers – that’s not a lot of people to keep track of.
You hear in the case of the officer involved in the George Floyd killing, he had 14 complaints (on his record). An individual like that would never survive in this community. An officer with that type of a record – there’s nowhere to hide here. If (an officer) is rude to someone during a traffic stop or unprofessional in some way, typically I will hear about it directly or indirectly – let alone an officer involved in 14 formal investigations.
So, that to me is the biggest distinction between a large agency and a small agency. You really have a good handle on what’s going on in the community, but more importantly I know a lot of what’s going on in this department every day. I don’t know everything, but I have a good handle on it.