A department divided
Officers express concerns about low police morale and a perceived failure of leadership in the Santa Maria Police Department
BY KIRSTEN FLAGG
This December, Sgt. Bill Spears plans to leave the Santa Maria Police Department, the town he grew up in, and the home of his children and grandchildren to take the post of police chief in the small Northern California town of Willows.
Spears gave 21 years of service to the department, and he would have liked to finish his career in Santa Maria, but not too long ago Spears said he realized that as long as the leadership of the department remains the same, he'll never move past sergeant.
Dissatisfaction in the ranks:
This photograph of sworn Santa Maria Police officers hangs straight on the wall of the departments lobby, but back in the barracks where a police morale problem has been steadily escalating, cops do not appear nearly so unified.
|PHOTO BY SARAH E. THIEN|
"I've wanted to promote because I have a lot to give to the community and to the department," Spears said. "And because of a lack of objectiveness or fairness, it's not going to happen here, so I'm going to leave."
Spears said he wanted to be clear: If Chief Dan Macagni weren't at the head of the department, he'd never have considered the move.
For many in the department, the departure of their senior sergeant is just one more sign of a growing frustration in the ranks at Macagni's leadership style.
In September, 80 percent of the Police Officers Association (POA) members who responded to an anonymous ballot voted to allow the union to actively address problems with "poor or lacking leadership abilities" and "the spiraling morale problem." The union sent the ballot to its entire membership, which includes 123 sworn and unsworn officers from the rank and file on up to lieutenant. Eighty percent of the POA's members responded.
After first attempting to address the problem with city management and government, union leaders made the decision recently to take their concerns to the public.
Diagnosing the illness
The Sun interviewed 12 Santa Maria police officers or former officers at length regarding the health of the department. Collectively, these officers have 166 years of experience with the SMPD, and they all shared anxieties about a morale problem.
The majority of these officers said that low morale was pervasive throughout the department and stemmed from poor relations between the chief and his subordinates. Others said the morale problem was confined to a minority of the officers and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of these officers.
Everyone who shared this second opinion said they were given special permission by the chief to speak with media. All these officers were promoted to their current positions in the department under Macagni's administration.
The two commanders, the highest ranking officers in the department, were both out of town, and thus unavailable for interviews.
"I've been here since 1972," Lt. Mike Cordero said. "I've seen nine different chiefs, and there's been times when the morale has been lower and higher. And right now, it's about as low as it's ever been in my career."
In fact, morale has sunk so low that veteran officers say they are worried it may be affecting job performance and, by extension, the level of public safety in the community.
"As a sergeant, I have to constantly try to rally my officers to want to go out and do a good job," Spears said. "They'll handle their calls, they'll do their investigations, and they're doing a fine job. But when you have an organization of high morale, then you see more officers that are more proactive, that get out into the community [to check on] safety and basic quality of life issues.
"Well, the officers are not willing to stick their necks out on this, because they don't trust the administration," he said.
In response to the complaints of low morale, Chief Dan Macagni challenged his officers to take responsibility for their own job satisfaction.
|PHOTO BY SARAH E. THIEN|
But Sgt. Norm Come, who was promoted to his position in 2005, said if low morale interferes with the department's ability to provide the best possible public safety, the fault lies with the officers who've let their feelings get in the way of their job.
"I'm more concerned with officers who say they can use morale for malingering, and we've got that going on. ...," Come said. "Officers are using morale to come to work and not work, to use excessive amounts of sick time, and they aren't accountable to it."
In the chief's eyes, the morale problem really comes down to a few disgruntled rank-and-file officers unwilling to take personal responsibility for their job performance and satisfaction.
"I can't mandate good morale. What I can do is control the resources that they need to take care of their jobs," Macagni said.
"I am a resource facilitator. That's my job ... to make sure they get their resources to do their job effectively and meet with them, have an open dialogue," he added. "But they have chosen to not have an open dialogue, not me."
