CRAZY COP CAPERS: Santa Barbara City Hall is roiling in yet another toxic dustup between the cops’ union and City Administrator/Jefe del Mundo Jim Armstrong. As always, Chief Cam Sanchez appears haplessly caught in the crossfire. Or at least that’s one version making the rounds. While city cop cars may not come equipped with video cameras — basic equipment in most cities — many of our black-and-whites are populated with their own camera crews, provided courtesy of On Patrol, a Santa Barbara variant of law’n’disorder reality porn. A typical episode shows our men and women in blue bravely chasing down criminally stupid and obnoxious drunk people. Over and over. The show is reportedly a big hit with the 18-49 male demographic. The show’s executive producer, Ira Distenfield, just sued City Hall, claiming breach of contract, because Armstrong recently pulled the plug on On Patrol just as it was about to enter its fifth year of production. In addition, he filed a separate action, claiming the city’s decision has cost him $1.2 million. But Armstrong’s real agenda, at least according to Distenfield, is to kidney-punch the cops’ union in a fit of political pique and payback. Given that union leader Sergeant Mike McGrew — whose face-offs with Armstrong have become the stuff of local lore — is afforded oceans of face time on On Patrol, one can see Distenfield’s point.
While Armstrong has taken pains to say nothing on the subject, his minions have pointedly pointed out that there is no contract to breach. Armstrong chose not to renew it last summer because Distenfield was $49,000 behind in his payments. Furthermore, they say, Distenfield’s done squat since then to rectify the matter. My brief effort to ascertain the actual facts has been a failure. Both sides have barraged me with a blizzard of contradictory details that would take a gallon of truth serum to sort out. Frankly, I lack the time or interest. Certainly, this would not be the first Distenfield venture to be plagued by serial confusion and discord among the parties involved. Court records indicate such acrimony is par for the course. In one instance, Distenfield even wound up spending a couple of nights locked up in the L.A. County jail due to such a combination of confusion and ill will. The $1.2-million figure Distenfield says Armstrong lost him is based on the hypothetical money Ira conceivably could have made had he been able to syndicate Season Five of On Patrol for 20 years. There are no records indicating Distenfield has just acquired a Burger King franchise, but that qualifies as a Whopper. Twenty years?! Who knew the arrest and incarceration of South Coast inebriates was such a timeless art form? If that weren’t sufficient to induce some serious cognitive dissonance, there’s Distenfield’s assertion that City Hall has benefited from $600,000 worth of positive publicity from the On Patrol episodes when it aired on KEYT. Distenfield is currently running a company called Marketing Express (ME for short) and clearly he’s come into his own.
Personally, I find On Patrol creepy and invasive. But even worse, it’s boring. How can that be? Had Distenfield shifted his crews to Paso Robles — a few hours north — maybe we could have watched that town’s police chief, Lisa Solomon, respond to accusations that after some heavy drinking she ordered her command staff into a hot tub for a mandatory meeting — part of a team-building effort — where she allegedly grabbed the johnsons of two underlings. Aside from other similar — and only slightly less outrageous — allegations of sexual harassment, Solomon is facing complaints she imposed an illegal monthly ticket quota on her officers and falsified crime stats for her own glorification.
Far more ominously, there’s the meltdown now embroiling the police department of Santa Maria, where the police union just blasted Chief Danny Macagni with an overwhelming no-confidence vote. By many accounts, Macagni is a tough, no-nonsense guy given to casually bigoted statements and a leadership style that makes Benito Mussolini look warm and fuzzy. In other words, he’s absolutely perfect for all but 80 percent of Santa Maria’s population. To be fair, the union never liked Macagni and has liked him even less since City Hall imposed a contract on the union in 2011 because no agreement could be reached at the bargaining table. But since early this year, Santa Maria holds the distinction of being the only city where one cop — Officer Alberto Covarrubias — was shot and killed by another — his best friend — in the line of duty because he was having a consexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. In hindsight, some ex-cops have suggested there were a million safer ways to bring Covarrubias in. We’ll never know. In December, two Santa Maria officers were shot and wounded by four fellow officers during a one-sided shoot-out centered around Samyr Ceballos, a 24-year-old drug dealer and gang member. Ceballos, who was armed and had reportedly vowed to go down shooting, was killed. Last summer, the leader of Santa Maria’s SWAT team resigned in protest — as did three other senior members — citing safety concerns. Maybe safety is just a cynical code word for more money, as some skeptics contend, but when three officers are shot and one killed within two months, that suggests a serious training problem.
Then there are the allegations that Macagni failed to adequately investigate charges that one of his detectives, reportedly addicted to pain medication, was stealing prescription medications from houses in the course of executing search warrants. These charges were first filed in 2004 by the person whose medications were allegedly stolen, and subsequently by a Santa Maria cop. They have reportedly been investigated three times and, to date, have not been substantiated. Late last year, City Attorney Gil Trujillo notified the most recent complainant, ex-officer Chuck Rylant, that there was no foundation to the charge. Rylant claims that a cop who allegedly witnessed the theft was never interviewed. Trujillo declared in an email to me that no such eyewitness ever existed, so naturally no interview would be possible. But Trujillo did confirm that the investigator hired by the City of Santa Maria to look into this allegation, an Orange County police captain named Art Romo, works as an independent contractor for Bruce Praet, the very lawyer Trujillo has hired to defend Chief Macagni — and other Santa Maria officers — against previous lawsuits. To avoid what might appear as a conflict of interest to the average schmo, pains should be taken to maintain at least a good arm’s length between the investigator and the investigatee. Being from Santa Barbara, I don’t pretend to know how they measure things up in Santa Maria. But somehow I can’t fathom how hiring the gumshoe working for Police Chief Macagni’s defense attorney to investigate charges against the chief could ever qualify as “an arm’s length.”
In the meantime, don’t touch that dial and don’t attempt to adjust your TV set. Even if On Patrol insists on being boring, the good news is that nothing else is.