Santa Barbara Police Department ‘Embracing the Moment,’ Audit Says
Low Use-of-Force Rates, Understaffing Highlighted in Independent Audit of Police Department
The Santa Barbara Police Department has been using the past few years to update its policies and training processes — ever since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests calling for change in summer 2020 — and according to the recently released results of an independent audit of the department, newly appointed chief Kelly Gordon has already offered a “fresh perspective” in leading the department into this new age of law enforcement.
The City Council asked for the audit in June 2022 to take a deep dive into the department’s complaint process; the need for executive development and leadership training; employee retention and recruiting; use-of-force training and review; and general policy compliance.
The newly reconstituted Fire & Police Commission — which was restructured as a more transparent oversight system with four new members — will hear the results of the audit on Thursday, though the city released the report to the public over the weekend.
According to the audit, which was conducted by consultants from the OIR Group, the Santa Barbara Police Department had an “extraordinarily limited number of use of force incidents.”
In 2022, the department reported 45,111 contacts with the public and 147 use-of-force incidents — resulting in 99.67 percent of interactions resolved without force.
“Overall, the department does not use force often, and when it does, the type of force used is relatively minor and does not frequently result in injury,” the report reads.
The majority of use-of-force incidents involve “takedowns,” according to the report. In 2021, out of 156 use-of-force incidents, takedowns were used 90 times, while other methods included strikes or kicks (21), “control holds” (11), taser (9), pepper spray (5), and K-9 (1). Notably, there has not been an officer-involved shooting in the city since 2019, which the audit says is evidence of a departmental culture “that supports restraints and de-escalation of conflict rather than a reliance on physically aggressive policing.”
The audit mentions the collaboration between city leadership, engaged community members, former interim-chief Barney Melekian, and current chief Gordon, who worked together to give the department a head start on many of the changes recommended by the consultant group.
“In short, SBPD finds itself in the midst of a transitional period for national, state, and local law enforcement,” the report reads “And it is to the organization’s credit that it is treating the moment as an opportunity — not a reason to ‘hunker down’ or react defensively, but instead to reconsider its systems and approaches with an eye toward embracing contemporary best practices and strengthening policies and internal procedures.”
The audit includes 31 recommendations on policy and training updates, which range from stricter use-of-force guidelines to new methods of leadership training geared toward encouraging growth and promotion within the organization. Out of the 31 recommendations, 19 have already been implemented and eight are currently in the works.
“I am pleased that the audit aligned with many of the improvements and refinements that I was already in the process of implementing,” Chief Gordon said. “It also affirms that our department fundamentals are strong and that our team excels in regard to how we engage with the community and investigate both internal and external complaints, as well as conduct use-of-force investigations.”
The department’s biggest challenge, according to the audit, is retaining and recruiting staff. As with many law enforcement agencies across the country, SBPD is operating with “a number of vacancies relative to its budgeted positions,” the report says. “The implications of this deficit are wide-ranging.”
While patrol and day-to-day operations have continued due to overtime and restructuring, this has come “at the expense of specialized units and the Detective Bureau, which is presently making do at two-thirds of its authorized capacity.”
Chief Gordon is expected to speak on the understaffing and the need to prioritize leadership training during the upcoming budget hearings this month. More information on the audit can be found on the city website.
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