Interim chief to focus on listening, building understanding

Lt. Garcia with a young child.
Lt. Mary Garcia has 23 years of law enforcement experience, and has been at UC Santa Cruz since 2019. She is a co-instructor for the UC Santa Cruz Police Department Community Police Academy, and as a lieutenant, she has been overseeing the training and investigation units.

At the most basic level, Lt. Mary Garcia simply wants to help people. 

Whether it's taking a few moments to explain why she's responding to a minor incident—like a barking dog—or appealing to a student in Spanish to accept medical help after taking a potentially fatal number of pills, her career has been defined by supporting her community. 

Garcia, who will serve as interim police chief at UC Santa Cruz beginning Dec. 5, said she wants to strengthen the relationship between the campus community and the UCSC Police Department by increasing understanding, continuing to be open, and listening. 

"I want to increase the dialogue and interactions between the police department and our communities," Garcia said. "To move in that direction requires a balance of respecting spaces and experiences with the need to engage."

Garcia has 23 years of law enforcement experience, and has been at UC Santa Cruz since 2019. She is a co-instructor for the UC Santa Cruz Police Department Community Police Academy, and as a lieutenant, she has been overseeing the training and investigation units. 

She has extensive knowledge as a sexual assault and domestic violence investigator, is a Rape Aggression Defense System (RAD) Self-Defense for Women Instructor and an instructor for investigating hate crimes. She has had many other assignments and collaborations with campus and community partners.

Prior to joining UCSC, she served in the UC Davis Police Department where she held a number of assignments including patrol, detective, bike patrol, and field training officer. She began her career in the City of Davis Police Department.

In the following interview, Garcia talks about the personal and professional experiences that have shaped her approach to her work. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Yolo County, about two-and-half hours from Santa Cruz in a small town. Yolo County is an agricultural area with many farm workers. I am a first generation college graduate.  My parents were both farm laborers and my dad still works in the fields, even as he nears 70 years of age.  My brothers and sisters and I were required to work summers in the fields as soon as we turned 14 when we could get a work permit. Our earnings went straight into the family funds to maintain basic needs. Working in the fields was to teach us the value of hard work, while also emphasizing the importance of education to change our station in life and have a better life.  

As the oldest child, I learned English first, and I became the family translator immediately.  My mom required me to learn how to read and write Spanish.  We were only allowed to speak Spanish at home so we would not lose our language. I became a huge reader and still am.  I was blessed to have a neighbor who happened to be a teacher. She introduced me to the public library and I became a lifelong learner and reader from then on. Reading helped me learn both languages fluently and I’m grateful my mom required these skills of her children.

My parents did not have money to pay for college. Between student loans, having sometimes three jobs, all while attending college, I obtained my bachelor’s degree. I now have two masters degrees and am considering continuing my education with a Ph.D.

Why did you decide to work in higher education? 

I like working with people in the community. When I joined the UC Davis Police Department, engaging with students and staff was welcome and encouraged in both directions. As officers, we could focus on and spend extra time to build relationships, trust, and really provide the level of service and support needed. I didn’t intend to stay in a police officer role, but being part of the UC Davis community and staying became a natural fit.

What have been your proudest moments as an officer?  

Connecting with people on a personal level and earning their trust. Taking the time to get to know someone, even if it's for a brief moment, because it's what is natural to me.  Having students and community members come back to me years later to thank me for taking extra time with them and listening, providing advice based on my personal life experience, has been a touching surprise every time. 

The animated movie Ferdinand has one of my favorite scenes that encompasses all of this for me. Angus thanks Ferdinand for helping him see by licking Angus’s hair off his face. Ferdinand says it wasn’t a big deal, but Angus says something like “it was a big deal to me.”  That scene in Ferdinand resonates with me because it's a huge life lesson. It emphasizes we all have value to others, even when we don’t know it.  We can all learn from each other, even if we don’t realize it at that moment.

What have been the most challenging moments?  

Facing my own community of color when all they see of me— as a Mexican woman—is the uniform.  I am a helper who happens to be in uniform and that’s the hardest part for me to reconcile. How my chosen role as a police officer can be a barrier for helping. There have been many instances of this, but my hardest call specific to this challenge was about 3 years ago at UC Davis.  

