John Sterling, the former Santa Maria police chief far more popular with community activists and fellow cops than his higher-ups in City Hall, died last week at age 60. A Lompoc native, Sterling served as Santa Maria’s top cop from 1998 to 2003. During that time, he won friends among many in the Latino community for his aggressive pursuit of community-oriented policing. Sterling also enjoyed strong relations with his own police union, and, during his tenure, he acted as a recruiting magnet for officers from other departments. But Sterling never figured out how to make peace with Santa Maria city administrator Tim Ness, who engineered Sterling’s ouster in 2003.