As chief of the Lompoc Police Department, Larry Ralston has had to battle not only crime but also officer retention.
The constant loss of police officers to better-paying jobs means recruiting and hiring are never-ending tasks.
“Budgets have been frustrating when I see quality officers leaving us to go to other agencies because of pay and benefits,” he told Noozhawk.
Ralston, chief for two years and a law enforcement officer for 31, retires Monday at age 55. He will remain on the job part time until a new chief is hired and the transition is completed, however.
To help fill LPD vacancies, the department recently added three graduates from the Allan Hancock College police academy and another new officer.
“That was one of my goals before I left was to get the department fully staffed,” Ralston said.
Constant turnover is costly. From the time the three new graduates are hired, sent through the academy, complete field training and are own their own, the cost to the department is about $120,000 per officer.
“We see that cycle over and over where we get them trained, they become good quality cops and then they decide to go to other places for better pay and benefits,” he said, adding Lompoc only ranks behind Guadalupe in Santa Barbara County for police officer salaries.
Lompoc’s department is unique because it also has its own 23-bed jail, whereas most other agencies take inmates to County Jail or issue citations. The Lompoc jail can hold inmates for 96 hours.
“It gives us the ability to be able to book people for misdemeanor offenses that typically are being cite-released at the county level,” Ralston said. “It holds people accountable. There’s some consequence. They know if they’re going to be arrested for driving a vehicle without a license and no ID, they may get booked here at the station. …
“That always has a little more impact than just a ticket.”
Ralston’s departure comes a year after a Lompoc-led investigation ended with the arrest of a top-ranking gang member, Raymond Macias, and several of his crew in connection with the kidnapping and torture of a Lompoc drug dealer. The investigation led to the criminal indictments against multiple people.
“To be able to take down a key player who influences the gangs in Santa Barbara County is a huge accomplishment for our department, for our detectives and for Santa Barbara County,” he said. “This isn’t one that just affected Lompoc, this affected everybody.”
The case illustrates the gang culture in which a leader issues orders but may not actually be at a crime scene, according to Ralston.
But the number of gang-related crimes in his city, which implemented a gang injunction about a decade ago as one tool in the officers’ crime-fighting arsenal, has decreased.
“We’re very pleased about that,” he said of the drop in gang crimes. “But drugs are an ongoing problem. It just doesn’t seem like methamphetamine is going away. The marijuana laws are getting softer.
“We’re seeing younger and younger people using marijuana,” he added. “I still believe, no matter what other groups say, marijuana is a gateway drug to heavier narcotics use. I’ve see 30 years of this kind of drug use when the number one reccurring theme is they started with marijuana or they started with cigarettes and then marijuana.”
Ralston is also concerned about alcohol abuse and the number of drunken-driving arrests in the city. To combat the problem, Lompoc police frequently hold checkpoints to screen for those driving while impaired.
“We continue to do a heavy enforcement, focused on DUIs,” he said. “We only have a few bars in town and yet we regularly make numerous arrests for DUI each week.”
Those arrested typically imbibed at bars, where the staff continues to serve customers who then get behind the wheel of vehicles and drive, instead of using taxis or designated drivers.
“They’re drinking more than they should and they’re being allowed to drive away,” Ralston said. “It’s a heavy focus in our town so we’re going to continue to make a lot of arrests as long as they’re doing it.”
Ralston’s final months on the force have seen the arrest of two of his officers — one for drunken driving and the other on suspicion of criminal threats and felony vandalism.
“It was very hard to see that happen,” he said. “It proves that officers are human and are subject to make mistakes. Also, that they can learn from their mistakes, we hope.
“At the same time we will hold our people accountable,” he added.
After growing up in Lancaster, Ralston worked with high school youths at the YMCA but sought a job that paid more money. An opportunity arose to apply for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department academy and “the rest is history,” he said.
He served as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy for two years and, later, was with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department for five years.
But a chunk of his career — 18 years— was spent at the Santa Maria Police Department.
That’s why it wasn’t easy for the former Santa Maria police lieutenant to watch when his former department made international headlines for a botched investigation that led to an SMPD officer shooting a fellow officer, Albert Covarrubias, in 2012.
“It tore me up watching it,” Ralston said. “I knew most of the people who were involved in that were friends, peers of mine.”
Ralston joined the Lompoc police force seven years ago to fill a captain slot.
While he is retiring from the department, Ralston won’t be leaving law enforcement. He will oversee advanced officer training program at Hancock College, coordinating classes for current police officers.
“These classes that we offer are for what we call perishable skills like emergency vehicle driving, arrest and control and the firearms training,” he said. “Those are things we have to do by law.”
Because Ralston will remain in the area, Mayor John Linn joked that the city is simply loaning him out.
“Although we’re sad to see him go, he’s not going to go far,” Linn said, adding the city will still benefit from Ralston’s new role.
He praised his performance as police chief.
“Larry has that strong moral compass that provided good direction going forward,” Linn said. “We’ve been fortunate to have him here.”
Linn noted Ralston’s diligence in filling the department’s vacancies before departing.
“He’s done a good job maintaining the department and bringing it forward,” he added.
Ralston moved to Lompoc 25 years ago with his wife, Ellen, and their children were born in the city. Ellen is a local teacher, who isn’t retiring.
He said Lompoc gets unfairly characterized.
“It’s a great town,” he said. “It’s safer now than it’s been in many years. The violent crime is down in our community. We have some of the best police officers in the county working here in Lompoc.
“It’s just been a great opportunity for me to have come back to town here and work with these people.”