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First-Ever Isla Vista Community Resource Officer Gets to Work

Senior Deputy James McKarrell steps into the position as UC Santa Barbara students return to classes

Isla Vista’s community resource deputy James McKarrell chatted with new faces this week at a welcome back event at UC Santa Barbara.
Isla Vista’s community resource deputy James McKarrell chatted with new faces this week at a welcome back event at UC Santa Barbara. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The welcome back event at UC Santa Barbara’s Storke Plaza was about to begin, and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Senior Deputy James McKarrell stood at its steps, checking his Blackberry for instructions.

Amid the bustle and before McKarrell could locate his booth earlier this week — his on-campus introduction as the first-ever Isla Vista community resource deputy — a local Wells Fargo employee walked up to shake his hand.

“I know who you are,” he said, having stepped away from another table. “I wanted to introduce myself.”

The 36-year-old deputy is hard to miss.

A tall, burly figure in a green polo and khaki pants, McKarrell exchanged a few words before heading off to his table, where a popcorn machine was waiting for him.

As a rookie to the device, he wasn’t afraid to poke fun when he burned the first batch of popcorn and certainly wasn’t ready to admit defeat.

“I had no idea popping popcorn would be so hard,” he said, laughing and scooping the burnt pieces into a trash bag.

Although a bit imposing, McKarrell is approachable and friendly — a key part of his job bridging the gap between the sheriff’s department and the diverse community of Isla Vista, a densely populated community of 23,000 living on less than one square mile near UCSB.

He’s gotten to know residents since assuming the new Isla Vista Foot Patrol role a month ago and was eagerly waiting to meet more UCSB students when fall classes started last week.

Isla Vista’s new community resource deputy James McKarrell worked a popcorn machine during a welcome back event for UC Santa Barbara students at Stork Plaza. Click to view larger
Isla Vista’s new community resource deputy James McKarrell worked a popcorn machine during a welcome back event for UC Santa Barbara students at Stork Plaza.        (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

“My job is to be there for them if they need me,” McKarrell said, trying to mirror the commitment and generosity residents have already shown him.

“My main goal is to make this the safest place possible for the whole community.” 

McKarrell, who was born in Inglewood and grew up in Bakersfield, decided on a career in law enforcement as an 8-year-old.

He has an immense respect for the profession but also understands an outsider’s perspective of police, especially the recent movement toward increased accountability.

“I’ve always wanted to be the good guy,” said McKarrell, who has been with the sheriff’s department for seven years, most recently as a court bailiff.

After leaving the department for two years in 2012 to work as a police officer in Oxnard, where he lives with his wife of almost 12 years, McKarrell returned last year because he was more at home protecting Santa Barbara County.

He heard about the community resource deputy position — focusing on communication and education rather than citations or arrests — and readily applied because he saw an opportunity to make a difference changing the culture of a community.

Until recently, McKarrell had an outsider’s perspective on Isla Vista.

He saw the over consumption of alcohol at parties, sexual assaults, thefts, riots and violence in the form of a shooting and stabbing rampage that claimed the lives of six UCSB students in May 2014.

“Now what I see is a close-knit community that doesn’t want to be seen as all the things I’ve just described,” McKarrell said.

“Now I can see it from the inside out. We’re moving in the right direction now. Those people need to be heard.”

McKarrell did his research; A panel of three sheriff sergeants and community stakeholders interviewed four applicants for the job, with McKarrell faring best because he already reached out to community members and asked about their goals.

“There was really a sense that he had gone above and beyond,” said Lt. Rob Plastino, commander of the IV Foot Patrol station.

“James is just a really great guy. He’s very thoughtful, a great listener.”

McKarrell did community policing work as a patrol deputy in Carpinteria, but in Isla Vista he answers to a different demographic.

Long-term residents, UCSB and Santa Barbara City College students, university faculty, property owners and families — it’s a lot to keep track of, but McKarrell plans to schedule around group meetings, events and walking the streets.

“The campus is very excited about Senior Deputy McKarrell joining the Isla Vista Foot Patrol,” said George Thurlow, UCSB assistant vice chancellor and liaison to Isla Vista.

“He will provide an invaluable resource for students and community members that will continue to improve safety and security in Isla Vista.”

McKarrell hopes to stay on at least three to five years — however long it takes to effect positive change.

“What they want is just an open line of communication with the sheriff’s department,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in California like Isla Vista.”

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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