Monday afternoon in front of a packed City Council chambers, Lori Luhnow, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, was sworn in as Santa Barbara’s new chief of police. Her officers clapped loudly alongside councilmembers and public safety brass as her fiancé pinned the chief’s shield to her uniform. Luhnow thanked her Eastside neighbors for their warm welcome and teared up as she talked about the support of her three brothers and sister in the audience.
Luhnow becomes Santa Barbara’s top cop at an intensely volatile time for law enforcement. A block away at the downtown post office, the flag flew at half-staff for the three officers killed in Baton Rouge on Sunday. Less than two weeks earlier, the stars and stripes were lowered after the murder of five Dallas officers. But Luhnow, who oversaw investigative and training divisions during her decorated San Diego career, believes earnestly in community policing as a way to bridge the expanding gulf of distrust between the public and police. It’s more than a buzzword, she said; it’s a measurable method of law enforcement that humanizes both sides of the thin blue line.
Luhnow sat down with The Santa Barbara Independent shortly before she took the oath of office. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
What exactly is “community policing”? Have you personally seen its results? It is effectively policing based on a community’s priorities. A perfect example is when I was a young patrol officer in a rough part of San Diego. Everyone was earning respect by working drugs and gangs, and I was determined to get a good drug or gang project. So I started knocking on doors at an apartment complex, and person after person I talked to deflected me to a chop shop in their alley. It operated at night and kept their families awake. Because of the number of people it was impacting, I couldn’t walk away. It wasn’t a sexy problem, but I really was able to change the quality of life for these people. That created trust, and later on, those same people provided information on other cases.
What Santa Barbara priorities will you be working on? I know there is a lot of concern about the increase in the homeless population. That’s something we need to address. I have to get our staffing where it should be so we can get more resources to deal with all the social issues of homelessness. It’s not a criminal problem; however, we are tasked with taking on the criminal aspects. I really would like to pull in all the county and social agencies and have us work more cohesively in addressing the problems before they become crises.
How did you address homelessness and mental-health issues in San Diego? I think a program that the department has which would be very effective here is the HOT team — the Homeless Outreach Team. It’s putting psychological clinicians with officers. It’s a comprehensive response and working within a team from day one when contacting the people who need help the most.
How have you seen the profession change since you became a police officer in 1988? Do you see it continuing to evolve? Post-9/11 you saw that warrior mentality come out. We really ramped up from a tactical perspective. But we have started to shift from “We’re trying to create warriors” to “We’re trying to create guardians.” People are questioning the legitimacy of our actions, so we’re working hard to train the hearts and the minds of our officers to recognize that we’re all humans first.
We come in with biases and experiences that filter our interactions. The more we can train to those, the better. The awareness is the first step. Implicit bias is something you may not even be aware of. You can’t control it. But you can control the explicit bias. We have strong policies and procedures, and we don’t tolerate any perceived bias. It’s just letting people know you have implicit biases — we all have them. It’s really putting yourself in another’s position to know that.
What mistakes do you see officers make most often with the public that engenders animosity? And what mistakes do you see the public make with officers that feeds that dynamic? I think, in general, officers may try to get the last word in because they’re the authority. On the other side, people may not respect or maintain the boundaries of that authority. A lot of times there are crisis instances where those things occur and emotions blow up and cloud everything. But by building community relations, you create more understanding and respect for one another.
Are officers trained differently now than they were before? Younger officers are from a different generation, and they need to be trained differently. They are technology-based — they get their information that way. A lot of our training has to focus on the modeling of information in the field. If all of a sudden people are coming to you to solve all their problems, and you’re not confident in de-escalating people’s language or anger, then you often are more apt to respond with force. It’s a natural fear-based response for someone who gets backed up.
In San Diego I worked on new officer training and showed modeling for some of those conflict-type situations in the field so they could have experience working through that — working on procedural justice, emotional intelligence. The good thing about the newer generations is that they are more willing to look at problems as part of social circumstances — not specifically that a person or class of people is responsible for a problem, but that our community or society let them down.
How does it feel to be the city’s first female police chief? I’m just excited to be a chief. I’m grateful for the opportunity and the trust to take that role. But, yeah, I don’t know any different. I’ve been a female my whole life.