Chief Sanchez on the Hot Seat

Management Audit Looms for Police Department

by Nick Welsh

Even with the chill of Santa Barbara’s May gray and June gloom, it’s been an especially hot six weeks for Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez. High-profile gang violence captures headlines; the police department lost a $500,000 jury verdict to an ex-cop who claimed he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on homophobic remarks; and what appeared to be a nasty bar-time street fight three weeks ago erupted into a scary showdown between officers and about 300 angry, inebriated onlookers, some of whom showed up before the City Council last Tuesday to allege police misconduct.

All these issues Sanchez appears to take seriously, but he also takes them in stride. What’s knocking Sanchez a little off balance, however, is the intense face-off now taking place between Mike McGrew — head of the Police Officers Association (POA) — and City Administrator Jim Armstrong — Sanchez’s boss — regarding wages, benefits, hiring, and retention. Even before contract negotiations had the chance to sour, McGrew took the offensive, all but predicting an end to Santa Barbara’s remarkable three-year run with no homicides. McGrew charged the department has been stretched too thin for too long, due to Armstrong’s budgetary belt tightening during the past four years. In the process, he complained, public safety has been compromised. McGrew was also quick to note there are only 125 officers in uniform, instead of the 141 the department is budgeted for. Because of this shortfall, he said, officers are working too many hours with too little downtime, often responding to unpredictable domestic violence calls without backup. “Morale’s the worst it’s been in 20 years,” McGrew said.

His solution is simple: money. With more money, the department’s turnover woes — especially among seasoned officers — will end, McGrew argued. He and the POA are demanding a 10 percent pay raise. On top of that, they want city police to be paid 5 percent more than officers of comparable departments by the time their next contract expires. It’s this latter demand that’s driving City Hall number-crunchers crazy, given the possibility that other communities’ police departments could offer their officers big raises in the meantime. Many in City Hall concede they waited too long to authorize the police department to begin filling vacant positions. But they also point out that City Hall was looking at a $2.8 million budget shortfall last year. In that context, they argue, the police department — like all departments — had to suck it up.

Raising even more hackles than McGrew’s pay demands are his singling out Armstrong for verbal attack and vociferous questioning of public safety. Caught in the crossfire is Chief Sanchez. With one breath, he seeks to reassure the public that their streets are safe. With the other, he tries to convince his bosses — Armstrong and the City Council — that his officers badly need help. “I still believe this is a safe city,” he said. “But that does not mean we’re doing okay. We’re not doing okay. We’re far from okay. Our officers do a great job, but I can’t ask them to do more with less anymore.” Since the end of last year, Sanchez has had to cope with experienced veterans leaving to take jobs in other departments that offer better pay, lower housing prices, and far less commuting time. “Does that create a void?” Sanchez asked. “Just a huge one.”

Such turnover turmoil is hardly unique to Santa Barbara; statewide police agencies are suffering from a dramatic dearth of eligible recruits. Young people today are apparently far less interested in pursuing law enforcement as a career than in the past. Sanchez has recently been given the green light to fill the gap — even to “over-hire,” or fill a position before it becomes vacant — and has hired 15 new officers since January, but it takes about a year before they can be sworn in.

Meanwhile, Mayor Marty Blum suggested the department’s morale problem may have more to do with Sanchez’s leadership and communication style or the department’s old, cramped quarters on East Figueroa Street than with pay and benefits. “I hear from recently retired officers who tell me, ‘It’s not the money, Marty,’” the mayor said. To this end, Blum and city administrators are considering purchasing a 40,000-square-foot building at the corner of Chapala and Anacapa streets for the department’s use, but the $13.3 million purchase is anything but a done deal. McGrew criticized this idea as a stopgap solution, retorting, “No one is leaving the department to work in a nicer building, I can tell you that. That’s just a dodge.”

Councilmember Brian Barnwell has responded to the conflict by calling for an independent management audit of the police department to determine how bad morale really is, what the proper staffing level is, and what it would take — and cost — to achieve it. In addition, Barnwell has asked whether it would make more sense for the police chief to report directly to the City Council, as opposed to serving the city administrator. “I got tired of hearing McGrew say, ‘It’s not safe and morale sucks.’ I need more than that upon which to make an informed decision,” Barnwell said. “Mike could be right, but how would I know? That’s why we need someone from the outside to come in and help us.” Initially, Chief Sanchez expressed reservations about the management audit, calling the idea “a bit of a stretch.” He’s since modified his position, saying, “I’m not afraid of an audit at all.” He points out that it was his idea to conduct an anonymous questionnaire to determine his officers’ concerns. “I can tell you, a lot of chiefs thought I was crazy to do that,” he said. “But I want to know what’s on my officers’ minds.”

McGrew said his union conducted a similar survey, which signaled that turnover has been lethal for morale and higher wages were the solution. McGrew’s reaction to the proposed audit fluctuated from resigned indifference to outright hostility. “We already know what the problem is. We don’t need to pay a consultant to tell us what we already know,” he said.

Sanchez knew when he took the job that he couldn’t make everyone happy. But part of being chief, he said, is letting your troops know you understand what they’re going through. On this, Sanchez said, “Oh, I get it. But at times, I’ve done a poor job of letting them know that I get it.”

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