Sergeant Mike McGrew models traditional motorcyle breech pants (left), and the new padded, Kevlar-reinforced alternative (right).
Paul Wellman

In a first-of-its-kind legal showdown over what kind of pants and boots Santa Barbara motorcycle cops should wear, the Police Officers Association (POA) has sued Chief Cam Sanchez, charging Sanchez exceeded his contractual authority when he ordered motorcycle officers to resume wearing traditional breech pants with knee-high boots as of July 1.

Last October, Sanchez had agreed to the union’s request that motorcycle officers be allowed to wear looser, straight-legged, Kevlar reenforced pants that have light-reflective piping, ample padding, and built-in body armor designed to better protect the knees and hips in the event of a fall. But this May, Sanchez changed his mind, arguing that the new pants ​— ​which critics likened to snowboard pants ​— ​did not adequately project the “command presence” he contends a police uniform is supposed to convey. The POA cried foul and sued.

By acting unilaterally, they objected, Sanchez failed to live up to the meet-and-confer requirements called for by the union contract. Sanchez countered that as chief, he wears the pants and has the authority to make such calls about police uniforms. But the POA responded, in court filings, that meet-and-confers are required when “safety equipment” ​— ​not uniforms ​— ​is involved. It falls to Judge Thomas Anderle to determine whether pants and boots constitute a fashion statement or safety gear.

Union leader Sgt. Mike McGrew argued the looser-fitting pants allow officers to wear boots offering greater ankle support. He claimed one officer involved in a motorcycle accident was back on the job much faster because of the protective knee armor offered by the new pants and another survived a fall without any abrasions. And studies, he said, show a significant reduction in permanent ailments caused by motorcycle accidents. McGrew noted that the traditional motorcycle-cop look dates back to 1873 with the formation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Right now, with the new pants, we look like Euro cops,” McGrew said, “instead of Dudley Do-Right.”

Otherwise, Mannix suggested officers could show up for work dressed like baseball catchers and could pull motorists over at routine traffic stops with their guns drawn. “But we don’t do that,” he said.

Assistant Chief Frank Mannix insisted that it’s too soon to say whether the new pants are factually safer. He also insisted that the department’s operating standard was “reasonably safe,” not the “most safe.” Otherwise, Mannix suggested officers could show up for work dressed like baseball catchers and could pull motorists over at routine traffic stops with their guns drawn. “But we don’t do that,” he said. Last week, it appeared Judge Anderle was prepared to side with the POA but deferred his ruling at the request of City Attorney Steve Wiley, who wanted to weigh in on behalf of Chief Sanchez.

Ironically, even if Anderle rules in favor of the union later this week, the POA has made it clear it has no intention of meeting and conferring with Sanchez. And contractually, it has no obligation to do so. Without any other issues on the table, the union has expressed concern it wouldn’t have any negotiating leverage. Should the union prevail in court, Sanchez will find himself in a Catch-22 scenario where he’s effectively barred from taking action no matter which approach he tries, at least until negotiations begin next year on a new contract.

The apparent pettiness of this dispute illustrates the depths to which relations between Chief Sanchez and the police union have sunk. Earlier this spring, the union went public with plans to amend the city’s charter to empower the city council to hire and fire the chief rather than the city administrator, who currently wields that authority. The union has been vocal in its criticism of City Administrator Jim Armstrong ​— ​charging he’s cut the police force at the expense of public safety ​— ​and nearly as critical of Sanchez for not bucking Armstrong’s budgetary restraint. The POA was forced to back off this campaign ​— ​at least for the time being ​— ​when it became clear there weren’t two councilmembers, the minimum number required, willing to put the matter on the agenda for a council meeting, let alone vote for it.

Whatever the rank-and-file of the Police Department think about the latest dust-up over boots and pants is hard to determine. Only six full-time officers ​— ​and another six part-timers ​— ​will be immediately affected. McGrew acknowledged there’s some split among the ranks, stating that the officer who has most benefited by the new pants is against them. “But then, he thinks we should bring the bow tie back,” McGrew said.


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