EUREKA! For Sir Isaac Newton — the father of modern physics — all it took to achieve his eureka moment was an apple hitting him on the head. For Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, a more violent revelation proved necessary. On October 2, as Sanchez was driving south on the 101 to pick up one of his three daughters at LAX, a wheel from a truck heading the opposite direction mysteriously came loose, flew over the freeway divider, and smashed into the windshield of Sanchez’s car. Aside from a few stitches and bruises, no one, amazingly, was hurt. Had the wheel planted itself a few inches further in either direction, the outcome would have been considerably more gruesome. For people in their mid-sixties like Sanchez, that qualifies as a bona-fide wake-up call. Not everybody listens. To Sanchez’s credit — and to the relief of many in City Hall — he did. A week after, Sanchez announced his retirement, effective February.
To abuse the physics metaphor a little bit more, Sanchez — with 15 years at the helm of the SBPD — qualifies as the immovable object breathlessly postulated by theoreticians in the field. Most chiefs have a shelf life of five years. Those who don’t leave voluntarily are run out of town shortly thereafter. In that context, 15 years is an amazing accomplishment. Sanchez is not the longest-serving chief in California — contrary to popular misconception — but he is the longest-serving chief in Santa Barbara’s history. Over much of his tenure, Sanchez has found himself locked in perpetual political combat with Sergeant Mike McGrew, head of the Police Officers Association (POA). In person, McGrew — very much the irresistible force in this melodrama — is the sweetest, most soulful grizzly bear you ever saw. But when riled, it’s a smart idea to cross the street to avoid contact with such bears. Or as McGrew’s friends say of the former state wrestling champ, “Mike needs a fight.” Had the truck wheel not intruded on the chief’s windshield when it did, it’s clear McGrew was gearing up to force Sanchez to step down. With Sanchez’s protectors and benefactors at City Hall recently retired — and the City Council eager for a change of leadership — the chief’s days were clearly numbered.
Among his admirers, Sanchez is praised as a pioneering pathfinder when it comes to community-oriented policing, dealing innovatively with the mentally ill, and making sure his cops go the extra mile in providing a genuinely high level of service. Cops afflicted with short fuses and even shorter tempers, they say, have a habit of not sticking around. And crime rates — the ultimate yardstick — have been way down. But Sanchez’s detractors insist the chief has grown tired and removed over the years, delegating key responsibilities to Machiavellian hatchet men and a coterie of incompetent yes-men who were promoted to positions of authority that obviously exceed their competence. Depending on one’s sources, the department’s three captains either affirmatively can’t stand each other or are merely incapable of speaking to one another. The department, the critics say, has become a place where good ideas go to die and where the drag of friction, gravity, and inertia have become overwhelming.
Earlier this year, McGrew fired the opening salvo, complaining to Cal/OSHA that the police headquarters — built 60 years ago as a cross between Cold War bomb shelter and rat warren — was a dangerous place to work. The chief, he said, didn’t move fast enough to address department-wide concerns that theirs was a “sick” building. Cal/OSHA inspectors found several violations and fined the department a few thousand bucks. McGrew made sure the media knew long before city administrators got the word.
About the same time Sanchez encountered the mysterious wheel projectile, McGrew launched his second strike, an election-season letter bomb mailed to every registered voter in town bemoaning the steady decline in leadership that’s taken place the past 14 years. McGrew’s timing seemed a little insensitive, but then grizzly bears are not known for the sensitivity of their attacks. Morale, McGrew charged, was at an all-time low. McGrew didn’t mention Sanchez by name. He didn’t have to.
Cops, for the record, are the biggest complainers on the planet. But in this case, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Complaints about low morale — call it malaise, call it exhaustion — are hardly confined to the rah-rah choir of the POA. In recent years, the City Council set aside more money to hire more cops. The department, however, has been unable to fill existing positions, let alone the new ones. In the past year, 17 cops have left the department, eight to retire, nine to take jobs elsewhere. Five have become UCSB cops. Another 14 are either injured, on disciplinary leave, or otherwise out of action. According to departmental brass, the SBPD is operating with only 93 percent the number of sworn officers budgeted. According to the union, the real number is 75 percent. Nerves get raw, tempers frayed. In response, five specialty cops — including one focusing on the homeless — have been reassigned to patrol. In the wake of Ferguson and a tsunami of other excessive-force scandals, all departments are having a hard time recruiting. But even Sanchez supporters privately acknowledge the chief made a bad situation worse by putting the captain least able to perform in charge of so vital a function.
Sanchez did himself few favors two weeks ago when he addressed the City Council. “Morale,” he said, “is a choice.” That, I’m guessing, did little to assuage the feelings of officers anxious about reduced troop strength. Probably, in fact, just the opposite. Nor, I’m guessing, when the chief took issue with the “personal agendas” — and all the negativity he had “no more room for” — waged by certain officers he said were so few he could count them “on one hand.”
In the meantime, chief, congrats for 15 years of service. And when apples fall on your head, make apple cider.