The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) vowed to rebuild trust with the community after a series of immigration-related arrests were made on Feb. 13 and after it was revealed during a Santa Cruz City Council meeting that a federal agent has been working with SCPD for the last five years.

SCPD Deputy Chief Dan Flippo said in a presentation to City Council that the SCPD will reach out to numerous community groups, such as Nueva Vista and Live Oak Community Resource Centers, Barrios Unidos and Sanctuary Santa Cruz, that serve “Hispanic and immigrant communities.”

The series of arrests made on Feb. 13 included nine indictments, one federal warrant and 10 immigration-related arrests. These arrests were made in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and were the result of a five-year investigation, initiated by SCPD, into MS-13 gang activity. The immigration-related arrests were first brought to the community’s attention at a news conference days later.

“It’s an injustice what the police did to my family,” said Beach Flats resident José Lucas Escobar in Spanish, whose daughter was one of the 10 arrested. She was later released with a GPS-monitoring ankle bracelet.

“If [SCPD] investigated for five years,” Escobar said in Spanish, “the Santa Cruz police still made the biggest mistake by grabbing people who did nothing wrong and are hardworking.”

Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

For every court hearing his daughter must attend, Escobar takes the day off work to drive her to San Francisco, while legal fees pile up to the tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

While SCPD can initiate conversation and accept feedback, Flippo said there are few immigration resources they can offer. One of the reasons for this is they have never enforced immigration law before, he said, because the city and Santa Cruz County have maintained sanctuary status for years.

“We’re trying to reach out to [community members] and meet them where they’re at and just try to explain to them what happened and what our actions are,” Flippo said. “It’s something that we constantly and consistently do but especially after an event like this were cognizant of the feelings that are out there.”

One of the main concerns expressed by community members at the Feb. 28 City Council meeting was that a DHS agent is embedded in the SCPD.

Flippo confirmed the agent works closely with them on investigations, such as the MS-13 investigation; however, he is in the process of being relocated and will not be replaced by another DHS agent.

Flippo said the SCPD will continue to partner with the federal agent, whose name has not yet been released, until the case is closed.

SCPD maintains they were misled by DHS and the federal agent played no part in the immigration-related arrests.

“We’ve never done immigration enforcement ever, and we never will,” Flippo said. “People say that we did here, [but] no, we didn’t.”

While SCPD searches for an answer from federal agencies, community members, like José Escobar’s daughter, are left to bear the burden of court hearings, ankle bracelets, legal fees and G-56 forms, which order undocumented individuals to appear in court.

“It takes a life to build trust,” said Sanctuary Santa Cruz member Ernestina Saldaña, “and just a second to lose it.”

Saldaña said she’s seen people move away in the wake of these immigration-related arrests if they’re able to afford it — others stay behind and “are burying themselves in such ways that no one looks at them.”

“People just don’t think that it’s a possibility to be safe,” she said. “[They think] the only way to be safe is that nobody knows who I am [or] nobody knows where I come from.”

Saldaña and other community members believe community policing, more immigration resources and a bilingual, bicultural liaison between the city and the community may help rebuild the relationship between the community and police.

While SCPD has not commented on these requests, SCPD Deputy Chief Dan Flippo said they are not turning down any invitation to attend a community meeting.

Despite this claim, as of March 15, SCPD hasn’t reached out to Sanctuary Santa Cruz, one of the most prominent immigration advocacy groups in Santa Cruz.

“The police need to come and apologize to the community, honestly, from the heart,” Saldaña said. “And as long as that doesn’t happen — not only with the words but with the actions — I don’t think it will be possible to start the process of healing.”