Get to know Santa Barbara’s new police chief

Santa Barbara’s new city police chief started her new job this week. Lori Luhnow is Santa Barbara’s first female police chief. She comes from the San Diego Police Department, where she worked for 27 years.

KCRW’s Larry Perel sat down with Luhnow to talk about the biggest issues facing the department.

KCRW: Are you getting used to the title, “chief”?

Luhnow: Absolutely not, but I’m not giggling every time I hear it. It’s a great honor and privilege.

How does it feel to be Santa Barbara’s first female chief?

When I came on in the late 1980s we started getting more women into law enforcement, so I think it’s a natural progression that over the years they’ve moved through the ranks. We’ll probably see more in the future since there are more female officers in the profession than there’s ever been.

You’ve said Santa Barbara was a good fit for you. How come?

I grew up in San Juan Capistrano, so I see a hint of that here with the Spanish colonial architecture and the Mission. I then went down to San Diego and played volleyball at UC San Diego, and fell into law enforcement in a very diverse city. I think Santa Barbara is very much like San Diego in regards to that diversity, just in a smaller scale.

Lunhow with the San Diego Police Department (SDPD)
Luhnow with the San Diego Police Department (SDPD)

What do you mean you “fell into law enforcement”?

I graduated from college and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was an athlete. My twin sister was starting her career with the Department of Fish and Game and she was in her police academy. Hearing about her challenges, physically and academically, in that environment appealed to me. I figured the worst thing I could say is I was a cop. But, needless to say, it was a perfect fit.

A big issue in policing is gaining, or preserving, the trust of the residents. We’ve seen this play out in terrible ways around the county over the past few weeks, first with officer involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, followed by fatal attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. How do you plan to maintain trust here?

I have a very strong community oriented policing background because of my time with the SDPD. It’s something I was brought up on in the organization. We exist to police for the community. Without having that relationship, you can’t have the dialogue that points out the problems.

How do you propose to get out into the community so the officers are seen and that trust is built up?

A big part of that is getting our staffing up, so we can return the beat officer positions we used to have here. Those were familiar faces for our community to rely on.

Your department is down 13 patrol officers, and 10 officers are on medical leave. Why has the SBPD had such trouble hiring new officers?

It’s a trend right now in California and across the nation. I think it’s just a shift from the mass hiring that most of these agencies did in the 1980s. People are coming up on retirement age and exiting the profession. In the 10 largest police agencies in California alone, there are over 3,000 police officer openings. So, we’re all competing for the same people and, frankly, what you see on the news isn’t helping people want to come to our profession.

That said, we do have eight people in the academy that come out in October, and we have about 20 people in the final stages of background who will hopefully fill those openings.

When an officer shot a black man at a traffic stop in Minnesota earlier this month, the aftermath was broadcast live on Facebook by the man’s girlfriend. How do you advise police officers deal with the fact that anything they do may be streamed live to the world?

They know that, especially the younger forces. They grew up with the internet and understand technology. We need to be accountable for everything we do. It’s something that will be instilled on a daily basis, but I have all the trust and confidence that [police officers] carry themselves in that manner here.

Police departments in Oxnard and Ventura are beginning to implement body camera programs. There is no program in Santa Barbara. Do you plan to start one?

I’ve seen the positive benefits of body cameras in San Diego. However, it’s a huge expense. Each case that has body camera evidence needs to be reviewed by an officer. Basically, it means we have to have our staffing up and be prepared for the extra work.

What’s your biggest challenge going forward?

This whole next month is going to be a lot of learning for me. My biggest personal challenge is to fully embrace the community and make sure they feel a change since I got here.