The Making of a Top Cop

Up Through the Ranks

MAN IN BLUE: Gerald Lowry came up through the Santa Barbara Police Department ranks and was thinking of retirement, never dreaming of becoming chief.

“It was the last thing on his mind,” Don Williams, his former sidekick, told me.

But fate tapped Lowry on the uniform shoulder with a baton. It was 1983 and the city had just fired another chief recruited from outside, another mistake.

Barney Brantingham

One out-of-towner, I recall from my police beat days, used to hide under his desk whenever Harry Graham, hard-nosed Police and Fire Commission chairman, was spotted walking up the PD steps on East Figueroa Street. The imported chief supposedly had been a captain in highly political Indianapolis, Lowry told me the other day. “We found out later that if one political party was in power, he was a captain. If not, he was a sergeant.”

In the mid 1980s, when another chief hired from out-of-town got into serious trouble and was fired, the city looked within its own ranks for a replacement and tapped Lowry.

He was the perfect choice. A proven leader. Had worked about every job on the force and was respected. Respect is not easily won among the men and women in blue. You have to earn it and pay dues.

“He was the best damn detective I ever came across in my 30 years of police work,” Williams said. “I couldn’t ask for more in a police chief.” After Lowry was appointed in 1986, he got the department settled down. “Everyone liked him and he got along with everyone,” one retired officer told me. Lowry, a Santa Barbara High grad, was chief until he retired in 1987.

I sat in his living room, and he talked about his early days on an underpaid, undermanned Santa Barbara police force. Today, recruits are chosen after graduation from a law enforcement academy and rigorous testing. But when Lowry signed up in 1956 after two stints in the Navy, there was no Police Academy. You learned on the job, teaming with a veteran officer half the day and taking classes the other half.

The PD was so short of men that at times there were only three officers on duty at night to cover the entire city, along with a sergeant and a lieutenant, Lowry said.

Fights had to be quelled at East Haley Street bars and at the farm labor camps, he said. I recall one burly officer telling how he had to wade into a wild Haley Street fight and break it up single-handedly. “One night during Fiesta there was just two of us on duty when a fight broke out in a home,” Lowry recalled. “There must have been 60 people. I pulled up with my red light on and everyone took off — fortunately.”

Even as a young cop, Lowry was a leader. “We were one of the lowest-paid departments in the State of California,” he recalled. As president of the Police Benefit Association (there was no union), he and other officers and city firefighters urged the city to adopt a 20-cities plan, tying their pay to the average of 20 towns of comparable size. “Mayor [Edward] Abbott fought us. So we went to every voter in town seeking support. We went to the City Council and they wouldn’t [adopt it].”

Police and firefighters put the 20-cities plan on the ballot and not only was it adopted but Mayor Abbott was kicked out of office, Lowry said.

By the time Lowry became chief, the police station was woefully inadequate (and still is). “It was crowded,” Williams said. He described how it was at the time. “The public has no place to park. It’s not a place that’s easily available to the public.” Operations are scattered around town.

Back in the 1980s, “I had the [council] votes” to build a new one, Lowry said. An architect was lined up. Possible locations included property where the present auto dealers are on the Northside. Lowry spearheaded the plan.

But, unbelievably, City Administrator Richard Thomas refused to take the proposal to the City Council, even though councilmembers all approved of the idea, Lowry said. The cost estimate then was $15.5 million, he said, compared with estimates in the $36 million - $38 million range when a new proposal was put before voters a few years ago, and rejected. Since then, the lobby and some other areas have been remodeled, but still no rebuild.

Lowry, now 82 and fighting cancer, recalled several heartbreaking crimes against police officers. On January 3, 1970, Thomas Guerry, 29, was shot and killed during a gun battle with two armed robbers. Every year the Thomas Guerry Award for Valor is given to outstanding law enforcement officers from around the county.

In the early 1970s, a Texas family was rampaging around the country on a deadly crime spree that left 25 dead. Their specialty was robbing donut-shop waitresses, kidnapping, raping, and killing them. One holdup man came running out of a Santa Barbara business with Officer Dennis Huddle in pursuit. The gunman shot Huddle in the head. Lowry, who went to Texas to arrest the gunman, said that as a result of his wounds, Huddle committed suicide two years later.

Lowry lives with his wife, Geneva, whom he married after they met as juvenile bureau officers in 1964.


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