By Joshua Molina, Noozhawk
The future of law enforcement in Santa Barbara consists of fewer officers, with about one-third of them commuting from out of the city.
In 2017, the Santa Barbara Police Department received 1,442 applications for jobs. That number dropped to 695 in 2021. So far this year, the city has received 208 applications.
In 2021, four officers retired, four left for different law enforcement departments, three resigned and left the profession, and another resigned. The department has about 20 vacant positions.
“We are having trouble replacing people because of the limited applicants coming forward,” said Police Chief Bernard Melekian. “Recruitment is going to remain a challenge in the foreseeable future.”
Melekian and other police department leaders gave a budget report to the Santa Barbara City Council on Friday covering a wide range of issues.
Council members Alejandra Gutierrez and Mike Jordan were absent from the meeting.
This upcoming year, the department plans to hold open six police officer positions to fund four technician positions, which are non-sworm professional staff who fill positions in dispatch, detective bureau and staff in the field to take reports that don’t involve naming suspects.
The department is currently at about 32% non-sworn professional staff and that number is likely to grow to 50% in the next few years, Melekian said.
Another two officer positions will be kept vacant. One entry-level police officer position will be eliminated.
“No one ever does more with less,” said Melekian. “People do less of the same. As we make these decisions about what is the nature of our workforce, and how many people should be in that workforce, we are making decisions about services.”
Melekian said police services “will change.”
“As a society, we will answer two basic questions,” Melekian said. “What is the role of police in our society and what is the role of police in Santa Barbara?”
The presentation was Melekian’s last budget hearing before he retires on June 30. Melekian joined the city as interim police chief in March 2021 and has been generally praised for his wisdom and professional maturity he brings to the position. He joined the department amid a national and local backlash against law enforcement after the videotaped murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
During his tenure he worked with the city’s Community Formation Commission to tamp down initial alarm over the role and funding of the police department. Still, the mood of the city is of wanting to find ways to reprogram funding from sworn officer positions to a focus on prevention and de-escalation.
In addition to the recruitment and retention issues, the department discussed some of the challenges it faces with narcotics and fentanyl.
In 2019, police officers deployed Narcan nine times to revive someone who overdosed on opioids. For the 2022 fiscal year, which still has two months, the department has deployed the emergency dose 121 times. In 2021, all of Santa Barbara County had 133 overdose deaths; 37 of those were from the city of Santa Barbara.
“We unfortunately lead that in jurisdictions,” said Capt. Marylinda Arroyo. “Half of those were from fentanyl.”
The police department has proposed fee increases this upcoming, the largest being the Deemed Approved Alcohol Recovery Fee. About 145 markets and liquor stores that sell single-use alcohol will have to pay $971 annually for a police officer to monitor their establishments. The ordinance will require alcohol retailers to maintain their businesses in a lawful manner or risk fines and or regulation of their alcohol sales.
Business owners would need to keep the exterior of their establishments free of litter, loitering, graffiti and public consumption of alcohol. The businesses would pay a fee under the ordinance, and the money could go to pay for a dedicated law enforcement officer to work with retailers, and an education program.
Ultimately, the city is trying to target the sale of 50-milliliter, or “airplane bottles,” of hard liquor that are consumed nearby the establishments.
Council members were supportive of the police department budget and efforts.
“These have been incredibly challenging times, for a variety of reasons, nationally, pandemic, social justice issues,” said Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon. “You have risen to the occasion every time. You didn’t create these issues or problems, but you certainly have been responsive to them.”
Mayor Randy Rowse had mixed feelings on the department reducing the number of sworn officers.
“I have never heard anyone in this community say we have too many cops,” he said.
Rowse said he was a little discouraged to have fewer sworn officers and that he is looking forward to see the role professional staff can play in the future of the department.
“That was something that was always a focus of mine when I was on council,” Rowse said. “But if the chief has a strategy I am going to go with it. I think that’s the way to go.”
The city is expected to vote on the budget in late June.