Police Chief Lori Luhnow spoke with emotion as she gave her farewell report to the Santa Barbara City Council Tuesday morning, January 26. On the state of policing, she said, “You have amazing officers. Don’t forget them. Because of them, I am in a position where I’m going to move on and feel comfortable.”
After a 35-year career in law enforcement — five spent at the helm of the Santa Barbara Police Department — Luhnow will retire as a sworn officer two weeks from now to pursue her passion for police wellness, emphasizing fitness and nutrition and offering little tolerance for bagels, let alone doughnuts.
The year 2020, Luhnow reported, was one “like no other.” COVID-19 claimed the lives of 208 law enforcement officers nationwide. Within her department, the number of COVID cases stayed in “single digits.” Safety and hygiene was stressed. Her officers drove to Fresno when disinfectants were hard to find here. “If it sounds like I’m bragging,” she told the council, “it’s because I am.”
Councilmembers were quick to praise Luhnow for moving the department’s culture into a more progressive — frequently described as a “21st century” — direction. In fact, under Luhnow’s watch, “The Task Force on 21st Century Policing” — released by the National Police Foundation — became required reading for any Santa Barbara officer competing for a promotion.
Under Luhnow, Santa Barbara’s police will, within the next six months, hit the streets wearing body cameras. Lieutenant Shawn Hill has been appointed head of a new Community Accountability Unit, while officers Adrian Gutierrez and Heather Clark will become new community liaison officers, actively seeking community partnership. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon highlighted how the chief promoted the At Ease program that allows officers to obtain psychological counseling without their superiors’ knowledge.
A proponent of community policing, Luhnow allocated funds for one co-response officer to work with mental-health case workers trained in handling acute crisis situations. Together, they will be better equipped to prevent tense situations from escalating into violent encounters.
Luhnow also directed the police Restorative Justice program to collaborate with CityNet. The faith-based street outreach program is known for its relentless approach to connect those on the streets with needed resources. So far, Luhnow told the council, the Restorative Justice program has reunited 62 people living on the streets with their families. Shortly after becoming chief, Luhnow formed a body of community advisors and put community members on hiring and policy committees.
As Luhnow retires, the City Council is in the early stages of lengthy public discussions about the creation of a new civilian review board. Over the past year, Luhnow noted, force was deployed .34 percent of the time in the 49,000 encounters city police officers had with the public. That led, she said, to just one injury when a suspect resisting arrest sustained a broken bone. The previous year, there had been five injuries. Two years from now, Luhnow added, the department will begin reporting on the ethnicities of all members of the public stopped by officers.
Of the department’s 128 sworn officers, 67 percent are white, 22 percent are Latino, and 2 percent are Black; 29 spoke two languages. Fifty percent grew up either in Santa Barbara County or western Ventura County, 28 percent attended Santa Barbara high schools, and 68 percent had earned a college degree. The more educated the officers, she noted, the less prone they were to use of force.
In the past year, Luhnow reported, violent crime had increased by 6 percent, mostly driven by a sharp spike in aggravated assaults. And even though the number of calls for service for violent crime increased, Luhnow took pride that the time it took officers to respond dropped from 6.1 minutes in 2019 to 5.6 in 2020.
Mayor Cathy Murillo praised the chief as a great role model for young women, recalling how, at a Fourth of July event, she watched a 12-year-old girl’s face light up and heard her exclaim, “She’s the chief.” The councilmember representing the Eastside, Alejandra Gutierrez, praised Luhnow for helping to mend fences with residents there. Luhnow replied that “one of the bright moments” for her was always the Milpas Street Halloween Parade, when she would see every year “more young children in police officer uniforms.”
Luhnow will step down on February 13. Filling her shoes for six months will be Barney Melekian, a onetime Pasadena chief of police, not to mention a former Santa Barbara County Undersheriff. Like Luhnow, Melekian is a proponent of progressive policing. In fact, he currently serves on the board of the organization that wrote the report on 21st-century policing — the National Police Foundation.
Under Luhnow’s tenure, the department stands at the brink of building a new police station. Next week, the city’s Architectural Board of Review will re-examine whether the previous plan’s sharp institutional lines—deemed by some critics as too overbearing—could be modified. The Figueroa Street structure is too small, structurally unsafe, and was built in 1958, a time when the needs of women officers were not even contemplated.
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