Simultaneous waves of injuries and departures have hit the Santa Barbara Police Department just as Chief Cam Sanchez prepares to step down next month, and other key commanders have stepped down or are preparing to do so, as well. Of the 100 sworn officers assigned to the department’s patrol division, 25 are not available for duty either because of injuries or because they have left the department — due to retirement, transfers to other departments, or resignations.
To backfill those vacancies, the department has reassigned officers working specialty assignments — either cutting those back or gutting them outright. Gone or seriously reduced are traffic patrol, the downtown nightlife detail, the gang patrol, the criminal impact team, the restorative policing squad, and the school resource officers. These all have strong constituencies within the community. At full strength, the detective bureau has 18 positions; currently, it’s operating with 12. Since the lab technician recently retired, the Police Department has had to make use of the County Sheriff’s.
Captain Gil Torres, who is also stepping down this February after 33 years with the department, said he’s never seen turnover like this. By this summer, he said that number will climb to 32. In the past, the department never had anyone working full-time on recruiting, just a few people assigned to that function on a part-time basis. Now, Torres said, Sergeant Dave Henderson has been assigned to do nothing but recruit. Also for the first time ever, the department has launched an advertising campaign, running ads in law enforcement trade magazines, military recruitment websites, KEYT, Metropolitan Theatres, and UCSB’s kiosks.
Torres said that he expects about 200 people this Friday to take written as well as physical tests, climbing over six-foot training walls and performing other drills. The department is poised to hire 14 new cops by this summer — some recruits, others transfers — but another seven more are expected to leave. At that point, the department will be running with 96 percent of its positions filled as opposed to 91 percent right now.
Chief Sanchez — in his last presentation to the City Council before retiring after a 15-year career in Santa Barbara, expressed regret over all “the bad choices” he’s had to make in response to staff shortages, while seeking to reassure councilmembers that “a blue shirt” will still respond to any call for service within six minutes. “We’re still chasing the radio,” he said. “We’re not letting go; we’re not slowing down.” That claim was particularly true with regard to homeless encampments. The departmental goal is to clear 16 this fiscal year; in just six months, 14 have already been eliminated.
Sanchez will retire as the longest-serving chief in city history. But in recent months, Sanchez’s reign has grown rockier, with the police officers union complaining that his lack of leadership caused serious morale problems that in turn led to the high turnover rates. A freak accident precipitated Sanchez’s retirement last fall after an errant truck tire flew over a freeway divider and into his car windshield.
City Administrator Paul Casey expects to have selected a new chief early this summer and will need to appoint an interim chief to take over when Sanchez steps off the job on February 16. By the time Sanchez leaves, a major portion of his command staff will have gone, too, leaving the department in an acute transitional state. At the meeting’s close, Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss expressed heartfelt appreciation for the job Sanchez had done — as did Mayor Helene Schneider — causing the chief to become momentarily choked up.