New SBPD Chief's Assessment: Crime Rate Down, No Gang Problem, City a "Safe Place to Live...Visit"
Updated: Feb 15
Kelly Gordon's grandfather was a police officer in Tonawanda, N.Y., and her godfather was a state patrolman. At 5, she was gifted a child-sized state trooper uniform, a little kid's Halloween costume she still treasures, testimony to her life-long ambition to be a cop.
Now on the cusp of turning 50, Kelly Gordon today is living her dream, as Chief of Police for the city of Santa Barbara, a $263,933-per-year post to which she was sworn last September, after a quarter-century of police work in Southern California. Starting in 1996 as an LAPD rookie on patrol, she eventually became police chief of Monterey Park, her last stop before SB.
In her first in-depth-and-detail interview since arriving in town, the chief spoke with Newsmakers this week, a conversation that ranged from the personal journey that brought her to Santa Barbara, complex public policy challenges confronting law enforcement nationally, and her prognosis and prescriptions for the problems faced by the SBPD, which is budgeted for 220 employees, of which 141 are sworn officer positions.
"Santa Barbara is a safe place to live," Gordon said in an upbeat early appraisal. "It's a safe place to visit. It's a safe place to be. Does that mean that we don't have any crime? No...
"But overall, we do not have an increase in crime. We don't have an increase in property crime or violent crime. And I know what the national narrative is, but I can tell you, I've worked a couple different places, and the quality of officers that we have, quality of detective work that is done here, quality of work done by our professional staff, is outstanding."
Speaking via Zoom from her office, freshly painted police blue before her arrival, the chief ("just call me Kelly," she urged as we started), answered questions in a low-key, precise and scrupulously cautious tone that evinced notable emotion just once: when she was asked about last month's horrible mass murder in Monterey Park, which left 11 people dead in the city's majority Asian community - all between the ages of 57 and 76 -- at two ballroom dance studio social gatherings at the start of Lunar New Year.
"As you can imagine, I still have deep ties. And almost everyone that responded that night, I was part of that hiring process for them -- wonderful men and women, very dedicated to what they do," she said. "The current chief Scott Wieise, I had just been at his official swearing-in that Thursday night. Scott and I are close friends and watching him go through all of this and all of the city staff...plus the community, it's really tragic and it's heartbreaking to see.
"If you can imagine receiving that kind of call, responding, pulling up and having people running at you, you don't know what's going on," she added. "You enter, seeing those that are clearly deceased, others that have significant injuries. You don't know at that moment whether the shooter is still actively there. So you're also ready to be engaged if there is a shooter there. And not being able to just necessarily stop and render aid at that moment...A lot of different things while you're trying to work through the confusion."
The road to Santa Barbara. Born and raised in a small town near Buffalo, where she worked in her family's restaurant, Kelly wasted no time leaving the arctic winters of upstate New York after graduating high school in a class of 62 seniors. Having visited on vacations an aunt, uncle and cousins who lived in Southern California, and who did a lot of camping along the coast, she'd long before figured out the advantages of the Left Coast.
Enrolling at Cal Poly Pomona, she graduated in 1999 with a degree in Hotel and Motel Management, a kind of artifact of the family business, but quickly applied for, and was accepted, by, the LAPD.
"What someone coming into the police department now is looking for is very different than what myself and others looked for when we came in," she said, recalling she was "one of probably 2,000 that applied, and now (academy candidates) are one of 30 that's applying per time.
"The new generation, they're looking for a culture within the department that they can grow," the chief added. "They really want to see how you're engaged with the community versus when I came on, the recruiting videos were all about SWAT and canine unit and different functions. Times have changed and now, and to their credit, our newer generation of officers is looking for opportunities and how we do better with the unhoused, and how we interact with the community and what our community programs look like."
In 2000, she went to work for the Montebello Police Department where she advanced to the rank of Lieutenant before being hired in 2017 as a Captain in Monterey Park, where she was appointed chief in 2020.
