Exit Interview: Retiring SBPD Chief Says "Work is Not There" to Warrant Full-Time Watchdog for Cops
In the early 1970s, Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian was unhappily working in a bank, when he experienced an epiphany while watching an episode of "Adam-12."
A big fan of the iconic, seven-season, TV show about L.A. cops ,the chief recalled in precise detail the specific program that changed his life, a half-century after it aired.
"I realized pretty quickly that I did not want to be in the bank for the next 30 or 40 years, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do," said the soon-to-be-retired Melekian, who's served as SB's top cop for the past 16 months, while city officials conducted a search for a new chief.
"And I watched an episode of Adam-12, and I remember it to this day," he added. "The episode was "Elegy for a Pig," because...that's what some people were calling the police back then, pigs. And it was about an officer who'd been killed in the line of duty, but it really recapped the training and the purpose and the hiring process and all that. And I thought, 'I think I might like to do that.'
While he may be known around much of Santa Barbara as plain old "Barney," Bernard K. Melekian, Phd, has forged a consequential, 50-year career in law enforcement that's included every assignment, post and capacity -- Santa Barbara is the third California city he's served as chief. Passionate about police policy and procedure, he's also earned a doctorate from USC (Dissertation title: "Values-based discipline: The key to organizational transformation within law enforcement agencies") and directed the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in the U.S. Department of Justice during President Obama's first term.
With a well-earned reputation as an authority on collaborative, community-oriented policing (the California Police Chiefs Association marketed his speech to the group as, "A national and international perspective on how law enforcement agencies work best") he also perviously served as SB County's Undersheriff and as Assistant County Executive Officer Over Public Safety.
When former SB Police Chief Lori Luhnow retired unexpectedly, the city hired him as Interim Chief, starting in March, 2021. With a new police chief to be introduced soon, Melekian sat down with Newsmakers for a wide-ranging conversation in advance of retirement, reflecting on his career, addressing pressing national issues in law enforcement and assessing the SBPD.
Oversight vs. advisory. In the wake of the George Floyd murder in May 2020, the council appointed a citizens committee, known as the Community Formation Commission, which spent 13 months researching and debating various forms of police oversight used around the country,
In issuing their final report on April 22, they recommended, among other things, that the city hire a $289,000-a-year Independent Monitor, not only to serve as a public watchdog of the Police Department, but also to staff a powerful, new citizen's oversight commission to provide a venue for community complaints about police officers to be aired and adjudicated.
Six weeks later, City Administrator Rebecca Bjork presented a report to council proposing that her chief deputy, Barbara Anderson, take on additional duties to function as the SBPD's independent monitor, and that the existing Fire and Police Commission take on most of the new responsibilities and authority outlined by the Community Formation Commission.
At a special June 6 council meeting, her report triggered angry testimony, from a majority of the Formation Commission and its allies. Led by chair Gabe Escobedo, the group essentially accused Melekian and the City Administrator of hijacking and defanging the more sweeping recommendations they had made, as several advocates charged city officials of channeling "white supremacy"; Bjork, Anderson and Melekian are all white, while people of color led the Formation Commission.
"What you have before you is an advisory board, and not an oversight board," said Escobedo, who stated that most of the Administrator's report and recommendations came directly from Melekian. "In other terms, oversight in name only."
In the end, the council left no one entirely happy by approving a compromise which includes a plans to hire an outside independent consultant for at least one year to help Anderson establish a process, and to revamp the Fire and Police Commission with all new members, new duties and televised hearings.
In our conversation, Melekian defended the outcome, saying it includes most of what the Formation Commission wanted; pushed back against allegations that Commission leaders were blindsided by the city's proposal and also addressed the "white supremacy" allegations.
The Chief's take. To begin with, Melekian noted, the SBPD has had very few excessive use of force and other citizen complaints, too few, he asserted, to require a new, highly-paid, full-time position on the city's payroll.
"Santa Barbara does not have, and has not had, any critical incidents. Santa Barbara's use of force is minimal. Santa Barbara's complaint history is minimal," he told Newsmakers.
"I've been clear, and not everybody agrees with me, that I don't think the work is there for that (independent monitor) person," Melekian added. ."But I may be wrong about that. That may change," after the city does an audit of SBPD operations, as the City Administrator recommends.