In the two years since new board members were elected to the union, none of them have come to speak to him directly about low morale, the chief said.
Instead, the union allowed lieutenants to address the problems with the chief while it focused on trying to engage the City Council in discussions, said POA President Rob Morris, an officer.
As evidence that the morale problem was not widespread, Macagni pointed out the department's low turnover of officers. Right now there are five vacancies in the SMPD, according to Lt. Kendall Greene.
"You know with 110 sworn personnel down here, to say that the majority of the personnel are unhappy would be inaccurate," Greene said. "It's just a small minority."
But other high-ranking officers said retention could become an issue in the near future.
"We've lost a couple good men," Lt. Ken George said. "We're probably going to lose a few more within the near future.
"I think with the departure of Bill Spears, we've lost our senior sergeant," he added. "When I was a watch commander and something bad was happening downtown and I knew Spears was on duty, I had no issues. ... He was just a good strong leader in the field."
POA President Morris said he knew of six others who'd left the department in the last year because of dissatisfaction with working conditions.
Cordero, the department's most veteran officer, also said he was worried about retention. He cited "a lack of consistency and communication" in the internal operations of the department as the source of the low morale, but he stopped short of holding one person accountable. He said he was restrained by a department policy prohibiting him from talking about personnel issues with the media.
Others spoke more plainly. At the heart of the problem, they said, lies a system of political patronage that awards those loyal to Macagni with promotions and special assignments, while those who quarrel or disagree with the boss will see their careers stagnate and may even be disciplined more harshly for mistakes than other officers would be.
"If you get on [the chief's] bad side you might as well give it up, because your career is over," said Santa Maria Police Detective Maria Giese, who has been with the department for 16 years. "I mean if you're with the chief, you can do anything. But if you're not, if you do something wrong, it'll come back to get you."
Macagni agreed that morale among some officers was low because of a perceived unfairness in how promotions and disciplinary actions are handed down, but he insisted that the 24 people he's promoted during his three years as chief have won their new positions through hard work and excellence on the job.
"You know why [morale is] bad? Because these individuals aren't getting the promotions and assignments they want, and they're sitting back and complaining about it," Macagni said.
"I despise blind loyalty, and some of these guys don't understand that," he added. "I want them to be successful on their own merits."
Under Macagni's leadership, Sgt. Spears said he's been rejected for special assignments and promotions, while younger and less-qualified officers passed him by for lieutenant.
He said he's the first to admit that he's made his mistakes during his 34 years in law enforcement, but when he asked the chief why he was never promoted, he said, he didn't hear a list of past mistakes, or the assertion that he lacked the ability to get the job done.
Instead, Spears said he got the impression from discussions with Macagni that he was not being promoted because he had not demonstrated enough personal loyalty to the chief.
Though confidence remains high in terms of the chief's understanding of law enforcement and ability to leverage funds for the department, many think he is failing the department when it comes to personal relations, POA President Morris said.
In particular, several of the officers interviewed complained that the chief's past use of racist language sets a bad example for junior officers and creates an oppressive environment for minorities within the organization, though no one claimed that the chief treated white officers more favorably than he did those of color.
A Hispanic officer herself, Giese said she'd heard Macagni use terms like "stupid wetbacks" and "damned Mexicans" long before he became chief.
Giese remembered one recent comment in particular allegedly made by the chief at a farewell party for an African-American officer who was transferring to another police department: "Macagni shows up and says, 'If for any reason things don't go well there, you always have a job here, even if it's as my driver.'"
At first, when asked if he has ever made derogatory remarks toward different races, Macagni declined to answer the question.
"You know it's wrong, you know it's absolutely wrong to even ask these questions," he said, "because it's none of your business. It's a personnel issue."
The chief later addressed the question.
"Now, over my 30 years, have I made inappropriate comments? Yes," Macagni continued. "Anybody who says that they haven't would not be being honest. But things are changed, and we're dealing with them."
