Chief Barney Melekian Shares His Perspective on Today’s Policing Issues

by | Aug 19, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

In 1973, Barney Melekian, our recently retired Santa Barbara Police Chief, began his first venture in his 50-year career in law enforcement. During the next 20 years, he worked patrol, including being part of the first locally funded dog handler team in California. He left for one year in 1976 to become a Deputy Sheriff in Santa Barbara. He returned to the Santa Monica Police Department in 1977 and remained there until 1996, leaving with the rank of Administrative Captain.

By 1996, he was Police Chief of Pasadena. Thirteen years later he was appointed as Director of Community Oriented Policing Services in Washington, DC. Otherwise known as COPS, this agency is in charge of training and technical assistance for law enforcement agencies around the US.

Melekian and his family moved to Santa Barbara in 2013 where he enjoyed a thriving consulting business, traveling to Seattle, Chicago, and New York. In 2015, he accepted an offer from the Sheriff to become Undersheriff for Santa Barbara County.

After the debris flow in 2018, he prepared to retire again in September due to an injured knee. However, the Santa Barbara County CEO asked him to oversee public safety, which included cannabis licensing. He accepted even though he appreciated the irony of the assignment. Between serving in the Coast Guard Reserve and law enforcement, his focus up to that point had been strictly about enforcement. He did say that it was one of the most interesting and rewarding assignments he had ever had.

Just when he was thinking of retiring again, he was asked to serve as Interim Police Chief for Santa Barbara for six months. Eighteen months later he actually retired from over 50 years of law enforcement, even though he admittedly still does some consulting from time to time.

Recruitment and retention present challenges to law enforcement everywhere.

I asked Melekian to talk about the biggest challenges facing law enforcement. He quickly pointed to recruitment and retention of officers. “Even though the aftermath of the George Floyd incident had a big impact on reducing applications for law enforcement positions, the truth is applications had been declining for decades before that,” explains Melekian.

“In 1973, I was one of 1,200 students taking the test at El Camino College for a law enforcement career. Nowadays, we would be lucky to have 120. “Recruitment remains a big problem. People think twice about going into law enforcement because it seems that all officers are being judged by the actions of a few. Unfortunately, the media and public officials often fan those flames. Today, many officers are being held accountable for something they didn’t create.

“If there was a big wave of people signing up for law enforcement careers tomorrow, it would take three to five years to get the number of officers back to where we could provide the level of service that people have become accustomed to. Until we get to that point, we have to figure out what services we cannot deliver anymore.

“Another challenge is that the declining number of officers result in overtime requirements which, in turn, create compassion fatigue and family stress. So, it is a vicious circle. It is challenging to recruit new officers when this is the environment they would be stepping into.”

Retention, on the other hand, is more impacted by funding. “We are often told to do more with fewer resources. This is not possible, nor is it sustainable. Funding for law enforcement will always be an issue and it impacts retention more than recruitment,” explains Melekian.

“Young people do not come into the business focused on how much money they will make. Their primary motivation is service. They feel a strong calling to serve. So, funding doesn’t have such a big impact on recruitment.”

Melikian points out that in Santa Barbara, policing is well funded, but the cost of living here is a separate issue.  Retention improvement in Santa Barbara is unique because we are so geographically isolated. Only 18 percent of sworn officers live on the South Coast. Most commute from Ventura, Oxnard, Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez Valley. Some of the officers who left Santa Barbara are taking law enforcement jobs closer to where they live. The incentive is financial, but it is also emotional.

“There must be a compelling reason for people to be willing to commute to Santa Barbara. We have made some progress in building housing for first responders, but it turns out to be an answer for those who are single and fairly new in the job because, as they start to have families, they want more than just a nice apartment. So, they start to look elsewhere.”

Fear of prosecution for on-duty actions keeps many away from law enforcement careers.

