If there was one event for Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez not to miss, last Thursday’s meet-greet-and-eat gathering of about 300 people ​— ​mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants ​— ​at the Franklin School gymnasium was it. Sanchez, as other officers in attendance would explain, had to be with his seriously ill mother-in-law. Had he been at Franklin, Sanchez would have heard nothing but praise and acclaim from community organizers with immigrant-rights groups like PUEBLO and CLUE, who in the past have been sharp and generous with their criticism of him.

Sanchez was lauded and applauded for softening the police department policy regarding the mandatory impound time required of cars taken from people driving without a license, a major issue for undocumented immigrants. The new policy mandates that tow yards release the impounded vehicles within one to three days if the owner is accompanied by a legally licensed driver. The previous policy required that the tow yard keep such cars no less than 30 days. Immigrant-rights advocates ​— ​and PUEBLO in particular ​— ​complained this policy placed an undue burden upon those who could least afford the high cost of car storage fees coupled with traffic tickets and administrative fees.

“He took the risk and helped our people,” declared Jurado, who can be heard on Radio Bronco, Santa Barbara’s Spanish-language station. “We have to recognize he is the only chief of police to take that initiative.”

Immigrant workers being a necessity of economic life in Santa Barbara, they argued, accommodations should be made. Previous efforts to change departmental policy during the past three years, however, yielded little more than bruised feelings and wounded pride. But when Sanchez quietly decided to relax the impound rules a couple of weeks ago, PUEBLO organizer Tere Jurado felt it imperative to sing his praise. “He took the risk and helped our people,” declared Jurado, who can be heard on Radio Bronco, Santa Barbara’s Spanish-language station. “We have to recognize he is the only chief of police to take that initiative.”

Thursday’s meeting had been initially scheduled ​— ​after a February 14 meeting between Sanchez and PUEBLO’s immigration committee ​— ​as an opportunity for cops and members of the Eastside community to break bread. (The meeting was catered by four Mexican restaurants; several participants brought food.) For Sanchez, the event was an extension of his longstanding community policing policy, recently revitalized with the reinstitution of the beat coordinator program. But given past encounters with PUEBLO activists, Sanchez harbored some apprehension that his officers ​— ​about 12 showed for the event ​— ​might find themselves verbally barbecued.

Activists in attendance were on their best behavior; no one so much as broached the highly contentious issue of the gang injunction, something Sanchez long opposed before embracing two years ago. And Los Angeles immigration rights advocate Mayron Payes ​— ​who exhorted the crowd not to tell authorities where they came from so that they didn’t grease the skids of their own deportation ​— ​was moved to comment, “What you have in Santa Barbara is very unique: You have an open relationship with your police department.”

Part of Sanchez’s change of heart can be attributed to a change in state law that went into effect this January requiring officers at checkpoints to give license-less drivers 30 minutes to get a legally licensed friend or relative to drive their car away. (According to a PUEBLO research paper released three years ago, DUI checkpoints typically yield far more impounded vehicles than they do drunk drivers.) Prior to the change in law, such grace periods were a matter of departmental policy. Santa Barbara’s policy, unlike that of Los Angeles’ or San Francisco’s, was that there could be no grace period; the law, traffic cops explained, said “shall,” not “should.”

But once the new law went into effect, said Sgt. Riley Harwood, the departmental public information officer, Sanchez and City Attorney Steve Wiley had a difference of opinion on whether officers could allow a grace period for motorists stopped for driving without a license outside of designated checkpoints. That’s where the vast majority of traffic stops and auto impounds occur. An attorney with the Department of Motor Vehicles, said Harwood, was dragged in, but for the time being, he said, the disagreement remains unresolved. In lieu of legal consensus, Harwood explained, the chief opted to reduce the time impounded cars had to remain in city designated tow yards. Harwood said the new policy has been in place for several weeks but noted that Deputy Chief Frank Mannix only sent out the memo to the troops memorializing the change in policy June 15.

For any motorist who has a vehicle impounded ​— ​there were 96 in May ​— ​this marks a significant reduction in out-of-pocket expenses. But for immigrant drivers who can’t get a license because of their legal status, it’s especially big. Sanchez, for the record, has long advocated giving immigrants a separate driver’s license, arguing that public safety would be better served if all drivers were licensed, insured, and schooled in the rules of the road. PUEBLO activist Greg Prieto urged the chief to put the new policy in writing. He also called on the chief to take a public stand in favor of the proposed TRUST Act, a statewide bill that would oppose the deportation of immigrants because of minor infractions and require deportation be limited only to those immigrants who had committed serious crimes.


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