"Over my 30 years here, the language and culture has changed," he said. "In 2006, racist and derogatory language is unacceptable, and we have policies and procedures to address them.
Scott Vales left the Santa Maria Police Department when Macagni was still commander.
"In a nutshell, I saw Chief Macagni's ascension to power and I just saw the way he treated people, and he's a demeaning boss. He's demeaning to his subordinates," said Vales, who now works for the Irvine Police Department.
Vales also said he has heard Macagni use the term "wetback."
"You know, my children are Hispanic and bilingual and bicultural, and there are some things he said that hurt," Vales said. "How can you have a chief that uses terms that are derogatory terms and then turn around and expect your subordinates not to do the same?"
Spears said he has heard the chief use similar language throughout his years on the beat, including at a police briefing when he compared Michael Jackson to a monkey.
"The problem is that the chief makes these comments in normal conversation. This is not a joke. There's been times he's been making these comments referring to folks as niggers, wetbacks, chinks ... ." Spears said.
"It's sad because I think that the chief's mouth is his own worst enemy," he continued. "It would lead one to imagine that he does not have the highest opinion of these people."
Internal investigation, union negotiations
The investigation concluded in July of this year, after a third-party investigator employed by the city spoke with dozens of officers, including some who no longer work in the department.
In the summer of 2005, a handful of Santa Maria Police officers filed complaints against Chief Macagni and City Manager Tim Ness regarding the leadership of the SMPD and morale issues, as well as alleged instances of retaliation and harassment, unfairness in promotions and assignments, discriminatory comments, and interference in an ongoing investigation, according to a letter the city sent the complainants, which was later shared with the Sun.
The issues investigated are many of the same issues reportedly at the root of the low morale, but city officials said they cannot talk openly with the officers about the investigation, let alone share the specific allegations or the results with the media, because it involves private personnel issues.
Likewise, no officer would share the specific details of the complaints, for fear of violating the law.
Further, the Public Safety Procedural Bill of Rights and the case law associated with it prevent the city from sharing the investigation of a law enforcement officer with anyone other than his or her supervisor, City Attorney Gil Trujillo explained.
"Since the police chief is hired and fired by the city manager, sharing it beyond that would potentially violate the Bill of Rights," Trujillo said.
Instead, the city wrote a letter informing the complainants that "some, but not all of the complaints" were found to be factual.
"I can tell you that any and all investigations that were filed by police officers relating to me were completely unfounded and had absolutely no merit," Ness said in an interview with the Sun.
However, Macagni objected to being questioned by the Sun about the allegations.
"You should stay away from that completely," he said, regarding the investigation. "It is unfortunate that [officers] took that matter to you in the first place. It's a violation of the police officers' Bill of Rights for them to bring it up to you. You have no right to even pry into that."
The city attorney wrote the final disposition regarding the allegations against Ness, while Ness was responsible for the disposition and subsequent action pertaining to the allegations against Macagni, Ness said.
"As a result of the investigation, the proper actions have been taken by myself as supervisor of the police chief as it relates to the complaints," Ness said.
Ness said that the allegations found to be true were "very, very minor" and that he has 100 percent confidence in the chief's leadership.
"I think that [Macagni] supervises the police department very well," Ness said. "He's a detail-oriented person and he also demands accountability from his employees, and I think that part of the problem is the accountability issue. There are some employees in the organization that don't like accountability."
But POA leaders said it's a lack of accountability and transparency as it pertains to the chief's behavior that is leading to low morale. Right now, the union's lawyer said he's preparing to sue the city because he said the law requires that complainants have access to the full disposition that resulted from their complaints, not just a summary.
"You've got to remember these are people whose careers are spent investigating misconduct and taking law enforcement action when appropriate," said the attorney, Rob Wexler, a partner with the law firm Silver, Hadden, and Silver in Santa Monica.
