In his 31 years as a Santa Barbara city cop, Sergeant Mike McGrew became a force of nature not just on the streets but inside City Hall. For more than 20 of those years, McGrew — laconic, ferocious, hilarious, and implacable — ran the police union, backed countless political candidates, and famously waged war not just against “the bad guys” but various mayors, city administrators, and police chiefs with whom he so famously feuded. McGrew — also described as blunt, confrontational, and media-savvy — won an award his rookie year for tackling a samurai-sword-wielding man on State Street, starred in reality TV highlighting the department, lost a teenaged son to cancer, struggled with addiction issues of his own, found God, and, most recently, struggled with his own cancer. The side effects of that treatment — numbness of hands and feet — persuaded McGrew it was time to retire, effective last week.
He is, however, hardly disappearing. McGrew is currently entertaining thoughts of running for City Council from the Fifth District. Were he to jump in, he’d run against Eric Friedman — backed by the Democratic Party, and aide to former county supervisor and now Congressmember Salud Carbajal. McGrew confirmed only that there’s been a lot of discussion and that he’s “still praying on this one.”
Regardless, McGrew said he will function as a departmental chaplain and that he’s helped launch the Santa Barbara Worship Center, where he leads services every other Sunday at the Louise Lowry Davis Center. In addition, he’s finishing a book combining several G-rated cop stories and his religious awakening. McGrew is also part of an Orange County–based ministry that specializes in “casting demons out,” a gift he said he stumbled upon while praying over a homeless man who appeared to be bleeding to death on the street. “After we started, all these distractions started happening all at once,” he recalled. “Radios, phones all started going off, and the smell of death was everywhere.”
McGrew said he remains very much involved with the At Ease program he helped start to counsel law enforcement officers and first responders experiencing job-related post-traumatic stress. Such services, he said, are confidential. “No one wants to tell the boss they’re on the verge of meltdown,” he said. “A lot of people use it. It saves lives.”
McGrew’s father was the city fire chief, and his uncle also held an executive position in the department. McGrew became a cop, he said, because he wanted to be a firefighter but there were no openings. Shortly after joining the force in 1986, he encountered that man with the samurai sword. That’s when Pat McElroy — now city fire chief and McGrew’s longtime friend and political coconspirator — first saw McGrew in action. McElroy was driving down State Street with his then-pregnant wife. He fully expected bullets to start flying. “In any other city, the guy gets shot for sure,” McElroy said. Instead, he watched McGrew tackle the man without incident. McGrew said he had started to “pull the trigger” when he saw his opportunity and took it. “I was fortunate I never had to kill anybody,” he said.
“When you were in a jam, you definitely wanted Mike on your side,” said McElroy.
Since the early 1990s, McGrew and McElroy led their respective unions in what became known as the “guns and hoses” coalition. They were among the most politically influential behind-the-scenes power brokers in town. Where McElroy picked his political battles and took pains not to make them personal, McGrew drew his battle lines in black and white; his take-no-prisoners battles with former city administrator Jim Armstrong, former police chief Cam Sanchez, and former mayor Marty Blum became the stuff of political folklore. McGrew said he was born with “a warrior’s spirit” and, for one, couldn’t back down when he saw Great Recession staffing cuts that he felt compromised officer safety.
If he runs for council, toes stepped on in the past could possibly be raised to trip him up. Either way, McGrew said he’s stepping down with more love in his heart than anger. “It’s a new season, a new chapter,” he said, laughing in equal parts relief and disbelief. “I’m still standing,” he said. “After everything, I’m still standing.”