The Santa Barbara Police Officers Association (POA), the union representing city police officers, announced it will not be endorsing any of the incumbents seeking reelection to the City Council. The POA is instead backing challengers Randy Rowse for mayor, Barrett Reed for District 4, and Nina Johnson for downtown’s District 6. Pointedly not receiving the POA endorsement is incumbent mayor Cathy Murillo and councilmembers Meagan Harmon (opposed by Johnson), Kristen Sneddon (opposed by Reed), and Eric Friedman (opposed by no one).
While the POA praised the experience and support of Rowse, Reed, and Johnson, union president Eric Beecher castigated the incumbents for what he termed their lack of interest and support for rank-and-file cops. “In the last year and a half, our council has fostered a culture of distrust in our police officers and not honoring the professional and dangerous work they do every day,” Beecher wrote. “Morale is at an all-time low and number-one reason was the lack of support from our city leaders,” he said, adding the department’s operational strength is down 30 of 141 budgeted positions.
As a result, he said, violent and property crime has gone up throughout the city over the last two years, and acting chief Barney Melekian ordered “a reduction in responding to calls for service.” Beecher added, “The lack of leadership from Mayor Murillo and current city councilmembers has never been so apparent in the last two years from lack of decision making, numerous lawsuits, and the dysfunction of City management.”
Beecher did not specifically mention the council’s response to the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter mobilization in its wake, but it was clearly the issue. While no effort to defund the police took off, Councilmember Eric Friedman suggested removing parking enforcement from the police department. The council voted to approve the creation of the Community Formation Commission to in turn focus on the creation of police review board — to address potential issues of racial inequity in law enforcement.
Many officers felt at the time the council could have done more to speak up in defense of the department — or then Chief Lori Luhnow, who’d already initiated several measures designed to address issues of race, equity, and better relations with communities either underserved or overpoliced.
In years past, the POA had been a politically potent force in city elections, often teaming up with the firefighters’ union to endorse candidates, walk precincts, and pay for political mailers. The POA has been politically dormant for several years. With many of its members living out of town, the union won’t be fielding any door-knocking effort.
The POA’s endorsement came shortly after the firefighters’, who also endorsed Rowse for mayor, but Harmon, Sneddon, and Friedman for council.
Mayor Murillo expressed “disappointment” that the POA rebuffed her request for an endorsement interview, a “common courtesy” she said. The union likewise declined Councilmember Sneddon’s request for the same.
Acting Chief Melekian took exception with some of Beecher’s facts. “Violent crime is down 5 percent compared to last year,” he stated. Property crimes, he noted, increased by 13 percent, which he attributed to the no-bail orders now in effect for nonviolent and drug-related offenses.
Melekian also disputed he had ordered a “reduction is responses,” insisting instead he ordered a “re-prioritization” of nonpriority calls. Under this new scheme — which goes into effect this week — Melekian has ordered officers to take telephonic or online crime reports in instances when they cannot show up in person within 30 minutes.
He acknowledged that 30 positions are currently vacant, which he attributed to both COVID and the “events of last year.” Some officers, he said, are leaving the profession. Others are taking jobs closer to where they live, like one officer — who lives in Glendale — who just took a post with the Glendale Police Department.
Mayor Murillo said she looks forward to working directly with officers — in spite of the union endorsement — especially as it relates issues of youth safety and homelessness. “I always look out for the well-being of my employees,” Murillo wrote, stressing her support for decent salaries and working conditions.
Murillo also said she strongly supports the Formation Commission and a civilian oversight board “to prevent excessive use of force in our police department.”
Councilmember Harmon said given her leadership pushing the Community Formation Commission, it’s not surprising the police union did not endorse her. Harmon stated “empowering voices of local residents” will only make city government more effective.
Councilmember Sneddon said she was “saddened” the union declined her request to be interviewed, but said, “Our police officers do a tremendous job” keeping the community safe. Of the 30 positions now vacant, she said, many police officers are leaving because of the high price of housing. That’s why, Sneddon added, she opposes giving developers incentives to build luxury homes.
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