I was the sergeant on night shift and my team and I were responding to a call for a student who had ingested many pills and was in danger. 

The student and the student’s friend refused to accept help from me as a police officer.  I offered to leave and pleaded with them to take the ambulance to the hospital.  I was scared we were losing valuable time to save the student’s life the more we talked. The student continued to refuse the ambulance.  I appealed to them in Spanish asking them what I’m supposed to tell the student’s parents if the student died refusing help.  After many back and forths, the student accepted.  In the car, I tried to get to know both of them, but they would barely engage. Our role there was to try to save the student.

A week later I arrived at work to find flowers, fruit, and a kind card from the student’s mom. 

In my life, with my background, I know there is a lot in this world I don’t know and that I didn’t know how to access as a person of color from a poor family living in a small town.  Not knowing about something not only obstructs upward mobility, but it also perpetuates fears and can lead to being held back either by our own fear or by systems in place. This is why I want to increase understanding, dialogue, and transparency within our campus community.

There was an incident in 2004 when you and other UC Davis officers had to respond to a disorderly off-campus block party involving an estimated 1,000 people. You were one of several officers who fired pepper balls to dissipate the crowd, which was throwing bottles and objects at officers. During the incident, a student was injured. While it is unclear who was responsible for the actual injury, you and several other officers were named in a civil lawsuit brought by the student. The lawsuit was settled by the city of Davis and UC Davis.

You’ve been open about this incident. What have you learned from it? How did it change you as an officer? 

This terrible incident taught me to take the time—when possible—to consider unforeseen consequences of decisions and actions. In this instance, given the training and experience I had in the use of pepperball, we were trained not to fire projectiles at people, but at surfaces such as walls, floors, and hard objects. I followed my training and it was very hard to learn that someone was injured.

I believe we are always learning and every day presents us with moments to reflect on what we did or did not do in any given situation. I find the most value in reflecting on ways to improve. 

I also learned, when possible, to ask questions of myself and others about an incident. Much of what I have learned I have applied to my life as I have grown and developed since then. I am not the same person I was 16 years ago.

In an interaction, I ask myself “What is the goal? What do I intend to accomplish during this contact, meeting, or call for service?” Knowing this helps me tailor how I can best meet the needs of whoever I’m with or what outcome is best.

I always look for opportunities to learn and improve based on my experiences. 

What has been your lived experience as a Latina police officer?

The hardest parts about being a police officer have been how others perceive me because for some there’s a clash as to who I am, what my role is as an officer, and how the communities see me or what assumptions they make of me.

It wasn’t until recently when I heard a police chief from another agency speak about his experience as a person of color in law enforcement that I realized my experience was much like his.  He put into words what I couldn’t.  He talked about how we, as persons of color, inherently carry a different and higher level of responsibility in law enforcement and our communities of color.  We have a responsibility to represent our cultures and people with respect and dignity in law enforcement.  It is also our responsibility to represent law enforcement equally to and within our communities of color. It’s what I have worked hard to do in the way I carry myself and the way I perform my duties to the best of my abilities and the circumstances I am faced with.  

Police and their practices are under intense scrutiny nationwide, following the killing of George Floyd and many other unarmed black people. What do you think about this moment? How do you think police departments should change?

As departments, we need to have a true understanding of the symbolism of our societal history and role in it as police. The gravity of the loss of life requires us to make a decision and take actions to do things differently. Not just in police departments, but as entire communities. Because we are all in this community.  To consider there are different ways of doing things, all with the consideration that sometimes things happen that are beyond our control and sphere of influence.  

When deaths such as George Floyd’s happen, it is a human tragedy that affects us all. We are human and we have human emotional reactions to the unnecessary loss of life.

An analogy I use about bringing forth change is to think about relationships with family members or partners.  Sometimes those relationships—except in certain circumstances—are damaged so severely that relationship seems beyond repair.  But if the involved parties want to salvage that relationship, it's a matter of declaring ‘we start here’ and agreeing to do so. We all have to be willing to listen. Growth and progress can’t happen without collaboration and it can’t be a one way street.