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Police Chief Punches Hole in Golden Parachute


Thursday, August 18, 2011

NEVER CAN SAY GOOD-BYE: Let’s face it; there’s no good way to break up. Typically, there’s only bad and worse. But Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez — who appears poised to sever his relationship with the Police Department to take the helm as Top Cop for the City of San Bernardino — has demonstrated there are even worse ways than that. Sanchez hasn’t been offered the new job yet, and already Santa Barbara’s proverbial screen door has hit him on the ass. But to the extent he’s sustained contusions to his gluteus maximi, the wounds have been entirely self-inflicted.

Angry Poodle

For those tuning in late, the News-Press reported last Thursday that Sanchez was one of two finalists under consideration as the new chief of San Berdoo, formerly known as the meth capital of California. For Sanchez, there would be a $37,000 increase in pay. That’s especially significant when calculating annual retirement payments, and Sanchez is fast approaching retirement age. Sanchez, however, never got around to notifying his boss, City Administrator Jim Armstrong, that he was testing the waters until after he’d been interviewed twice for the post. (Sanchez, it should be noted, says he never went looking, but rather was approached for the new gig.) In fact, Armstrong would first learn of Sanchez’s wanderlust via email by News-Press freelance reporter Peter Lance. This was the worst way possible for Armstrong to find out. Lance happens to be the author of 10 front-page articles this summer blistering Kasi Beutel — the city cop who also happened to have popped Lance for DUI — for various and sundry alleged ethical transgressions in pursuit of drunk-driving citations.

Just two weeks before last Thursday’s story broke, Sanchez had met with his troops and responded to rumors that he might be stepping down. He assured them he was not going anywhere. Sanchez would explain later that he had not been approached by San Bernardino headhunters until after that meeting.

Perhaps Sanchez had his nose out of joint with Armstrong over Armstrong’s decision to pull the plug on On Patrol — the locally produced law-and-order reality show all about the SBPD — despite Sanchez’s objections. On Patrol, it turns out, was about $30,000 behind in its payments to City Hall. City administrators tend to regard the show as a tacky propaganda tool for the Police Officers Association (POA), with which they enjoy, at best, rocky relations. Armstrong cited that debt when he decided earlier this month not to renew the show’s contract. Sanchez thought the show was good for morale. Its producer, Ira Distenfield, was also involved in the formation of the chief’s personal pet nonprofit, the Santa Barbara Police Foundation. It was good PR. None of this swayed Armstrong. Only after the POA started lobbying City Councilmembers did Sanchez’s boss give the show a conditional one-year extension.

One can understand why Sanchez might want to bolt. The average shelf life for most chiefs is five years; Sanchez has been here 11. And it’s been a really rough summer. First, Sanchez got called on the carpet during a City Council meeting by POA President Eric Beecher for not backing “the troops” sufficiently and demanding more cops during budget deliberations. In the etiquette governing paramilitary organizations, that’s practically insubordination. Then there was the weird, wacky publicity stunt where the chief invited the media to cover efforts by his department to find the remains of a 7-year-old girl, Ramona Price, missing more than 50 years at a Caltrans construction site, way out by Winchester Canyon. There were body-sniffing dogs and forensic anthropologists on hand; there were way too many cops milling about preserving the potential crime scene — isn’t there a shortage of sworn officers? — and there was the chief. But there was no Ramona Price to be found. Then, of course, there was the News-Press jihad against Beutel. Mercifully, for the department, the trial of recently dispatched cop Brian Sawicki — pronounced “Sooo Icky” — will soon be taking place up in Santa Maria and not in town. Sawicki is facing felony charges for publicly molesting himself in front of two teenage girls at Refugio State Beach. (He claimed he was merely applying suntan oil to his nether regions with uncommon vigor.)

But perhaps most damaging of all was the recent revelation that the head of the Police Department’s business office, Karen Flores, had been accused of embezzling up to $720,000 in parking fines over a five-year period. That’s never good news for an agency specializing in security, but when the only political issue revolves around how many more cops the city can afford, it’s really bad. By my sloppy calculations, $720,000 is enough to hire five cops for one year. I’m not smart enough to be a white-collar crook, let alone catch one. Even so, I was underwhelmed by how long it took the cops to catch Flores. City finance officials first notified the department four years ago there was a chronic discrepancy of $12,000 a month between how many traffic tickets were being issued and how much money those tickets were bringing in. Four years ago. An audit was done. Changes were made, but no one was caught, and the embezzlement continued. It took one of Flores’s coworkers to drop a dime on her this June — with a detailed seven-page letter sent to the Finance Department — to break the case. While Flores was clever and ingenious — assuming she’s guilty — she does not appear to have been any criminal mastermind. According to legal documents, she deposited embezzled funds into her personal bank account from her computer at the Police Department. And her personal bank would mail receipts of such deposits to Flores on her work computer. Even I would know better.

Clearly, the moral of the story is that it’s not what you don’t say, it’s how you don’t say it. The real question now is what Jim Armstrong will say to Sanchez if Sanchez doesn’t get the job in San Bernardino. For the time being, Armstrong ain’t saying.

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