"My hope is that when things cool down a little bit about this, that people will look and realize that the oversight recommendations that were made (by the Formation Commission), were overwhelmingly adopted," the chief maintained. "What the City Administrator recommended was 20 of the 22 duties and authorities listed under a commission and an independent monitor."
Melekian also said that he supports the compromise that was adopted, crafted by council member Meagan Harmon, with its provision for the one-year hiring of an expert consultant to get new processes and procedures underway: "I think council member Harmon's suggestion about, 'Okay, look, let's bring in an expert in this area to help Barbara (Anderson) stand this up and we'll make a decision about where we go.' I thought that was perfectly sensible."
In his most extensive public comments on the subject to date, the outgoing chief also addressed several other key aspects of the controversy.
Scope of civilian oversight. "I said from the beginning that I think that this oversight needs to solve three things: It needs to provide people an alternative method of filing complaints about alleged police misconduct; .they have to have some way to do it besides to go to the Police Department. Secondly is that an oversight board has to be able to continually take a look at what the Police Department does, how it functions, an audit function, if you will, and to have the Police Chief report on a regular basis, in public, about issues of interest to that board. And the third thing is, God forbid we have a significant incident like an officer-involved shooting that results in a fatality that's controversial, there has to be a place for the community to be able to go and express their frustration and for the Police Department to come and explain what happened."
Repurposing an existing commission. "I know that the people who spoke (before City Council) thought that, 'Well, the Fire and Police Commission can't do that. They shouldn't do that. They don't have the gravitas,' Whatever their rationale was, in point of fact, a lot of the authority that (the Formation Commission) wanted to give to this oversight board, the (Fire and Police) Commission has. The City Administrator has had discussions about basically revamping the membership of the board, about moving the meeting to City Hall and televising it, probably having more than one meeting a month. So the opportunity to remake this commission, in my opinion, is really a distinction without a difference...except you don't have to build a new board. You don't have to work out the distinctions between this oversight board and the existing police commission."
City-Commission communication. "The fact is, and I really want to be very careful about how I word this, but the leadership of the CFC was briefed every step of the way between April 22nd and June 6th about what the city's position was evolving to. So the statement that they were blindsided or they didn't know it was coming, or whatever, simply isn't (accurate) And maybe they felt that way, maybe they didn't feel that it was specific enough. I don't know what happened. I do know that..the former chair (Escobedo), who was sort of tasked to work with me, to sit down and develop stuff. And ultimately, two other former members of the CFC were in some of those meetings and then the whole process kind of moved over to the City Administrator's office and to Barbara Anderson."
Allegations about "white supremacy." "Maybe it's too much to hope for, but I wish we could not sort of inject this notion that this is white supremacy asserting itself, when it really is a matter of government just trying to figure out how to give this group, which was tasked by the City Council to provide recommendations to the council for oversight... for the majority of those recommendations to be adopted...I don't think we need to go to this place that, 'Well, it's a slap in the face,' or, 'It's white supremacy asserting itself,' or it's any of that. It's not. It's about governance and it's about how you do this."
Watch our interview with Melekian via YouTube below or by clicking through this link.
In our conversation, Melekian spoke about a wide range of issues involving law enforcement, from gun safety laws and the horrific slaughter of school children in Texas to big problems in recruiting and retaining officers and how SB cops handle the homeless. Some key quotes, lightly edited for clarity and length.
On assessing the Santa Barbara Police Department. "It's going to sound sort of self serving because I'm sitting in this office, but I am really, really, genuinely stunned by how good the people are that work here... At the top of the list of reasons I say that is this notion of the reverence for life. A lot of the reform efforts starting with the President's Commission in 2015 said the departments needed to really inculcate a 'reverence for life' that is not resorting to lethal force, even if it's legally justified. "
On lethal force. "From the time I came here, there's easily been 10 incidents that I could strip away all the extraneous stuff, and legally and morally...,lethal force could (have been) justified.
And by morally, I mean, do you, as a human being, when it's over, can you live with what happened? Are you satisfied that you did everything that you could to find some other alternative than killing somebody? And this department, does it consistently. They will trade time and space for that."
On the SBPD's personnel shortage. "We're authorized 142 (officers). I think we're down 18 right now, not counting people who were injured on duty, and not counting the fact that we have shortages in Dispatch. And so we have five or six officers who are not on the street, who are working in Dispatch to fill those vacancies. So functionally, we're probably down, pushing close to 30 percent."
