Marylinda Arroyo’s professional résumé is bursting with historical firsts. She’s the first woman officer in the Santa Barbara Police Department’s history to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant. She’s the first woman to make captain, the first to be elevated to the rank of commander, and now — as of last week — the first to be named the city’s interim police chief. Arroyo may also happen to be the first person diagnosed with dyslexia to run the department.
That’s a lot of firsts when it comes to shattering the glass ceiling. But Arroyo doesn’t want to hear about gender and firsts, let alone talk about them.
“The focus is not about me,” she insists during a morning interview at a State Street parklet. “It’s about the men and women who do all the good work. It’s about the department. I’m just a footnote.” Later in the conversation — just for good measure — she added, “I just happen to be the one riding the skateboard.”
It’s unclear at this point just how long of a ride that might be.
The search for a new chief — to replace former chief Lori Luhnow, who stepped down in March 2021 — has already proved to be much more difficult and time-consuming than expected. Initially, Barney Melekian, who had served as undersheriff for Sheriff Bill Brown, was brought in for what was anticipated to be a few months of interim duty while a permanent replacement was found.
Melekian stepped down last week after more than a year of searching took place. The first wave of applicants proved to be underwhelming in the extreme, so a second round was initiated. Out of that pool of applicants, three candidates reportedly shone. One — reportedly a woman — has reputedly been offered the job. Arroyo — who decided not to apply for the permanent position herself, citing family health issues — said she expects an announcement to be made in a couple of weeks.
Mayor Randy Rowse said it could easily take a couple of months before the new chief gets sworn in. Backgrounds have to be checked, and I’s dotted and T’s crossed. This is one of the most critical hires City Hall can make. The challenges of leading a police department, Rowse said, can’t be overstated in the current moment, as the murder of George Floyd two years ago and the recent debacle of the Uvalde school shooting attest.
Into this interim interregnum steps Marylinda Arroyo, a locals’ local who started with the department in 1991 as a cadet — one year after graduating from Santa Barbara High School. She was first sworn in as an officer in 1996. Today, she’s in charge of Field Operations, a term that encompasses all the patrol officers, street crime, and co-response units, not to mention traffic and parking — pretty much everything most people think of when imagining a police department minus the detectives’ bureau.
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In person, Arroyo is warm, smart, and engaging. She’s also exceptionally careful about what she says. Baseball, for example, is a burning passion for Arroyo and members of her immediate family. Among her clan, she stated, there are die-hard Dodgers fans, Giants fans, and Padres fans. But when it comes to disclosing her own favorite team, Arroyo won’t say. “I stay neutral,” she said. “I appreciate the sport.”
Arroyo has a reputation for being a by-the-book brainiac who plays things close to the vest. She was one of the first in the department to get into computer crime. “I’m a little bit of a geek,” she explained. “I love numbers.” Arroyo attributes this in part to her extreme dyslexia, something she said required considerable effort to work around.
When Arroyo moved to Santa Barbara with her mother — a single mom — she was 9 years old. Her mother, Diane Guzman, was a high-ranking administrator with the County of Santa Barbara who played a central role developing policy to deal with offshore oil development during the mid-1980s. This was a politically pivotal time when Santa Barbara was seen as the second coming of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in terms of its natural reserves. Public hearings about oil were holy-war affairs for both sides of the debate; Arroyo remembers doing her homework in the back of the supervisors’ chambers. Her mom would later move on to take executive posts in Santa Cruz and Sacramento counties.
Arroyo’s parents divorced when she was very young. Mostly, it was her and her mother. Her father, she said, grew up rough and poor, the son of Mexican immigrants, in San Bernadino. He was, she remembered, brilliant and determined to get a good education. He worked multiple jobs to earn a degree as a pharmacist from the University of Arizona. Her father, she intimated, was not made to feel welcome. “It was a different time then,” she said. Among the key messages he would impart to his daughter was “You don’t judge anybody.” He wasn’t thrilled to hear his daughter wanted to become a cop.
“To say my father was wary of police officers is a huge understatement,” Arroyo said. “His rule of thumb was ‘Don’t be like them.’”