"Here they have alerted the local authority to misconduct. They trusted that the authority would do a proper investigation. And that did not turn out to be the case," Wexler said.
Frustrated with the response they've gotten concerning the investigation from the city manager's office, the POA has attempted to bring its concerns to the City Council, but without any luck, they said. In fact, Council members have stopped returning their phone calls, said Mark Streker, POA vice president and SMPD officer.
"The city itself has stonewalled us. ... We've tried to do this diplomatically, but we've hit a wall of silence," he said.
"This is kind of a huge thing for police officers to go to this length," he added. "These are officers' careers on the line here. And when you push officers to the brink where they're actually willing to address this publicly, you know they've maxed out all their other avenues."
Mayor Larry Lavagnino did not return multiple phone calls for an interview. City Council members also could not be reached by press time.
In April, the POA hired an outside consultant to help it address concerns about low police morale. To measure the rank and file's trust in the leadership, the consultant crafted a survey, with statements he said he heard often in interviews with officers, to see how widespread their concerns were.
Sixty-five percent of the membership responded. The majority agreed that the working conditions in the Santa Maria Police Department are worse off than five years ago and that conditions will not improve until either a change in city policies or a change in city and police department management occurs.
In addition, the majority agreed that, "The residents served by the Santa Maria Police Department deserve a direct line of accountability from line-level sworn personnel, to the chief, to the elected City Council."
But Ness said the city has done everything it can to respond to the concerns of the union.
For example, when officers expressed concern about the impact that negative reports in their personnel files might have on them in the future, the city agreed to purge those records after five years, as opposed to 10 as is common in other departments, Ness said.
In addition, shortly after the conclusion of the investigation, the city crafted a promotions policy that addressed many of the union's concerns—but the union membership rejected the policy, Ness said.
The policy would have established a promotions recruitment procedure that required the chief to pick among the four strongest candidates who scored the highest on written and oral exams, supervisory and performance reviews, and an oral interview conducted by the chief or commander. The names of the final four candidates would be shared with the entire department.
The union rejected the promotions procedure because, in exchange for the updated policy, the city wanted to remove language from the contract that protects the union's right to weigh in on changes in the department's working conditions, POA Vice President Streker said.
The union plans on bargaining for the promotions procedure in negotiations for its newest contract, which must be signed by the end of December, he said.
Searching for a cure
How do you measure the health of an organization? Using certain indicators, the Santa Maria Police Department appears to be a robust law enforcement team.
According to data supplied by the city manager's office, the department staff has increased by 15 percent in the past 10 years, giving the city 1.24 officers for every 1,000 residents, compared to 1.17 officers for every 1,000 residents in Lompoc.
The city has made a considerable investment in public safety by allocating 54 percent of its general fund toward police and fire, City Manager Ness said.
And a good chunk of that budget goes directly into the pockets of police officers. An entry-level officer starts with an annual salary of about $50,000, SMPD Chief Macagni said.
Yet none of the officers the Sun spoke with expressed dissatisfaction with salaries, benefits, or department funding.
"You can throw all the money you want at something, but what it boils down to is I think you can go to any department and get the same amount of toys and the same amount of money," Lt. George said. "Money and toys do not fix problems. ... It's just knowing that you can trust each other—that's what fixes the problem."
It remains to be seen whether the rift between Macagni and some of his staff can be mended, but Lt. Cordero, for one, holds out hope.
"I am confident that things will get better," the lieutenant said. "It's just a matter of how it's going to get better."
But Sgt. Spears can't wait for the story's end. This week, he's making his final rounds of goodbyes in the community.
"When you've been with an agency as long as I have, it becomes family," Spears said. "When you work in a place that long, you kind of feel like you're running away from the home."
Staff Writer Sarah E. Thien contributed to this article. News Editor Kirsten Flagg can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comment on this Article
| Submit your Story Idea
| View Archives