A year ago today, two Santa Cruz police officers were shot and killed during a sexual assault investigation. Detective Elizabeth Butler and Sergeant Loran “Butch” Baker were the first in the department’s 150-year history to die in the line of duty.
This morning, the Santa Cruz Police Department dedicates a memorial garden to honor the fallen officers, and their colleagues reflect on life in law enforcement.
Capitola Police Chief Rudy Escalante worked with Baker for 25 years and became one of his closest friends on the police force. They met in 1984, when Butch Baker was a rookie cop. Escalante was a security guard at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and Baker often came by to chat after his shift. Escalante’s uncle had been a cop, and his father was too, and he and his brother soon joined Baker on the Santa Cruz police force.
In his office, Escalante sighs as he remembers all this, then reaches for one of several mementos he keeps on a bookshelf along the wall. It’s a small leather-bound police badge, inscribed with Baker and Butler’s badge numbers. What follows are some of Escalante’s reflections on his friendship with Baker and on the ups and downs of a career in law enforcement.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen one of these—my brother got me this badge for Christmas because it has ‘End of Watch,’ and it has their badge numbers,” Escalante says, gravely. He peers out the window and paces over to his desk.
“He hated taking pictures,” Escalante chuckles, clicking through files on his computer. He lingers on a Police Department photo from 2008, showing Escalante, his brother Bernie, now a lieutenant with the Santa Cruz police, and Baker, standing shoulder to shoulder in uniform, smiling.
“Early on in our careers, it was like, I could go to work and not even get paid,” Escalante says. “That camaraderie, and that, maybe it was a different time, but we, we just really enjoyed it. I mean, we’d work a 12 hour shift and you’d never put in for overtime.”
Even after 25 years of police work, Escalante says, he and Baker had a hard time imagining retirement. “It becomes a life, it becomes who you are, he says. It’s very difficult to walk away.”
He recalls one of the last times he saw Baker, along with Detective Butler, a week before they died. “Butch and Elizabeth were in my office, and, we were talking about the fact that we need to start having those conversations, and I told ‘em, I said ‘When I get back, we gotta talk. Because we need to talk about his retirement,” His voice trembles, unsteady with emotion.
“‘He needs to call it quits,‘ Escalante remembers telling Butler about Baker. “It just didn’t happen,” he says. “Just didn’t happen.”
Today, Escalante remembers his old friend as a stubborn, hard-working officer, and as a mentor he still turns to. “I think about Butch every day probably,” he says. “I have some sort of moment, or something will happen, a situation will come up, and I’ll think back, and I’ll rely on our conversations that we’ve had over the years.”
He says it’s hard to make sense of any of the tragedies that can come with a long career in law enforcement. In 2001, Escalante was involved in a fatal shootout with a bank robbery suspect. In 2008, he had to wake a mother in the middle of the night to tell her her teenage son had been killed. “After a while,” he says, “all the death, all the dying starts to eat you up.”
“It’s a real life deal.I mean not everyone is made for this job, and this is why. You know, you can’t go every time and talk to somebody or knock on a door with the fear of ‘Is this is the time?’ Because that’s all you’re focused on, and you’re gonna miss everything else, and you’ll get hurt that way. You have to go out there, using the training that you’ve gotten, and using your instincts, and pray to god that never happens. It’s just, it does, unfortunately.”
“There’s a lot of guys that retire from this job, and they don’t see past 60, because of the physical and emotional trauma it causes. So for me, there’s life after the job, and I’m looking forward to it at times. When something like that happens, you wonder, you just ‘Why, why does that have to happen?’ And you just don’t know what the answer is.”