It’s safe to say that few police chiefs in modern history have been as steeped in Santa Barbara’s multiple communities as Arroyo. As a young girl, she first attended Franklin Elementary, and then she shifted to Roosevelt, where she remembers attending classes in portable classrooms. She graduated in the same class as school board member and county supervisor-elect Laura Capps. As a kid, Arroyo remembers shopping at Piccadilly Square, a chaotic but inviting hodge-podge of shops located where present-day Paseo Nuevo now stands. She remembers when Highway 101 still had a stoplight where State Street used to cross. She worked as a waitress at The Baker, located right across from the courthouse; she sold shoes for Frank and Fred at Outfooters. On Friday nights, she was a stringer for KEYT, reporting the scores for high school football games. This
being before the era of cell phones, she had to arrange for someone to relay the scores from a payphone.
At age 15, Arroyo would have open-heart surgery to deal with what was diagnosed as a congenital heart defect. Later, this would almost keep her from pursuing a career in law enforcement. It was not until the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed that this was changed. She remembers sorting Polaroid snapshots of booking photos — as a police cadet — when Chief Rick Breza gave her the news that she was now eligible to serve. “He was all-in to help me,” she recounted. “That meant a lot to me.”
Along the way, Arroyo also found time to serve as an intern to prosecuting attorney Darryl Perlin, famous for his tough-on-crime approach as well as his over-the-top impersonations of Elvis Presley. Arroyo, in fact, helped make the gold lamé jumpsuit for which Perlin would become so well-known. In turn, Perlin let Arroyo help out on some investigations.
“I learned what they needed to make a case stick,” she said.
When Arroyo was sworn in in 1996, the glass ceiling was still alive and well and stubbornly low. In 2001, two women officers would sue the department and win $3.2 million on discrimination charges, claiming their promotional opportunities had been blocked because of their gender. Not long before the trial ensued, one of those officers — Juanita Smith — would be promoted sergeant, the first in departmental history.
As interim chief, Arroyo will find herself in a position of authority during a second investigation into Sergeant Brian Larson, accused of gender discrimination against female officers working under his command. Larson has been out on administrative leave since March. The first internal investigation found that most of the initial charges against Larson — said to be a stellar investigator — were sustained, and he was ordered to be suspended for 30 days without pay and transferred to another department. He also faces demotion if another allegation against him is upheld within 12 months. Larson’s commanding officer had recommended he be terminated.
Arroyo declined to discuss the matter. “Officially, I’m going to say no comment, no comment,” she said. “There are processes and procedures in place.”
Arroyo can only do so much as interim chief. She has no plans of moving her offices into the chief’s office. When the new chief is finally sworn in, she said, she intends to stay at the job. In the meantime, she’ll begin the process of transitioning the department from one system of crime reporting to another one. And she’ll grapple with the difficulties of recruiting and retaining officers at a time when historically few people are exploring careers in law enforcement.
The department, she said, was operating with a deficit of officers in the “mid-twenties.” Seven to eight recently retired or transferred, and three took positions as investigators with nearby district attorneys’ offices. Another 12 to 14 were not on the job either because of physical injury or other reasons. With this shortage, the department is now averaging one day of mandatory overtime a month, she said. It’s harder, she said, to engage in “relationship building” or maintaining “a felt presence,” strategies she says are necessary in “reducing harm” throughout the city. (For example, she said in response to the rash of robberies and killings at 7-Elevens throughout the Southland, the department dispatched officers to local 7-Elevens just to show up and make their presence felt.)
Cops, Arroyo said, are “MacGyvers 24/7, 365 days a year. Give them a problem, and they’ll work 24-7-365 to solve it.” But officers, she said, are finding themselves pressed to solve all of society’s problems. “We’re all human,” she said, “but if we’re all human, why can’t we provide everyone who needs it mental health treatment? How do we only have 16 beds at our PHF — Psychiatric Health Facility — and 800 people in jail?” Pausing, she then added, “Laws have to be obeyed and people have to be held accountable.” Lastly, she stressed, “We reduce harm; that’s what we do. Our officers put their lives on the line, and they do so with a reverence for life.”
Over the next two months, the City Council will be hashing out the crucial details of the new ordinance specifying how the city’s proposed new Police Oversight Board will function. When asked how the George Floyd murder affected the department, Arroyo said, “I think our community supports the Santa Barbara Police Department. As for the police oversight board, she said, “We will let the process play itself out, however it ends. There has to be transparency.”
For the next few weeks or next few months, Marylinda Arroyo will be Santa Barbara’s interim police chief. “The focus,” she said, “is not about me. It’s about our department.”