Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow made formal today what many City Hall insiders had been long expecting: that she will soon be stepping down as Santa Barbara chief. 

Luhnow, the city’s first female chief, will end her 32-year career in law enforcement and nearly five-year career in Santa Barbara on February 13. Replacing her on an interim basis will be Barney Melekian, a former undersheriff with the County Sheriff’s Department and now assistant county executive officer in charge of public safety matters — a position he will be now be leaving to assume his new role with the SBPD.

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Luhnow, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, is retiring at a time law enforcement throughout the country is under intense scrutiny in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although Luhnow’s relations were strained with individual members of Santa Barbara’s Healing Justice movement, she marched in one of the protests against police brutality held in De la Guerra Plaza, stating, “We are here to stand in solidarity with all of you in this march against police brutality.” In addition, she supported changes in the use of force, abjuring the use of carotid artery choke holds. 

Still, she was criticized for adopting changes in the department’s use-of-force policy without consulting some key advocates in the activist community. Luhnow managed to simultaneously be a high-profile public figure while flying below the radar. Shortly upon taking over from Santa Barbara’s former Chief Cam Sanchez — the city’s first Latino chief — Luhnow’s significant other died of a sudden heart attack, for which she took a leave of absence. Later during her tenure, Luhnow would become engaged to someone else. 

Luhnow was an advocate of community-oriented policing, and as such, she shied away from the tough law-and-order approach with homeless people favored by many in the downtown business community. She preferred instead a more restorative approach involving the use of non-sworn officers. More recently, the department has adopted the use of co-response units, in which a sworn officer teams up with a mental-health professional. 

The law relating to what enforcement is legally permissible changed drastically while Luhnow was chief. Based on a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, homeless people can’t be cited or arrested for squatting on public property unless there are shelter spaces where they can be placed. Santa Barbara’s inventory of beds falls short of that threshold. 

Under Luhnow’s watch, City Hall has taken steps to replace the existing police station. Built in the late 1950s, it’s too small and no longer meets seismic safety standards. The selection of the new site — at the Cota Street parking lot used by the Saturday Farmers’ Market — has been the subject of considerable community controversy. Within City Hall, Luhnow’s restlessness at her post has been a poorly kept secret. In a prepared statement, Luhnow wrote, “I have deep appreciation for the community of Santa Barbara and enormous gratitude for the talented and dedicated employees of the Santa Barbara Police Department.”

CORRECTION: The headline of this story was changed on 12/15/20 to indicate that Luhnow announced her retirement not her resignation. The story was also updated to clarify that she was not engaged to the significant other who died and that she became engaged to, but has not yet married, someone later in her tenure.

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