"For me, it is the opportunity to give back and serve the community and serve those that aren't necessarily able to protect themselves," Kelly said, when asked what attracted her to police work. "So it's that service to the community and others that really drove me in. What better job when your office is outside and everything is different every day?"
Key quotes. In our interview, Chief Gordon addressed a host of police-related controversies.
Crime, reality vs perception. At a time of breathless social media postings (looking at you, Next Door), not to mention political tribalism, there are widespread perceptions, around the state and across the nation, that crime is spiking. In Santa Barbara, at least, that's simply not true, the chief said, noting that the department is completing year-to-year and five-year studies: "I think (sometimes) there becomes the perception that we have a huge problem...Overall, our violent crimes and our property crimes are down. So Santa Barbara is not less safe than it used to be."
Criminal gangs. Questions have been raised, by news organizations and on social media, about the prevalence of gangs in Santa Barbara, especially in the wake of the fatal shooting last December at the Wharf of Rob Gutierrez, a visitor from Camarillo, a case leading to the arrest last month of four adults and a juvenile with alleged gang affiliations. "We do not have a gang problem. Yes, we have some gang activity, but we don't have a gang problem here in the city. Sometimes we do have incidents that are related to a gang, but in terms of, do we have a gang problem? We don't have a gang problem."
Police use of force. Santa Barbara recently revamped its Fire and Police Commission, following a community process that began with the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, to include some civilian oversight of any improper use of force allegations against the SBPD. "All officers have body cams now...We don't have an extremely high number of uses of force (and) we investigate all uses of force...But we'll be giving quarterly reports to the Fire and Police Commission."
The Fentanyl epidemic. Concerns about Fentanyl have grown amid reports of overdose deaths, as well as the use of opiates by students. "Fentanyl is certainly a real issue and problem...Now they have made it colored and it looks like Skittles. And a lot of that is educating parents (and) having programs out there to help parents have resources for their children. And it's certainly something that we have to keep our eye on (and) really do everything we can to prevent that from happening."
The role of police in addressing homelessness. "I think all of us working together as a team is the most important piece of it. Our piece is a big piece, because we're the ones here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, addressing the issues...My hope is that we can get more co-response clinicians (and) look for opportunities to expand that...In LA County, officers can write (72-hour) mental health holds. Here in this county we cannot....I'm hoping that with (a recently launched) pilot program, the county sees the success with that and we can build off of that."
The impact of homelessness on downtown business. "I've spent quite a bit of time downtown since I've been here, seeing firsthand...I understand how the merchants feel. I understand that if (a homeless person) is having a crisis moment and how that affects their business, I understand that. But we also have to make sure that we are respecting the rights of our unhoused and looking towards long-term solutions and really looking at this from a bigger picture point of view."
The chief also addressed several other important issues, including the difficulties of filling vacant positions in the department, amid hiring and recruitment challenges facing nearly every police agency in the nation, and expressed her view that pay and benefits should be improved for officers.
The Gutierrez case. She also addressed questions about the department's handling of the Gutierrez murder case, mentioned above, stressing that a department representative had been in contact with his family continuously since the night of the shooting.
The family was informed of what the department was doing, she added, at every step of the investigation, a month-long, multi-agency probe that included the decision not to announce that Mr. Gutierrez had died of his wounds, 11 days after he was shot, transforming the episode into a murder.
"The department has been in constant communication with his family from the moment this all occurred. And the family wants the same thing that we've always wanted, which is to make sure that those responsible for this heinous crime, are arrested and fully prosecuted, and never have an opportunity to make someone else a victim," she told us. "The family has never been left in the dark. The family has been supported throughout this entire experience and will continue to be."
"I will firmly stand behind (the decision that) releasing information prior to when we released it would have had negative impacts upon our investigation and our ability to fully prosecute this case," she added. "And we're not here trying to hide anything, but sometimes the public safety interest of making sure that an investigation is able to be completed, and all the information and all the evidence is able to be gathered in the way it needs to be to ensure appropriate prosecution... can sometimes not be what others would want to see."