[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]
As the city of Santa Barbara comes to grips with significant and seemingly perpetual budget cuts, department heads are trying to figure out how best to address the belt tightening. While everyone has to suck in and allow a few notches to go by the wayside, Police Chief Cam Sanchez has been in the enviable position of being in charge of a large part of the city’s public safety. Usually seen as a priority, police protection has always enjoyed the backing of citizens and city council members alike. But these days even the Santa Barbara Police Department must figure out how to do more with less.
“These challenges always seem to come in cycles,” said Sanchez, who has served the city as police chief for nearly a decade. “Every five to seven years we go through this stuff.
“The tough part of it for me is that I have to make decisions that aren’t going to make everyone happy, but at the end of the day, our mission is to answer the calls for service that come out from the community.”
Amid all of the tasks sworn officers and SBPD staff perform, Sanchez pointed out that making sure they are equipped to provide community safety is his No. 1 priority.
“If you ask them, most people will tell you, ‘If I pick up the phone and call 9-1-1, I hope to God you get here quickly.’ I think that has to continue to be our mission,” said Sanchez, explaining that during lean times, sometimes community programs take a back seat to simply having officers on the street and available to respond.
“The community expects that I find a way to provide them with service. They don’t want to hear excuses.”
The City Council allowed the department to “over-hire” for the current fiscal year, given the amount of time it takes to get a police officer through training and onto the streets — and the difficulty SBPD has had doing so.
The council authorized a force of 141 sworn personnel and the department was at 139 as of February, although there are a handful of hires currently undergoing training.
Finding qualified people in uncertain economic times can be difficult, Deputy Chief Frank Mannix has said. At a budget workshop in February, staff confirmed that maintaining or enhancing the police presence is a priority. The goal is to keep the functional strength high — that is, the number of officers who are able to report to duty, not counting those who have special assignment, are injured or in training. In February, the functional strength was 118, although that number will shoot up before the end of the year.
About six of those officers in training will be out in their own patrol cars within six months, and perhaps five more before the year’s end, Mannix said.
Current SBPD service reductions include 12 officers, according to the presentation at the budget workshop. That includes four beat coordinators — there is one for the entire city — and nine officers, two detectives, a DARE officer, a Police Activities League (PAL) officer, a school resource officer, a motorcycle officer, a bicycle officer and a nightlife enforcement officer.
Nonsworn staff, or civilian staff, can and do work in dispatch, records, the crime lab, the property room and as administrative assistants. SBPD has 64 nonsworn staff members as of March, Mannix said.
Sanchez, a cop for more than 30 years, has seen all sorts of law enforcement scenarios play out, and points to Santa Barbara’s gang problem as an important issue to address. In his talks with Eastside and Westside community members, Sanchez said that residents’ concerns about gang members intimidating people from using certain public parks are among the reasons why he recommended implementing a gang injunction last month.
“We need to create what we call safety zones (similar to what has been used in Lompoc and Oxnard),” he said.
Sanchez added that along with enforcement and prosecution by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, a gang injunction is only one tool in an array of measures designed to reduce gang crime.
“I think that people see a gang injunction as a blanket precaution that doesn’t allow gang members to walk to the streets, but that’s just not true,” he said. “Our research indicates that there are certain specific areas that are prone to violence and gang activity.”
Because most of the Police Department’s research had been completed, the gang injunction issue did not affect its budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Looking at all of the challenges that lay ahead of him, Sanchez said he sees himself as just another cop trying to serve the community.
“I’ve been at this 30 plus years, and when I started (as a Los Angeles police officer), all I wanted to do was just survive my rookie year and have a full-time job,” he said, admitting that he accepts criticism as part of the position. “I’d worry very much if people didn’t criticize me — I’d feel like I wasn’t doing my job.”
Expressing thanks to a community he said has taken good care of him, Sanchez also said that his officers and staff — all of whom he knows by first name — are the reason he has been so successful.
“My people do their job extremely well,” he said, adding with a grin: “I’m just a boy from East L.A. I’m just happy to be here.”