Losing sworn officers to injury, retirement, and lateral movement to the Sheriff’s Office and other police departments, the Santa Barbara Police Department is operating at 93 percent of its fully staffed potential, making the job tougher for its existing workforce, especially first responders on the street. This shortage was the main point of contention Tuesday afternoon as city councilmembers fielded Chief Cam Sanchez’s latest department update and his response to claims of dropping morale.
“I’m the chief; this is on me,” Sanchez said, back in uniform after a short hospital stay and rest at home after a stray tire on Highway 101 smashed through his windshield on October 2. “I don’t blame people for being frustrated. I’m frustrated that I don’t have enough people. [But] I do not believe that morale is low. This job comes from the heart: You either want to serve your city or you don’t, and the people who have a personal agenda need to find something else to do.”
The chief’s presentation also detailed “deplorable” conditions at the police station, inadequate parking for staffers, and the challenges of competing with departments statewide for qualified applicants. More often than not, potential recruits who pass early hurdles get disqualified during background checks or snatched up by out-of-town police forces with more attractive salaries and housing markets. “A lot of our candidates are looking for a place to work for 30 years and raise a family,” said Gil Torres, the head of the department’s administrative services. “Santa Barbara is an expensive place [to do that].” At the same time, Torres added, some retirees with pensioned benefits are moving, for example, to law-enforcement positions at UCSB “to double dip, as you call it.” Right now, the department is looking to hire 19 officers out of a field of 65, but realistically, after further vetting, it will likely offer positions to five or six. “The one thing we will never do is lower our standards to fill a spot,” Sanchez said.
While crime has been trending downward, for months City Hall has been hearing about personnel concerns, and Councilmember Gregg Hart suggested it’s time for the department to come up with “a better way” to recruit and keep officers before the situation reaches the tipping point of the understaffed getting overworked. Sanchez said that’s on his plate of competing priorities, adding, “I have no more room for negativity in my department. I’m tired of it.”