Facing a number of serious challenges with the Allan Hancock College Police Department, a special committee — which includes three members with a collective nine decades of law enforcement experience — heard the pros and cons of fixing the department or hiring another agency to provide campus law enforcement services.
Allan Hancock College Police Chief Paul Grohowski said a number of concerns led him to recommend a dramatic change of course. His solution is for the college, at 800 S. College Drive in Santa Maria, to contract with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department due to the cost and complexity of rebuilding the campus police force.
Presented with the concerns and a possible fix, the college Board of Trustees appointed a special committee led by board member Hilda Zacarias and made up of law enforcement officers and representatives from the California School Employees Association and the Allan Hancock College Foundation.
After he joined the force in September, Grohowski’s analysis of the department revealed inadequate training, a historic rate of overtime, low salaries, not enough officers and inadequate equipment.
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During the committee’s nearly two-hour meeting Friday, Grohowski’s law enforcement colleagues on the committee expressed varying opinions about the proposal but agreed a tough decision lies ahead for the Board of Trustees.
Cal Poly Police Chief George Hughes said it’s difficult, time consuming and expensive to remain compliant with the requirements for police officers.
“It’s an all-or-nothing thing for a police department,” he said. “No matter how big or small we are, we can’t do it partially.”
Yet, Hughes, who previously worked for a municipal police department, noted the unique customer service issues campus police officers handle.
“I hope you’re able to stay with your Police Department,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to because of the cost. It’s more than just personnel. It’s the equipment and the ongoing training, and getting the qualified people and maintaining them. It’s very, very difficult to do.”
Chris Nartatez, once Hancock’s interim police chief as well as a former Guadalupe police chief and retired Santa Maria police sergeant, said he was passionate about being a dedicated servant during his nearly 40 years in law enforcement.
“I look at the hearts of the people that I worked with here on campus and they’re genuine people,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m really concerned for them.
“The college needs to take care of their people,” he added to the applause from Police Department supporters in the room.
Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh offered a different view, saying it’s important to think about students and faculty when making such a decision, given that the world now includes terrorism, workplace shootings and cyberbullying.
“Police work is high risk and very complex,” he said. “You need highly competent police officers. You need them to be culturally competent, tactically competent. You need them to be masters of communication.”
The sworn officers must undergo special training for working in the college campus setting, with some previously allowed to work despite not having that specialized education, Grohowski said.
“The vicarious liability of not doing this the right way is just too great,” he said. “It’s too big of a burden to the college.”
Hancock police have a chief, one sergeant, three full-time officers, a reserve officer and one dispatcher. The campus also has five campus safety officers.
Hiring five more officers, one sergeant and a project assistant would cost $551,434, Grohowski said, adding that does not account for the need to boost existing salaries up to 35 percent to be competitive.
Undersheriff Barney Melekian and sheriff’s Cmdr. Craig Bonner spoke about options if the college contracts with the county agency.
Melekian said the Sheriff’s Department is not advocating for the Hancock contract, but would put together a proposal upon request.
“We are here to be of service to the college, as we are to all of the residents in the county,” he said. “I wanted to be clear on that point.”
Hancock Superintendent/President Kevin Walthers said options include expanding the existing department, contracting with the Sheriff’s Department or moving to a campus security model with the local agencies providing law enforcement services.
Among eight community colleges on the Central Coast, Hancock and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo were the only campuses with their own police departments, Walthers said.
The full Board of Trustees is expected to take up the issue during its July 11 meeting.
At the start of the meeting, Hancock Officer Alison Hershon said she is a believer in the department’s worth, and expressed disappointment that the police chief felt differently.
“The Allan Hancock Police Department has value,” she added.