On difficulties in recruiting officers. "It's certainly been exacerbated by George Floyd and the social justice movement....but the recruitment challenge has been going on for a decade. The numbers of people who show up to take the initial exam...in 1972, when I showed up at El Camino College in LA to take the initial physical fitness exam and a written exam, there were probably 2,000 people there. It was massive. Today, I just got briefed this morning, on our most recent local one, 16 people showed up. So that issue's been going on for a while. But George Floyd and the social justice movement and the willingness, at least initially, to embrace the whole 'Defund The Police' movement, I think really did an enormous amount of damage."
On difficulties in retaining officers. "It's not the big stuff. I used to say, pardon the crude metaphor, but, 'How much do they pay you to have a drunk throw up on your shoes?' That's the kind of thing that officers deal with. At the end of the day, you don't do it for money. Money's nice, and people argue about it and all that, but you do it because there's two things. One, there's a sense of purpose for yourself and self fulfillment. And the other is a recognition that society values what you do and appreciates it. And I think one of the things that happened in 2020 was a very unified message across the country that, "No, we don't appreciate what you do. We don't like what you do and you're responsible for all of these racial and social inequities that exist in our society." And that's incredibly disillusioning for people."
On cops and the homeless. "The issue of watching these officers deal with the homeless and with the mentally ill, and I'm not talking about just what they do in public, I'm talking about the language that they use in private meetings, or when they meet with business groups or when they meet with other people, some of whom are screaming about, 'Do something! Do something!' And I watch the manner in which these sergeants and lieutenants just... they take that all in, they process it, they do what they can, but they're very clear on the rights of everybody that's involved."
On current levels of crime. "Our violent crime is actually at or below sort of where it's been historically. Property crime is up slightly, but not dramatically. But the person crime, the violent crime has not really spiked at all and I really can't attribute it to anything other than, to some extent, probably geographic isolation and the fact that...we have been emphasizing for the past year, this need to be, the term I use is 'felt presence.' 'That the officers are out there, that they're around and not so much in a kind of an oppressive, old school way, but just in enough of a presence for people to be aware that they're there."
On punishment vs. incarceration. "Some people, including some juveniles, are evil. That's not a word that anybody likes anymore, but it's true. What's equally true is that many people who commit 'crimes,' that's in quotation marks, are a product of a social or economic background that probably deserves some consideration, or deserves a second chance, or deserves, especially kids, deserves some diversion out of the system. But it ought not to be everybody, because not everybody fits that."
On "progressive prosecutors." "I'm not a big fan of progressive prosecution. I'm a fan of enlightened prosecution and I think there's a difference. One of the things that's changed, the sort of prevailing wisdom among criminal justice reformers was that the police were the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system. And if the police weren't arresting everyone, then you wouldn't have so many in people in prison, you wouldn't have mass incarceration. Well, somebody finally woke up to the fact that the police are not the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system. The police just deal with whatever's put in front of them. The gatekeepers are the district attorney's offices and they're the ones who make the decision about whether these people go through the court process or other things.
"And I don't think that (recently recalled San Francisco District Attorney Chesa) Boudin or (DA George) Gascon in LA or some of the other ones, I don't think they're completely off base, but it's like they've gone into this all or nothing trap. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. There has to be some way for those offices to evaluate the circumstances...and make decisions about the individual, about whether they're going to go through the process or not...But what they do is...they just create this matrix that says, 'Well, if you did X, Y, and Z, well, you're going to get prosecuted. And if all three boxes are checked, you not going to get prosecuted.' As opposed to saying, 'What is (an individual) doing? Why did he do this?'"
On police performance in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. "The conventional thing to do is to say, 'we should wait 'til all the facts unfold.' But actually, I think the facts have unfolded: 19 children died in that classroom along with two teachers. That's the fact. And the fact is that there were people standing around while it happened, and that's the fact.
"Why they made the decisions that they made, what caused them to want to stop and wait, I don't know, but I do know that ever since Columbine, the training has always been, and certainly is in Santa Barbara -- I reiterated it the day after Uvalde when I came to work -- is that you gather the first two or three officers that show up, you form a response team and you enter and you take action. And you understand that doing so is not the safest course of action, but in point of fact, it's one of those moments that we get paid for.
