It was a far cry from the president’s State of the Union address, but for Santa Barbara’s embattled Police Chief Cam Sanchez, it was the next best thing. For about 30 minutes, Sanchez delivered an upbeat and enthusiastic recitation of the considerable good news taking place in his neck of the law-enforcement world. First and foremost, Sanchez said that Santa Barbara’s incidence of violent crime dropped to a 26-year low in 2011, down 15 percent from the year before and 25 percent from the year before that. No murders, he said, took place in Santa Barbara last year. (The homeless woman killed in a fire on Quarantina Street, he said, was not a suspected homicide.)
While property crime was up by 2 percent over the previous year, Sanchez said it was still 7 percent lower than in 2009. Sanchez attributed part of that rise to L.A.-based burglary crews that had been targeting private vacation-rental properties. First, they’d case the places as prospective renters, the chief explained, then they’d come back and steal big screen TVs, appliances, and art work. For the first time in years, the department is now up to full staffing, with 141 sworn-officer positions authorized in the budget and 141 cops on the job. While vacancies remain in the dispatch center, Sanchez said progress has been made.
Sanchez made his remarks as part of his monthly appearances before the City Council, initiated two months ago by Mayor Helene Schneider in response to growing community concern over controversies erupting within the department. The first such meeting quickly became a high-decibel confrontation between Schneider and freelance reporter Peter Lance, whose investigative series in the Santa Barbara News-Press alleged that an officer assigned to the department’s drunk-driving detail was a rogue cop who lied under oath and forged documents to get an arrest citation. (Lance was arrested last January for DUI, but charges were dismissed by Judge Brian Hill who concluded insufficient cause existed to pull Lance over in the first place.)
Tuesday’s presentation was a much quieter affair with no challenging questions asked. Instead, Sanchez highlighted some of the success stories of getting longtime street drunks either reunited with their families or on the way there. James Johnson, for example, had been cited or arrested 1,608 times on alcohol-related offenses since 1992, Sanchez said, but now he’s moved to Washington to be with children he hasn’t seen in 20 years due to the intercessions of Officer Keld Hove. Likewise, Sanchez credited Hove with helping another man with 803 alcohol-related arrests and citations since 1997 get off the streets and into the New Faulding Hotel.
Sanchez said he’s still testing out different types of patrol-car cameras, but he expressed a commitment to getting them installed. Car cameras will cost the department $225,000, and Sanchez suggested that the Santa Barbara Police Foundation — which he started — might lead the fundraising effort. (That foundation just donated $23,000 to buy eight short-barreled semi-automatic rifles as equipment for the department’s fleet of motorcycles.)
Sanchez waxed especially enthusiastic about increasing the number of beat coordinators from just one to four to help improve communications and relations with the broader Santa Barbara community. In addition, he said the department will soon be unveiling its new social media outreach campaign — nixle.com — that will allow the department to text and email individuals with news, crime stats, trends, and various alerts. And he waxed rhapsodic about the Police Activities League (PAL), which now has nearly 1,800 kids — mostly low-income — involved in various free sports activities.
Sanchez touched only briefly on some of the controversies that sparked community concern this past summer. He defended the use of force against Tony Denunzio, whose violent arrest was videotaped in the parking lot at Gelson’s Market, and he had very little to say about the allegations leveled by Lance about Officer Kasi Beutel, other than to suggest he expected Lance to sue the department, which would preclude him from saying anything. (Sanchez did not mention — nor was he asked about — the status of the special consultant’s report on Beutel. Thus far, requests made by The Santa Barbara Independent for the report have been rejected by City Attorney Steve Wiley. Beutel, it turns out, is one of the four new beat coordinators.) Sanchez did express regret about Karen Flores, the department’s business manager now facing felony charges for stealing more than $100,000 in traffic citation fines. Having to arrest a departmental employee, he said, was “tragic and very disappointing,” adding, “It happened on my watch and I apologize. I take full responsibility for it.”
Councilmember Grant House asked Sanchez how the department would comply with a new state law requiring police officers to allow a grace period for people stopped for driving without a license to have a legally licensed friend or relative pick up their vehicles rather than having their cars impounded. Sanchez said his officers already were. Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss asked how the department was dealing with “urban travelers with dogs” now showing up on State Street. Sanchez replied, “Very aggressively.” Sanchez said this group “pushed the envelope” when it came to making others uncomfortable,” but mostly, they obeyed city laws. As a result, there had been very few arrests or citations issued.