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Santa Maria Police Department Undergoes ‘Complete Overhaul’ in Complying with Recommended Reforms

Seven months later, the Santa Maria Police Department has implemented most of the independent auditors’ 57 recommendations for reforming the agency, including revised protocols for officer-involved shootings, citizens’ complaints and timely training.

Chief Ralph Martin updated the Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday night about the progress of the agency’s reforms that arose out of the botched handling of an investigation and fatal shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. by a colleague in 2012 along with other incidents.

“I fully support the recommendations set forth by the team and we are diligently directing the department staff to implement all of the reforms,” Martin said. “We have substantially addressed a majority of the OIR (Office of Independent Review Group) recommendations and will continue to implement the remaining ones with the goal of providing the best service to the citizens of Santa Maria.”

The city hired the Office of Independent Review to conduct the audit in February 2012 and received the findings seven months ago. At the time, the chief noted that 23 recommendations had been implemented, 18 were being addressed and 16 were yet to the handled.

“The audit revealed several areas of shortcomings in the areas of use of force documentation, internal affairs investigations, citizens’ complaints and the department’s Explorer program,” Martin said.

Martin noted that the auditors devoted substantial attention to the department’s handling of officer-involved shootings, drawing heavily on the previous incidents under the prior chief.

The report focused on the on-scene post-shooting protocols, interaction with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the function of a use-of-deadly force review board.

“Since the time of the report, the department has undergone a complete overhaul of policy and protocol to address all the deficiencies that formerly existed,” said Martin, who was hired in August 2012 on an interim basis and then permanently.

Among some recommendations, the audit said the agency “should enhance its protocols to ensure that its policies prohibiting officers from gathering in a group after a critical incident are enforced.” Another suggestion involved developing protocols to informing officers not to speak publicly about use of force or other administrative investigations in any public forum while the review is pending.

With regards to the use-of-force documentation, the audit noted improvements had been made under Martin’s leadership but suggested a series of other steps, he said.

“Most of these were policy recommendations designed to accompany the changes in protocol and procedure that we had already established,” Martin said. “The policy has been rewritten and when applied in conjunction with our already established force protocols, all OIR force recommendations will then be satisfied.”

In the past, officers failed to complete their required refresher training which has been addressed by the creation of a training sergeant position in addition to the training coordinator. Both have been instructed the Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, compliance is a top priority.

The audit suggested the agency should ensure that all officers were in compliance with the first aid and CPR refresher course. Also, the agency needed a program so the high-speed vehicle pursuit training occurs annually while a domestic violence complaints course is done every two years.

To support the training requirements, the department’s funding has been increased by approximately. $50,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year. Martin said. Future budgets will accommodate similar increased funding, he added.

“These changes have  produced remarkable results,” Martin said, adding the department’s sworn personnel will in 100 percent compliance with POST continuing professional training requirements by Dec. 31.

Other changes include revising the Explorers handbook to ban relationships and communication between the youths and officers.

The agency is also installing software what will serve as a proactive management tool to track assorted data plus monitor certain behavior that could lead to civil lawsuits and training opportunities, the chief said.

The auditors are expected to return in May, one year after initially presenting the findings. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully 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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