The Santa Maria Police Department of today is dramatically different form the problem-plagued agency 2011 and 2012, according to the man who conducted an independent audit of the organizations.

“My report to you is virtually all good news,” said Michael Gennaco of OIR Group, a consulting firm that evaluates law enforcement agencies across the nation. 

City Manager Rick Haydon initially hired the firm in the wake of tumultuous times with multiple officer-involved shootings and a near in-custody death in 2011 and 2012.

Problems peaked with the shooting of Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. by his colleagues as they attempted to take him into custody regarding allegations he was having an improper relationship with a Police Explorer.

This led to the replacement of Chief Danny Macagni and the hiring of Ralph Martin, first on an interim basis and later permanently.

Gennaco’s firm initially made 57 recommendations, nearly all of which have been implemented, he told the City Council on Tuesday night.

“The department that I am seeing through the paperwork and talking to individuals on the department and the command staff is not the department of four years ago,” he said. “That is all good.” 

Gennaco made other suggestions in an addendum, which he said would move the department from a basic level to a graduate level. Those include reviewing stun gun data during use-of-force investigations and considering mediation to resolve low-level complaints before a formal investigation is needed.

Among earlier recommendations, Gennaco mentioned a need to train every officer in how to deal with mentally ill people.

“We are seeing more and more times in which there are tragic consequences coming out of those kinds of meetings because officers, in part, may not have been sufficiently trained on dealing with the mentally ill,” Gennaco said. “And when you’re dealing with the mentally ill, you’re dealing with people who are not going to necessarily follow the commands of officers, perhaps in some ways through no fault of their own.”

The police chief said 30 members have undergone training with five additional officers attending each time a crisis intervention class is held in Santa Barbara County. Additionally, some staff went through training in dealing with people who have traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health problems.

Gennaco also urged the department to beef up transparency, including posting regular statistics to the public on how many times force is being used and how many misconduct allegations have been reported. This should be a summary report that does not name the specific employee.

“Many departments in California do not put out this information, but I want Santa Maria to be at the forefront of transparency which is why I feel strongly that the recommendation should go forward,” he said, adding that the data will show what the department is dealing with regarding the internal investigations. “We’re never going to have a situation in which officers never use force. In fact, we have to authorize officers to be able to use force in appropriate circumstances to keep other members of the public safe or to keep them safe if in fact a threat is being presented or if in fact somebody is not wanting to go along with an arrest.”

The vast majority of citizen contacts don’t involve force, he noted. 

“What is important … is it’s really the way in which a department addresses these incidents that’s testament to the health of the organization,” he said.

These reviews of use of force situations provide feedback for officers, and can give them better tools for the next time they encounter a similar incident, Gennaco added.

“That’s what this is all about — it’s about learning and it’s about training,” he said.

The department’s members have embraced the reforms that the new policies, protocols and procedures were intended to do, Gennaco said.

This is especially interesting and important, he said, amid rocky police-community relations across the nation — Baltimore, New York City and Ferguson, Mo. — about the way law enforcement officers do their work, how they use force and if they are held accountable for their actions.

Because of its own problems, Gennaco said the City of Santa Maria had already started talking about the need to change how the Police Department investigated use of force cases, the way officers were trained regarding use of force and how the agency looked at allegations of misconduct involving officers.

Haydon said he expects to continue to hire OIR Group for periodic reviews of the agency.

Council members expressed appreciation for the independent audit plus the changes implemented in the department. 

“I really do feel that we are best Police Department in the state of California,” Councilman Jack Boysen said. 

Mayor Alice Patino said she supports transparency, but added it can be a double-edge sword.

“Too often people will say to me, that live north of us or south of us, there’s so much crime going on in Santa Maria when that is an inaccurate statement,” she said. “It’s going on north of us and south of us. I think the citizens have a right to know what’s going on their city. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way in other jurisdictions but we certainly do here.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.