Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara’s Harbor Patrol has handled law enforcement duties down at the waterfront for six decades, keeping the peace in an area that houses 1,200 boats with hundreds of fishermen and liveaboards on any given night. 

But due to a state law that went into effect this year, Senate Bill 2 (SB2), Harbor Patrol officers may be stripped of their ability to carry service weapons, a change that raised the concerns of Waterfront department staff and current and former Harbor Patrol officers who spoke up during the April 18 Harbor Commission meeting regarding the new law.

The change is part of a statewide push for law enforcement agencies to join the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) program to ensure that all officer training complies with minimum standards. The city’s Airport Patrol recently updated its training requirements to conform to the same standards, and Santa Barbara Police Chief Kelly Gordon — who sits on the POST commission — has helped both agencies through the transition.

More than 600 agencies in the state are part of the POST program, which regulates officer training and oversees all complaints of misconduct for participating agencies. And while the program comes at no extra cost to the city or the Harbor Patrol, the change could effectively revoke their ability to carry a gun, explained Harbor Operations Manager Nathan Alldredge.

This is due to POST’s definition of “peace officers” as only individuals “who hold a current and valid POST basic certification,” he said, which requires full police academy training with more than 860 hours or 22 weeks of training.

Alldredge said that after discussions with Chief Gordon, the City Attorney’s Office, and the city administrator, it became clear that the new state law may mean that none of the current Harbor Patrol officers would be grandfathered into peace officer status.

“This is uncharted water for us, and it’s putting our department and officers in a tough spot in order to comply with something that we didn’t ask for …,” Alldredge said. “Requiring all officers to attend a full police academy is not the most realistic, feasible, or best option moving forward.”

Harbor Patrol will still enforce harbor and navigation laws, including Santa Barbara municipal code violations within the harbor district, but they would no longer be able to enforce California State Penal Code violations or calls that would result in arrests or citations. All more serious incidents will need to be handled by Santa Barbara Police.

For Chief Gordon, the change is necessary to conform to state law, and she has expressed strong support to fill in any gaps in response to calls in the waterfront area. City police already respond to calls at the harbor, but now they will be the primary responding unit on the scene.

During public comment, current and former Harbor Patrol officers expressed reservation about taking away the ability to carry weapons. While no Harbor Patrol officer has ever fired a shot in more than 60 years, incidents can escalate in an instant, and having a firearm may be the difference between life and death.

Retired Harbor Patrol officer Ed Stetson recalls one night he performed a welfare check with another officer when a man on a boat had a gun to his head. By the time Stetson turned the corner, the man had turned the gun on the officers.

“Things happen. We can call in SBPD, but it takes time,” he said. Harbor Patrol typically responds to waterfront calls within two minutes, while police can take from five to ten minutes to arrive on scene.

Fortunately, the number of calls that would require police response are few and far between. Out of 1,777 calls in 2022, only 18 were penal code violations that required arrests or citations. In 2023, only 16 calls, or less than one percent, met the same criteria.

But there was a glimmer of hope offered by Charles McChesney, a former Harbor Patrol and city police officer who served as a POST program coordinator before retiring. McChesney argued that the city has been “misinformed” as to the new requirements, and the current patrol training already includes the 162 hours of firearms training that technically meet the “current valid certification” required by POST. If the state accepts the current training, patrol officers could feasibly keep their weapons.

The Harbor Commission took no action on the item, and the city’s Harbor Patrol will begin the process of joining the POST program.

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