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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 5:57 pm | Fog/Mist 59º


Santa Barbara County’s New Undersheriff No Stranger to Law Enforcement Challenges

Veteran cop Barney Melekian’s to-do list includes Isla Vista, leadership training and successfully adapting to reality of reduced resources

Not the retiring type, Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Barney Melekian, 65, is settling into his new post. “This is the most challenging time for American policing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I think there’s some work we can do.” Click to view larger
Not the retiring type, Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Barney Melekian, 65, is settling into his new post. “This is the most challenging time for American policing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I think there’s some work we can do.” (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The private consulting business was treating Bernard Melekian well a few months ago, but something about analyzing the strategies of other law enforcement agencies didn’t quite live up to the veteran lawman’s expectations.

Sure, he could offer opinions, “but you don’t own it,” Melekian said, aware that because he wasn’t a part of the organizations in Baltimore, Chicago or elsewhere, his suggestions were merely that.

So when Melekian was approached by Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown to apply for an open undersheriff position last year, he thought long and hard about it.

“My golf game is terrible and you can only clean your garage so many times,” he joked with Noozhawk recently, sitting in his new office at Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real. “Might as well work.”

Melekian, 65, who goes by the name Barney, says he tries not to take himself too seriously, but deciding whether to return to 60-hour work weeks — and as a department outsider — wasn’t something he took lightly.

He already knew the area, since he had moved to Santa Barbara from Washington, D.C., with his wife, Nancy, in early 2013 to join one of their six grown children and two grandchildren. The department’s issues were fresh in his mind, having served on the City of Santa Barbara’s Police and Fire Commission.

Melekian has also known Brown for decades, as both were street cops around the same time in Santa Monica and Inglewood, respectively, in the 1970s.

“I never intended to retire,” Melekian said. “I’d much rather do this. (My legacy) isn’t going to be defined by any report or system I write.”

Melekian officially became the second top county lawman last week, vowing to spend his first 30 days practicing one of his strengths: listening.

Retiring Acting Undersheriff Don Patterson will stay on a couple of months to assist Melekian, who said he opted out of the county’s pension program. He makes a base salary of $195,826 plus benefits, and his retirement is already covered through CalPERS.

From the issues within the department and the community, Melekian said he’s already zeroed in on several, including recovery from the recession and loss of staff, resources and infrastructure. Finding innovative ways to deliver services and heightening leadership training were also at the top of the list.

“This is the most challenging time for American policing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The reality is we’re not going to go back to the levels of 2007 and 2008. I think there’s some work we can do.”

Melekian, who grew up splitting time between Oklahoma and Southern California, is hopeful his years of experience will come in handy, as is Brown, who lauded his accomplishments during Melekian’s swearing-in ceremony.

Melekian worked nearly every assignment in 23 years with the Santa Monica Police Department, served as police chief for the City of Pasadena and led the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office before starting his own consulting business, Paratus Group — borrowing a motto from the U.S. Coast Guard that means “always ready.” He served in the Coast Guard Reserve for 25 years after three years in the U.S. Army.

His most recent consulting assignment was to help the City of Seattle choose a new police chief and to revamp its department policies.

This marks Melekian’s second stint with the Sheriff’s Department — he worked in special enforcement for one year in the mid-’70s — and he said he’s better appreciating the community support.

“I’ve been very touched by the reception I’ve gotten,” he said. “We’re part of the community. I love this place.”

Joining the county District Attorney’s Isla Vista Safe Task Force is among Melekian’s first undertakings, along with focusing on custody versus rehabilitation related to the new North County Jail project.

He said the parties in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara remind him of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Pasadena, but “I try not to confuse what I know with what I knew.”

A big believer in community policing, Melekian said he aims to build relationships reflecting the uniqueness of Santa Barbara County.

The avid scuba diver and reader also hopes to remain undersheriff until his boss says his job is done.

“I’ll stay here as long as I can work,” he said. “I am here because I want to be here. I want to serve this department and the community. I don’t think people will be disappointed.”

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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