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Audit of Santa Maria Police Cites Lack of Leadership Among Chief Problems; Reforms Already Under Way

A Santa Maria police officer used “distraction blows to the head” to force a suspect to put his hands behind his back, but the accompanying report didn’t explain whether that was a practice taught in the department.

In another complaint, a citizen alleged a lieutenant issued a harsh reprimand after her daughter was arrested, saying “it was her fault for bringing kids into this world and not being able to take care of them.”

Neither case was fully documented, serving as two of many eye-opening critiques detailed in an independent audit of the Santa Maria Police Department.

The audit found officers had mere passing knowledge of policies and protocols, routinely failing to complete reports, follow up complaints or conduct adequate use-of-force investigations.

The 43-page report highlighting information gathered over a two-year period was presented this week to the Santa Maria City Council, along with a list of 57 recommendations to improve department practices.

City Manager Rick Haydon called for the audit in February 2012 in response to public outcry and two officer-involved shootings — one in December 2011 when officers were injured by friendly fire and another in January 2012 involving the death of an officer — tapping the Office of Independent Review (OIR) Group, a civilian oversight group created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2001.

The city has made the entire report public on its website to continue a trend of transparency, Haydon told Noozhawk.

“We’re responsive,” he said. “We knew that there was a problem. We wanted to address the problem, and we wanted to do it in a transparent manner.”

Results show a clear lacking in former department leadership that trickled down to officers, who were given little support or training prior to the retirement of longtime, controversial Chief Danny Macagni.

The department has implemented 23 of the audit’s recommendations since Chief Ralph Martin came on in August 2012, in an interim and then permanent capacity.

Eighteen others are currently being addressed, while the remaining 16 deal with revising policies that require more time to make official on paper.

The report notably asks the city to create an independent model of oversight to ensure police objectivity and thorough investigations of incidents alleging officer misconduct.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office currently review officer-involved shooting cases.

Haydon said the OIR group will return in one year to ensure recommendations were implemented, and would also resurface to review future officer-involved shootings.

Chief Attorney Michael Gennaco, who led the oversight group of six lawyers, gave a brief rundown of the investigation, which included interviews with city and police department staff and a review of policies, training records and more.

“To its credit, the new leadership, once installed, identified and addressed some of the major issues we were also seeing as we conducted our review,” he wrote in the report.

Further supporting deficiencies, the report points out mistakes made by management involved in the Jan. 28, 2012, shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias.

The “hands-off” management style of the former chief, who was viewed as favoring the traffic unit because of overtime opportunities, created a faulty promotion process — one commander was promoted four times in eight years — and a shortage of sergeants. 

“The leadership of the department was fraught with distrust between commanders and lieutenants, which manifested in distrust and stunning displays of disrespect,” the report said.

Oftentimes, the same officer accused of using excessive force was also the one who interviewed or transported the accusing suspect to the hospital or police station.

“The surprise factor was that there were things you would take for common sense … policies and procedures ... that there weren’t,” Haydon said. “For example, there wasn’t a written policy or procedure that said (Police Explorers) shouldn’t be dating police officers. In this day and age, unfortunately, and society being what it is, everything has to be black and white.”

Haydon applauded Martin for immediately noticing and remedying many issues.

He said the number of citizen complaints went from just four in 2011 to 64 in 2013 — a possible reflection of residents’ increasing confidence in department follow-through.

Martin said the audit, although somewhat scathing, captures the personality of the department prior to his arrival.

“In the past, the department has not served the city to the best of its abilities,” the chief said. “The officers weren’t to blame. It was poor management practices. Training has to be continuous.”

Martin said the department has embraced changes, which include using data from use-of-force investigations to help train officers and stave off civil liabilities, requiring officers who witness force to report it and fully completing citizen complaints.

Officer training hours have increased from 2,118 total in 2011 to nearly 5,200 in 2013.

Martin soon will have hired three dozen new officers in three years, including five additional sergeants.

He volunteered to report back to the council about the progress of the rest of the recommendations in November.

“I don’t want to lose the momentum,” Martin said. “There is a level of trust that has not been here for many years.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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