Interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian in front of the Police Department.
Interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian says his department is down more than 20% of its workforce, and struggles to hire and retain officers and other employees. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Police Department has about 24 vacant sworn officer positions and another 20 unfilled professional staff positions, including seven dispatch spots — more than 20% of its total workforce.

“Right now, hiring has been very challenging,” said Cmdr. Kenneth Kushner.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and protests around the country, many law enforcement agencies have struggled to hire and retain employees. The problem in Santa Barbara is worse because of the high cost of living. 

The department also made 4,419 arrests in 2021, and used force in 156 of those incidents, or about 3.5%. In 2017, the department used force 132 times, out of 7,984 arrests.

Interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian gave a report to the City Council last week about various aspects of the Police Department. He said he has worked in law enforcement for about 50 years and has seen several stages of “re-imagining.”

“As we work on making systemic change, we should not disparage the men and women who do the work,” Melekian said. “They come to work every day, committed to doing the best job they can, under very trying and difficult circumstances sometimes.”

Councilman Oscar Gutierrez during the meeting asked why officers are allowed to opt out of getting vaccinated, but aren’t allowed to do their job without wearing a bullet-proof vest or carrying a weapon.

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death among police officers, Melekian said. 

“If an officer were to say, ‘I don’t want to carry a weapon because it goes against my belief system, are they still able to serve?’” Gutierrez asked.

Melekian responded, “They would not be.”

Later, Melekian said there was a difference between officers not wanting a vaccine and deciding whether to carry a gun or wearing a bullet-proof vest.

“The problem with the virus is that it has become, more than any of the other examples you provided, it has been the subject of conflicting and continuing changing information,” Melekian said. “There are people who are skeptical about what they are being told.”

Melekian said he is fully vaccinated as is much of the commander staff, but that “at the end of the day, I don’t know that I think it falls into the same category or the vest or the weapons you referenced.”

Capt. Marylinda Arroyo said vaccination numbers are “privileged health information,” and that the definition has changed for what it means to be fully vaccinated. 

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said she appreciated Melekian’s “genuine” and “heartfelt” work.

“Your service has been exemplary, I am thinking through COVID, through short-staffing, through national scrutiny,” Sneddon said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.