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City officials call for audit of S.B. police (June 25 2006)

Posted: Sun Jun 25, 2006 8:50 pm
by whisper
City officials call for audit of S.B. police

JOSHUA MOLINA, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
June 25, 2006 7:40 AM

At least two Santa Barbara City Council members are calling for an outside independent audit of the Police Department in the wake of questions about staffing levels, pay, morale, and most recently, allegations of police brutality.

Councilman Brian Barnwell proposed the audit and Mayor Marty Blum is backing it. The outside probe would examine whether the city has enough officers, whether crime rates are high, why morale is low and other issues centered on department problems.

Mr. Barnwell said that if union leaders are going to paint Santa Barbara as unsafe because of perceived low staffing levels, then the city should hire an objective auditor to come in and offer a true picture of the situation.

"The bottom line is when I hear that supposedly the streets are unsafe, as a city councilman, that can't stand," Mr. Barnwell said. "That has to be fixed. Is that true? I don't know. I am not sure anyone knows the answer to that unless we get some third party to come in."

The dust-up at the department comes as allegations of racism and police brutality have rocked the city in the fallout of a fight outside of Cooney's, a popular downtown nightclub.

In addition to the disarray over staffing, pay and safety, the News-Press has learned that an internal survey of the police force showed that morale in the department is low among many police officers.

In interviews with the News-Press, cops said that they feel overworked and underpaid.

The issue is complicated, prompting finger-pointing, political maneuvering and hurt feelings.

Many higher-ups at City Hall are appalled that Sgt. Mike McGrew, president of the Police Officers Association, is stating publicly that crime in Santa Barbara will get worse if officers don't get a raise and staffing isn't boosted.

His bold criticisms of the city administrator in last Sunday's News-Press earned him few points among those at City Hall, who believe that he is attempting to negotiate a better contract by scaring people and blasting the city's fiscally conservative manager, Jim Armstrong. Sgt. McGrew referred to him as "penny-pinching" and "a bureacrat" who says "public safety is not a priority."

Mr. Armstrong is well-regarded by the council members.

Mrs. Blum backs the idea of an audit to get a handle on the problems at the Police Department.

"It sounds like it could be a good idea because when you get in trouble in a department it is good to pull in an outside look," she said.

Sgt. McGrew says that the police force needs a 10 percent raise immediately to "stop the bleeding," referring to officers leaving the department or retiring. The current contract ends on June 30, but no one expects a resolution by July. A new contract will be retroactive.

Giving officers a 10 percent raise would cost the city $1.6 million. The city has a $99 million general fund budget.

The proposal for an outside examination fell flat with Sgt. McGrew and other members of the police union.

"I think Barnwell should come over and ask us what we want before going to someone outside," said Sgt. McGrew, who called the idea "ridiculous."

"We are demoralized just because of the staffing issues," he said. "Officers are out there handling dangerous calls without backup and they are not being able to provide the same service as they used to."

While crime is up over a five-year period in some areas, such as residential and auto burglaries and assault with a deadly weapon, the city has not had a homicide in three years.

POLICE CHIEF SPEAKS OUT


Top city officials are also upset that Sgt. McGrew and others are relying on the extremes to make a point. For example, in a presentation to the City Council earlier this year, they showed low crime statistics from 2001, and then compared them to 2005's high numbers.

But notwithstanding the spikes, Mr. Armstrong has said that there are no alarming crime trends, looking at a longer period of time.

In a candid two-hour interview, Chief Sanchez said he is in possession of the internal department survey, conducted by department team leaders -- not him -- which aimed to measure attitudes about department matters such as communication, leadership, allocation of resources, staffing and computer systems.

"There are some harsh and negative comments made by some employees," he said. "And that's OK."

Some of the comments suggested that Chief Sanchez needs to listen more and attend department briefings.

In summarizing the survey, the chief said that the document is "in-house" and "not for general consumption," declining to provide a copy to the News-Press. He said that at some point he plans to show the results to the city administrator and City Council.

He said that he takes criticism of him to heart and tries to listen to those who make suggestions.

"It is important that people know I care," he said. "Right now, I am not sure they do."

His goal, he said, is to improve morale and communication and work with the city administrator to hire more officers.

The chief said that he does not fear an outside audit. "If we do the audit and it shows we need more officers, let's do the audit," he said. "Whatever we can do to make things better."

Five years ago, Santa Barbara had 151 authorized positions for sworn police officers. Because of deficits in the general fund, the City Council eliminated some positions. Now the budget has money for 141 positions, but the city is having trouble filling those posts.

Fewer people in the city and nationwide are turning to law enforcement jobs. Making matters worse, Santa Barbara is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Many officers complain that they cannot afford to buy a home on the South Coast.

Santa Barbara police officers with 15 years of experience earn an average of $78,000 a year, which is about 10 percent below the median for other similar-sized departments in the state, according to the union. Officers also collect overtime.

Exacerbating the retention problems, the department is struggling with a burst of retirements, largely because of the union contracts they negotiated. Police officers can retire as young as age 50 and earn up to 90 percent of their salaries.

"MASSIVE MORALE PROBLEM"

"We do have a massive morale problem," said Sgt. Jaycee Hunter, who is also a detective. "The No. 1 cause is that our pay and benefits are so off of market rate. We have got hordes of people leaving; that, in conjunction with failure to fill positions, has caused this massive deficit of cops."

He said that he investigates rape, child molestation and domestic violence cases. "I have 41 of these sitting in my drawer," he said, referring to cases he needs to investigate.

He disputes the necessity of an outside review of the department.

"I disagree on the third party," Sgt. Hunter said. "I would love the opportunity to bring over the mayor and/or Mr. Barnwell and just show them my drawer, show them the process and show them what's happening. Both of those people are intelligent enough to see that we have too much crime and not enough cops."

Sgt. William Marazita, also a detective, who specializes in computer crimes such as identity theft, said "morale is at the lowest point that I have seen it in 18 years."

"I have never felt so unappreciated in my career," he said. "We have a significant number of officers with a significant amount of law enforcement experience who are leaving our department."

He doesn't like the possibility of an outside audit.

"I think it would be helpful if the city council and the city administrator would let the chief of police do an audit," Sgt. Marazita said. "I think the chief is fully capable of making that assessment."

Amid the dissension, the department was hit with allegations of racism and that they used excessive force when responding to a fight outside of Cooney's bar in Santa Barbara. Officers arrested four people that night. Many of the people in the large crowd said that officers unnecessarily used pepper spray and physical force.

Last Tuesday at City Hall, nine people accused the cops of treating the crowd badly because they are black. Chief Sanchez said the department is conducting a review of what, if anything, went wrong.


All of the problems in the Police Department have risen to a level where it it is now time for the council to talk about these issues in a holistic way, said Councilwoman Helene Schneider. Pursuing an independent audit is a "legitimate question to ask."

"I think the council as a whole needs to have a discussion on a variety of issues and see how to move forward," Ms. Schneider said.

Source: Santa Barbara News-Press