By Zia Zografos
Huntington Beach’s newly-appointed police chief, Eric Parra, 57, has been a resident of “Surf City” for 30 years, commuting two and a half hours each way to his previous roles with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, including as a division chief.
After a stint as chief of police in Alhambra, he is now the “sheriff” in his own city. Parra has new plans for monitoring problems within Huntington Beach with the added advantage of all his years as a resident.
Homelessness, police reform approaches, and managing downtown rowdiness are among the issues Parra felt can be tackled with a progressive and innovative angle.
“My first day on the job, we had a 65-year-old man shot in Sunset Beach,” said Parra. “I live so close, I stopped by the victim’s house, knocked on his door, and we had a conversation for a half hour where I was able to talk to him about his case and where it was going, and ask him how he was doing. You can’t do that when you’re driving five hours out of your day.”
Although Parra’s experience in Alhambra has given him a taste of municipal policing, he stated that the transition to Huntington Beach has taken some adjusting. The most notable adjustment being staffing. Going a department with 3500 people to a few hundred, Parra stated that smaller agencies must find different ways to tackle problems other than task forces. Instead, training and mentoring is provided to do a job with fewer people as well as employing the help from residents and businesses.
“And that becomes the success model that lives longer, because when the task force ends, they’re not involved anymore,” said Parra. “When we solve a problem by involving a member of the community, they stay.” Parra recounted how he cannot travel a block down Main Street without being swamped by Huntington Beach residents. “I have to budget about an hour, because I will get stopped by so many people and we’ll just talk about issues in the city. And they’ll let me know what they are.”
According to Parra, having an exceptionally politically active community like those in Huntington Beach have been an asset when it comes to discovering problems.
The homeless crisis in particular continues to be one of the most pressing concerns that the community has been adamant about. This is especially so when dealing with homeless members residing in parks, Parra stated. “I can talk to the person, but if he’s not doing anything illegal, I’ll just offer him services … But – I can’t physically remove him, and people are getting frustrated by that.”
Parra’s team has recently assembled a list of homeless members that they receive the most calls and complaints about. “We’re talking about them every other week with homeless advisors, the H.O.P.E. team, the Department of Mental Health, and with clinicians so we can have a multi-jurisdictional approach to these folks,” said Parra. “It’s worked for me in the past, it’s just brand new here.”
“It’s not a law enforcement problem, it’s a social problem that we have to work with our social service agencies on,” said Parra. “To get them the recovery services, the life skills, to get them to a point where they’re comfortable leaving the short-term housing, that is the very difficult part.” Advocating for new pilot programs to help deal with relapse and fears surrounding leaving the streets is among Parra’s desired approaches.
“How do you get them to mentally make the break that this isn’t the way you should be living? We don’t know if [pilot programs] are going to be successful, but as long as we have a reasonable basis for it, let’s try it. We’ll do it for 90, 180 days and measure it, tweak it, or start another one,” said Parra.
With an increased urge for police reform over the past few years, Parra weighed in on how he can improve the police department. Parra stated that his experience in taking part in negotiations for a federal civil rights case pertaining to force in Los Angeles gave him a perspective on how to reform. Accountability is essential, and Huntington Beach is no exception.
“I think if anyone can say that nothing can be made better [about their police force] they’re not thinking in a way that’s reasonable or rational. Areas that I want to see improved is accountability,” said Parra. “If we identify a deficiency, I want that deficiency to be documented, to be noted, and I want it to be addressed. In traditional organizations, someone would say ‘Oh that’s a problem but I fixed it.’ My question is, is that fix now reviewable so that anyone who comes to audit us can see each step? Did that fix have the desired outcome?”
Parra also gave his full support to a more family-friendly rebranding of Huntington Beach’s downtown, and alleged that restaurant owners are pushing for less rowdy “Main Street drama.”
“…I’ve been talking to business owners and every one of them have told me ‘We want this place to be peaceful and we want families to come down here, therefore we’re changing the way we’re doing business,’” said Parra.
Parra stated that an app is currently in development that puts all of downtown’s restaurants and bars in contact with the police department, as a proactive approach to monitor excessive inebriation. Even if bar owners, bartenders, and servers don’t request police interference, they can notify and give a description of such people who are acting dangerously.
“We are working to turn that rowdy mainstream culture around,” said Parra. “[The app] has all the bars and restaurants on it… They can take a picture of a person, if that’s appropriate, or just text and say that they have someone causing a problem here. It lets other bars know if that person comes up to their doors, they’ll know to turn them away.”
Despite the pressure of maintaining a destination city like Huntington Beach, Parra stated that he is happiest when he can physically see the changes he has requested take shape on the city streets.
“Conversely, I’m also able to see what is not being done,” said Parra. “I’m going to use all the resources to my ability to see progress, so that anyone in the world will want to come here.”
Categories: Huntington Beach