Management Audit Looms for Police Department

by Nick Welsh

Even with the chill of Santa Barbara’s May gray and June gloom,
it’s been an especially hot six weeks for Santa Barbara Police
Chief Cam Sanchez. High-profile gang violence captures headlines;
the police department lost a $500,000 jury verdict to an ex-cop who
claimed he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on
homophobic remarks; and what appeared to be a nasty bar-time street
fight three weeks ago erupted into a scary showdown between
officers and about 300 angry, inebriated onlookers, some of whom
showed up before the City Council last Tuesday to allege police

All these issues Sanchez appears to take seriously, but he also
takes them in stride. What’s knocking Sanchez a little off balance,
however, is the intense face-off now taking place between Mike
McGrew — head of the Police Officers Association (POA) — and City
Administrator Jim Armstrong — Sanchez’s boss — regarding wages,
benefits, hiring, and retention. Even before contract negotiations
had the chance to sour, McGrew took the offensive, all but
predicting an end to Santa Barbara’s remarkable three-year run with
no homicides. McGrew charged the department has been stretched too
thin for too long, due to Armstrong’s budgetary belt tightening
during the past four years. In the process, he complained, public
safety has been compromised. McGrew was also quick to note there
are only 125 officers in uniform, instead of the 141 the department
is budgeted for. Because of this shortfall, he said, officers are
working too many hours with too little downtime, often responding
to unpredictable domestic violence calls without backup. “Morale’s
the worst it’s been in 20 years,” McGrew said.

His solution is simple: money. With more money, the department’s
turnover woes — especially among seasoned officers — will end,
McGrew argued. He and the POA are demanding a 10 percent pay raise.
On top of that, they want city police to be paid 5 percent more
than officers of comparable departments by the time their next
contract expires. It’s this latter demand that’s driving City Hall
number-crunchers crazy, given the possibility that other
communities’ police departments could offer their officers big
raises in the meantime. Many in City Hall concede they waited too
long to authorize the police department to begin filling vacant
positions. But they also point out that City Hall was looking at a
$2.8 million budget shortfall last year. In that context, they
argue, the police department — like all departments — had to suck
it up.

Raising even more hackles than McGrew’s pay demands are his
singling out Armstrong for verbal attack and vociferous questioning
of public safety. Caught in the crossfire is Chief Sanchez. With
one breath, he seeks to reassure the public that their streets are
safe. With the other, he tries to convince his bosses — Armstrong
and the City Council — that his officers badly need help. “I still
believe this is a safe city,” he said. “But that does not mean
we’re doing okay. We’re not doing okay. We’re far from okay. Our
officers do a great job, but I can’t ask them to do more with less
anymore.” Since the end of last year, Sanchez has had to cope with
experienced veterans leaving to take jobs in other departments that
offer better pay, lower housing prices, and far less commuting
time. “Does that create a void?” Sanchez asked. “Just a huge

Such turnover turmoil is hardly unique to Santa Barbara;
statewide police agencies are suffering from a dramatic dearth of
eligible recruits. Young people today are apparently far less
interested in pursuing law enforcement as a career than in the
past. Sanchez has recently been given the green light to fill the
gap — even to “over-hire,” or fill a position before it becomes
vacant — and has hired 15 new officers since January, but it takes
about a year before they can be sworn in.

Meanwhile, Mayor Marty Blum suggested the department’s morale
problem may have more to do with Sanchez’s leadership and
communication style or the department’s old, cramped quarters on
East Figueroa Street than with pay and benefits. “I hear from
recently retired officers who tell me, ‘It’s not the money,
Marty,’” the mayor said. To this end, Blum and city administrators
are considering purchasing a 40,000-square-foot building at the
corner of Chapala and Anacapa streets for the department’s use, but
the $13.3 million purchase is anything but a done deal. McGrew
criticized this idea as a stopgap solution, retorting, “No one is
leaving the department to work in a nicer building, I can tell you
that. That’s just a dodge.”

Councilmember Brian Barnwell has responded to the conflict by
calling for an independent management audit of the police
department to determine how bad morale really is, what the proper
staffing level is, and what it would take — and cost — to achieve
it. In addition, Barnwell has asked whether it would make more
sense for the police chief to report directly to the City Council,
as opposed to serving the city administrator. “I got tired of
hearing McGrew say, ‘It’s not safe and morale sucks.’ I need more
than that upon which to make an informed decision,” Barnwell said.
“Mike could be right, but how would I know? That’s why we need
someone from the outside to come in and help us.” Initially, Chief
Sanchez expressed reservations about the management audit, calling
the idea “a bit of a stretch.” He’s since modified his position,
saying, “I’m not afraid of an audit at all.” He points out that it
was his idea to conduct an anonymous questionnaire to determine his
officers’ concerns. “I can tell you, a lot of chiefs thought I was
crazy to do that,” he said. “But I want to know what’s on my
officers’ minds.”

McGrew said his union conducted a similar survey, which signaled
that turnover has been lethal for morale and higher wages were the
solution. McGrew’s reaction to the proposed audit fluctuated from
resigned indifference to outright hostility. “We already know what
the problem is. We don’t need to pay a consultant to tell us what
we already know,” he said.

Sanchez knew when he took the job that he couldn’t make everyone
happy. But part of being chief, he said, is letting your troops
know you understand what they’re going through. On this, Sanchez
said, “Oh, I get it. But at times, I’ve done a poor job of letting
them know that I get it.”


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