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SB's Top Cop Talks Community Policing, Alternatives to Jail -- and Eastside Double Murder Case

After a year of conflict and debate over "reimagining" law enforcement policies and practices, Santa Barbara interim Police Chief Barney Melekian is setting forth a framework to begin doing just that.

In an interview with Newsmakers on Wednesday, the acting chief sounded like anything but a temporary caretaker of the SBPD as he discussed four critical "overarching priorities" that underlie the budget presentation he is scheduled to make to City Council next week.

"For the longest time, certainly in my tenure in this business, the focus of the patrol mission has been to go out and find crime," he told us. "But there's a new school of thought that says that if...your (community and neighborhood) relationship building is strong enough, you will get more information about what criminal activity is taking place and where it's taking place."

"We're really starting to recognize the impact that the individual officers has on the lives of everybody that they've come in contact with, and the ability to facilitate the neighborhood, in effect, controlling its own problems, where the officer and the state's power of arrest become kind of the last resort rather than the first resort," he added.

Who is Barney Melekian? The 71-year old Melekian stepped into a six-month stint as interim chief amid a nationwide search to replace the departed Lori Luhnow, who retired in February. After serving 23 years with the Santa Monica Police Department, where he won both the Medal of Valor and the Medal of Courage, he became Chief of Police of Pasadena in 1996, where he stayed for 15 years.

Recognized as a national authority on 21st century policing, Melekian earned a doctorate at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development (thesis: "Values-Based Discipline in Law Enforcement Organizations") and was tapped by the Obama Administration in 2009 to be Director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing under then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

After leaving the Administration, he came to Santa Barbara in 2013 and worked for the county, where he was Undersheriff and then Assistant County Executive Officer, before being hired by the city.

He took over the SBPD amid community controversy over the role of the police, reflecting a national disputation on the subject that was triggered by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last May 25, a killing recorded on video that set off months of protests, led by Black Lives Matter.

"For the longest time, officer training focused on compliance - what does the policy say," Melekian said. "And that really frames the question in an officer's mind of, 'Can I do this?' And the real question should be, 'Should I do this?' And one of the things I've seen in my short tenure here at the Police Department is a number of incidents that could have been resolved with a significant use of force that weren't.

"I think, especially with the national narrative that's going on, and the things that you see on the news, I don't think most people have a conception of how often individual men and women (police officers) go to great lengths to take somebody into custody, or to resolve a situation, without causing them any pain or physical harm."

A framework for change. During the interview, Melekian touched on four key policy priorities upon which his budget presentation, the first for the SBPD since the George Floyd incident, is based:

Improving the quality of life in neighborhoods. Melekian described the department's approach to community policing as establishing "a felt presence" rather than " obvious enforcement posture," by partnering with other city departments to help address neighborhood problems:

"It's not less law enforcement, but it's less in-your-face law enforcement."

Transforming the mission of patrol by building relationships. While law enforcement agencies traditionally measure the success of patrol via "outputs," such as arrests made or tickets written, Melekian said, the SBPD should develop "holistic metrics" that track "outcomes" - like public trust:

"That patrol officer may be the single most influential person in a given neighborhood, in terms of that community's interaction with the police department and what they want for it...And if we change the focus of patrol, it's easy to say, 'Well, the chief's saying that we shouldn't do enforcement.' I'm not saying that at all. I"m saying our focus needs to be in this arena of building relationships with those neighborhoods and measuring patrol time and what patrol officers do in a different way...

"I think measuring things like how many hours of foot patrol in a residential neighborhood that you do, how many non-enforcement contacts with business owners did you have, how many times did you get out and walk around the park - measuring things like that."

Internal procedural justice and employee wellness. Quoting the great crime writer Joseph Wambaugh -- "the greatest danger to a law enforcement officer is...the daily drop of corrosion on the human soul" -- Melekian said it is crucial that the internal culture of the department reflect the values with which the community wants officers to treat citizens:

"The idea is that if the organization says, 'We want you to go treat the public with respect, we want you to be transparent and honest in your dealings with public,' then the internal processes of the police department have to mirror that. That's what internal procedural justice is all about.."

Recruitment and retention. Melekian said the national criticism that police officers have received as a group because of the actions of a few has advanced morale issues and led some to question whether the work they do is worth it.

"The concern, for an if there's an incident that is high profile, is the department, is the city going to stand behind that officer? And if the officers ever get the sense that that's not the case, then you're going to have problems. That's the retention side. The recruitment side...I really think that there needs to be a very different way, not just in Santa Barbara, but the profession, in terms of how it markets itself. And I think that work is underway."

Local, local, local. During our conversation, the acting chief also addressed a host of specific local controversies, including:

  • an update on the Eastside double murder case ("The incident was certainly gang-related, in the sense of who the suspects are (but) the victims were not really gang members...they certainly weren't engaged in criminal activity");

  • the increase in property crimes during the pandemic ("There are a lot people who are not working because of the pandemic and businesses being closed, and so they're out and about");

  • the concerns about the homeless among State Street business operators ("What we tend to do with homeless people, many of whom are suffering either from mental illness or some kind of substance abuse, we simply move them from one place to another - if we really want to get a handle on this, we're going to have to come up with another option");

  • the investigation of department spokesman Anthony Wagner ("I anticipate that report will probably be later than (Thursday)");

  • the ongoing effort to develop a citizen review process for the police.

"I welcome the presence of that oversight committee. I think it has great value. It sends a message to the public that the department is open and transparent. I think defining what the role is, is going to be important," he said.

"I will say that I sincerely hope, and I know there are people who feel differently, but I sincerely hope they recognize that for any model, whatever you use, and I've been involved in a couple of them, law enforcement has to have a seat at the table. The idea that you can have this oversight group with none of that is very challenging," he added.

Watch our full interview with Chief Barney Melekian via YouTube below or by clicking through this link. The podcast version is here.

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