"There was a column..,in The Wall Street Journal, I believe, that said, 'In those kind of situations when your life is at risk, the social contract is that the officers that show up will risk their lives to save yours.' That's the contract. And if the public ever decides that that contract is not being honored or that that contract is worthless, we're going to be in serious, serious trouble."
On gun safety laws. "Because I am a Second Amendment person, I do believe the Second Amendment was written to guarantee individual gun ownership (but) I don't think it was written to allow 18 year olds to have AR-15s or military grade assault weapons...Again, this all or nothing thing - it's not gun legislation or mental health. It's not one or the other, but there are politicians on both sides who try to frame it that way. It has to be gun safety, gun legislation, and appropriate mental health resources.
"Every one of these mass shooters has...it's almost all the same. Somehow, they got this gun, somehow, they had this grievance, and somehow, everybody that had contact with them knew that they were, a few years ago, I was interviewed about one of these incidents, and I said, 'The decision we have to make as a society is, when do we want the state to intervene in the lives of the strange?' Because every one of these folks are described as weird, as loners, as isolated and as doing strange things, but we don't have any means to address that...these red flag laws have to be stricter. "
On the role of a police chief, "Well, it's very easy, I think, for police executives to get sort of wrapped up in the work that they do...but you have to get out of this office. The chief has to get out of this office and go down to briefings, go out to the parking lot where the officers in the radio cars are, go to the range...And modern day chiefs are very well aware that they have to do those things with the community. They have to go to community meetings, they have to go to the neighborhood watch and all that, but all too often in my experience, they forget that the men and women who are doing this work are the ambassadors of the department.
"I tell officers that I could go give speeches all I want about the importance of constitutional policing, and about caring for people and all that stuff, but the truth or falsity of what I say is going to be determined by some 23-year old officer at two o'clock in the morning, in an alley when no one's looking. That's the reality of it and I feel that it's imperative that you have a connection with them."
How policing has changed. "So I'm 49 years and four months, almost, into this work, but I sometimes feel like somebody opened up a time capsule and plucked me out of it and said, 'Here, tell us about how it was back in the day.' But I do remember walking into my first roll call in the Santa Monica Police Department in 1973 and it was 90 percent veterans, it was 95 percent white males and I was the smallest guy in the room. That's how the business has changed.
"And it was very hierarchical and everything that I just said about 'the Chief needs to be present and touch bases' and all that absolutely never happened. You never saw the Chief of Police. Heck, I never saw my Lieutenant most of the time. The Lieutenant sat in this office. And the only thing that you wanted from that Lieutenant was for him not to want to talk to you. As long as he wasn't talking to you, it was okay.
"And the community, I remember going to community meeting and the people were complaining about quality of life in neighborhoods and people racing cars and kids hanging out. And I remember watching this Sergeant pull out a flip chart and look at the number of radio calls and where things were, and basically say, 'Well, you don't have a problem.' The whole mentality was that, 'we are the professionals and we will tell you how you want to be policed.'"
On what he'll miss. "I will miss two things. I think one is the people, right? Everybody always says that, but it's true. I love the men and women who do police work, who do the real... I've been saying for quite some time that as the police chief or as an undersheriff, I don't do any real work. The real work is done by these 25 year olds that drive radio cars and dispatch calls and those things. I'll miss that. The one thing I love about, I think, policing more than anything else is you have an opportunity to make a difference in the life of everybody you come in contact with. And it can be positive or negative, but you're going to make a difference, and I will miss that. I will not miss the 3:00 AM phone calls and I will not miss trying to solve problems that in many cases, don't appear to have a very readily apparent solution."
On selling ice cream. "You go back to 1973 and I was a brand new officer, Sergeant Dick Tapia, who's since passed away, would end every roll call by saying, 'Now, remember boys, you're not going out there to sell ice cream.' Well, about 1983 or '84, and I'm a brand new Sergeant and now Dick Tapia is still there and he's now talking about going to this community meeting, and meet with this person, on a traffic issue and this other thing. And when the officers left, I said, 'Gee, Dick, I remember when you told us we weren't going out there to sell ice cream.' He didn't skip a beat. He said, 'Son, now we're giving it away.'"