This is not a big problem here in Santa Barbara, but when people read about it happening elsewhere, it creates fear for themselves regardless of where they live. The concept of ‘Qualified Immunity’ says that if you are doing your job as a public official within the guidelines of the law and departmental procedure, you cannot be criminally prosecuted. “Most people have no concept of what it is like to be held accountable for a split-second decision. Once again, Santa Barbara doesn’t have a big problem with this, but our officers read the media reports and become afraid for themselves. It often looks to line officers that they are being sacrificed for politics and overall peace,” explains Melekian.

The unhoused and those with mental illness and substance abuse issues create challenges.

Melekian reminisces, “When I was a new officer in Los Angeles County, I was on the homeless task force in Santa Monica. We came to Santa Barbara because we heard they had a cutting-edge way of dealing with the homeless. Later, when I came to Santa Barbara, I discovered that our officers were visiting Santa Monica because they were considered cutting-edge.”

Melekian points out that most of the homeless on the streets today are a direct result of closing the mental health facilities many years ago. The interesting thing is that Republicans and Democrats were in complete agreement about this project, but the result was a disaster.

The large institutions were supposed to be replaced by neighborhood mental health centers. This worked for a while in Santa Monica, but it didn’t last. Now the only option is to take homeless individuals to jail.

“This problem won’t be solved until we recognize we need more treatment beds, more locked mental health facilities, and the ability to compel people to accept services. Most people on the street today don’t get the treatment they need because they have to agree to it and then they can always walk out.

It is best for mental health professionals to respond to these situations. Actually, a co-response team of law enforcement and mental health works well. But it would work better if we had somewhere to take people besides jail.

Several methods of analytical prediction of crime have been tried.

The concept of Predictive Policing has been around for several years, but the jury is still out about its effectiveness. This interesting approach uses mathematics, predictive analytics, and other analytical techniques to identify potential criminal activity. It’s an interesting concept but hasn’t been proven yet.

A better model is called Hot Spots Policing. It was designed by Dr. David Weisburd, who was awarded the Stockholm prize in criminology. Weisburd teaches at George Mason University in Virginia and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This method looks at street segments to predict crime. It shows that even within the worst areas, there are only certain sections where crime is happening.

Officer wellness and morale are always important issues.

Melekian recalls, “As a police chief, the single most devastating thing that happened to me was the suicide of one of my officers. It was such a shock partly because he was a star performer on our Pasadena police force. Afterward we did an analysis, called a forensic autopsy.

It turned out that he had been leaving hints about his thoughts on taking his life, but no one picked up on it. In response to his death, we created a comprehensive wellness program that included peer counseling, an ability to connect anonymously with a therapist, and increased training for our Sergeants and Lieutenants.

“Today, the rate of suicide is higher than ever. It is a dirty secret for every officer that is killed in the line of duty, there are five to seven who will take their own life.

“There are a lot of resources in Santa Barbara County for counseling and the ability to reach out to get assistance. The Fire Department has been a leader in this approach. People don’t realize the stress firefighters and paramedics operate under.”

There is always room for improvement.

“Policing has improved so much in the past 50 years. Officers are better educated and trained, and they are focused on holding a reverence for life. Law enforcement in this county goes to great lengths to not use lethal force, even where it would be authorized. It’s impressive really.

“We have to do something about the workload issue, though. Officers cannot be expected to respond to every issue of concern, given the current staffing levels. This is going to require some adjustment by both the public and law enforcement agencies.

“If I had a magic wand and plenty of resources, I would find a way to give officers a sabbatical every five years so they could get away from the job and decompress. I want them to have time to sort out who they are and remind themselves why they came into the law enforcement business in the first place.”

Policing is always local.

“I want people to remember that policing is always local. So, as you pick up this national narrative, remember who your police officers and deputy sheriffs in Santa Barbara County are and the work they do here. Each agency must be judged by the region it is in not by the national narrative. 

“I have always supported the concept of civilian oversight. In Santa Barbara, we already had the Fire & Police Commission which made it easier to elevate its status and broaden its mission. I think it has the capacity to be very effective, but the test will come with the first controversial incident.

The Commission must ensure that it is transparent in its processes and gives equal voice to all of the involved parties.

“I will say that if I was 50 years younger and knew everything that was going to happen during my career, I would do this again in a heartbeat.”