UC Davis Police Chief Joe Farrow talks about the evolution of the campus force.
Police Chief Joe Farrow still remembers his shocked reaction to the news of George Floyd’s 2020 murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin: “How does that happen?”
Farrow has worked in law enforcement for more than four decades, including nearly a decade as commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, and found himself at the helm of the UC Davis Police Department as the university — and many others across the nation — looked inward with a critical eye on their own police practices.
Two weeks after Floyd’s death, and in the wake of other high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people around the country, Chancellor Gary S. May convened a 32-person task force of students, faculty and staff, who solicited feedback from the community and then made their own recommendations about ways the UC Davis Police Department “should evolve to look, operate and engage.”
Farrow sat down with UC Davis Magazine in July, in his office that bears the awards and honors of a long career in law enforcement, but also friendly touches like a Mickey Mouse clock and a box of baseballs that have bounced from a nearby practice field into the department parking lot.
He discussed the ways the department has responded since 2020, like the hiring of three Core Officers, who spend most of their time on campus in plain clothes, building relationships. The department has hired other staff members who take reports, direct traffic and connect with the community. Funding from three vacant officer positions was moved to support crime prevention and accreditation, a liaison with Student Affairs, and the Fire Department’s Health 34 program for mental health and minor medical issues. The Police Department has also invited feedback by asking anyone who interacts with a staff member to complete an online survey, the results of which are posted online.
At the same time, the department has dealt with serious threats to safety: A student and community member were killed, and another community member injured, in a series of stabbings in the city of Davis last spring. A suspect was ordered to a state hospital after being found unfit to stand trial for charges of murder and attempted murder.
During his interview with UC Davis Magazine, Farrow discussed his modern approach to campus policing.
How have things changed in the department since the Campus Safety Task Force submitted its report in 2021?
It came in four unique parts that we were asked to address. One was about transparency. One was about training. One was about more of a tiered response, a tiered approach to how we do policing. And the other one was professionalism. And so what has changed? I think maybe one of the most obvious for our campus is we’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all organization … We’re moving away from sending police officers to every call for service. That’s what we traditionally did for many, many, many years. And in place of that, we’re going to what we call a tiered response.
I’ve thought of some of these changes as making the police department a little bit more focused on community outreach and less having sworn officers be the face of the department. But obviously you still need those resources. And that was something that we saw in April and May with the stabbings.
How did that tiered response work in that crisis? And did you learn anything from it?
I think it worked really well. The tiered response was built on the concept that we’re here to make people feel safe and ensure their safety … sometimes without traditional law enforcement. But in the midst of stabbings, the majority of the community goes: “Hey, we need police officers.” And I think rightfully so, our community was scared. … They wanted this person apprehended. And it was armed police officers who went out to do that. But our tiered response: Our security officers, they were monitoring cameras. … Aggie Hosts were transporting students everywhere they had to go. Our security personnel were escorting faculty and staff members to their cars. Our Core Officers were out doing training. …
That’s why we do what we do, really to change that whole dynamic here. I’m not here to catch you doing something. I’m here for your safety and your security, and allowing you to enjoy all the benefits of a college education, your ability to work here and thrive within this community, or to teach. So that’s our philosophy. A service for you versus policing to you.
“I’m here for your safety and your security, and allowing you to enjoy all the benefits of a college education, your ability to work here and thrive within this community, or to teach. So that’s our philosophy. A service for you versus policing to you.”
How much does the fact that so many of your officers now are alumni play into that?
I think it helps a lot. … I listen to them in the hallway, and they’ll say: “Oh, I took that class. Oh, that’s a neat class.” Well, that same thing happens when they’re out working the beat and they’re talking to students. …
So right now, probably half, maybe more than half, of my officers graduated from UC Davis, and everywhere I go, I hear, “Go Aggies,” because these are Aggies supporting our community.
And you also bring into the fold some people who aren’t just curious about policing — people who are actively a little bit hostile toward policing. There were people involved in the task force who said that the police department shouldn’t exist anymore. Why do you still hear out those people and have them be involved in the conversation?
The criticism that we get, I hear it. I listen to it, and I try my best to be able to address it. I can’t address all of it. And so obviously, we’re going to be fundamentally at odds. Where the issue is “we don’t want any police department,” I don’t know how I get there. That’s not my decision to be able to do that. But it is in my ability to figure out how we deliver the service to the greater cause, the greater good. … Those task forces you talked about? What an opportunity to hear from a very broad spectrum who traditionally wouldn’t come to the chief of police and tell me: “Here’s a better way to do your job.” That environment was fantastic.
How does transparency play into this discussion?
We always thought that we supplied the information that people needed. But really, we weren’t. We would put stuff on the webpage that we thought people would want to know or they should know. And we didn’t always get it right. … So we just decided, let’s just put it all out, everything that we can, to be as transparent as we can. And we post it for people to be able to see and have it readily available for all aspects of our police department, even complaints.
Maybe now’s a good time to talk about mental health. It’s obviously been a cause that you’ve spent a lot of time on. You’re president of the board of National Alliance on Mental Illness California. How has more training for the officers here been important, and how do you fit into the overall picture on campus?
We live in a society that has stigmatized people with mental illness for too long. You go break a leg and people tell you: “Hey, my son broke his leg, and we need to fix it.” They have a mental health crisis, and nobody says anything, right? Nobody runs around and says: “Yeah, my son’s having a mental health crisis.” They don’t. They talk about your broken leg, though. Both illnesses, right? … Both can be addressed by professional help. … And then we have to figure out how we deal with mental health with a more holistic approach. Not I show up, you’re in a crisis, and the only answer is you go to jail. That’s the system that was in place when I got here. When I got here six years ago, I asked: “Why? Why are we doing that?” …
[Fire Chief Nate Trauernicht] and I started talking, and I said, “Nate, you’re in a good position to help. You are a medical provider with the right training, the right tools, the right resources. You could do a lot of this.” And we can start the conversation about being more holistic. … That’s what Health 34 is all about. That’s what we’re trying to do. … They don’t need to go to jail, they need somebody to help them. They need services. … We are probably the only department that I can think of where every single officer [has] critical incident training, the highest standard in the country for response.
There’s a lot of things that you’re doing here that you said are unique. How are you sharing that information with other departments, either in the UC or beyond?
I’m the statewide coordinator for the UC chiefs, so we meet every month. And the teams are really good. We learn from each other. We’re all in this together. … We’re a little independent because we are 10 different campuses, 10 different police departments. But the more we can be structured and work in harmony with each other, I think it’s good.
It seems like a lot of your kind of personal philosophies on policing might be kind of more on the relationship-building side. I see you have the Mickey Mouse clock back there [on your bookshelf]. Your first start down this path was when you were in elementary school and [helping as a] crossing guard. So it’s all been leading toward a friendly approach, right?
You’re right. I’m all about Disney. Disney has a really interesting philosophy. … It’s all about safety. … The efficiency and service comes second. … That’s what I teach my police officers. Is it safe? Is what we’re doing safe? Are we thinking about the safety of our community that we enrich higher learning, research and education, or am I trying to do something else? … We don’t have a lot of high-speed pursuits — it’s not because we don’t have people that run. The question they have to answer is, is it safe for me to pursue this guy? You’ll never see a pursuit going right down the middle of this core [of campus].
What else should we know?
UC Davis has a good story to tell. We’re really, really trying. We’re known, unfortunately, because of pepper spray. I mean, we always will be. It’s a brand that we wear, but that department doesn’t exist anymore.