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A troubled department gets a new chief 

Some of the biggest Central Coast headlines of last year came out of Santa Maria, just over the border in Northern Santa Barbara County. Eight officer-involved shootings—at least one of which caught the eye of national media due to an officer killing a fellow officer in a struggle—made for a tense 2012. The turbulent year also included lawsuits and the retirement of longtime Police Chief Dan Macagni, who faced allegations of favoritism in the ranks and was the focus of a “no confidence” vote by the Santa Maria Police Officers’ Association earlier in the year.

Ralph Martin, a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Commander, stepped in as interim chief in August, inheriting a department he later described as full of questioning, introspection, self-analysis, and doubt.

Despite the challenges and scrutiny, Martin ultimately threw his hat in the ring for the full-time job; after landing the position, he was sworn in at the Dec. 18 City Council meeting.

There, Santa Maria City Manager Rick Haydon said he believes Martin will be able to build bridges in the community: “I think that’s something we’re looking for right now in Santa Maria.”

In the days after his swearing in, Martin sat down with the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south, to talk about the job. He described one of the ways he’s seeking to combat the perceptions of cronyism that have hounded the department.

What I’ve done is open up the promotional process to all members and to all outside agencies [across the state of California],” he said. “So if somebody wants to be a lieutenant in the Santa Maria Police Department and they currently work in Santa Barbara, they can apply here.”

He explained that such a move allows access to a better pool of qualified applicants; beyond the “great people” available locally, there could a diamond out there—and the department seems to agree with the tactic.

“They’re fine with it. … We have a very young department here so it’s important to have mature leadership, people to come in and mentor,” he said. “I’m a big believer in mentoring. I want to leave the department in better hands than I found it.”

Martin is also investigating the officer-involved shootings—particularly one that involved officers being injured in “friendly fire”—from a tactical and administrative angle in an effort to aim for better outcomes in such situations in the future. He’s filled more than half a dozen vacant positions at the department and is pushing for a move toward community-based policing.

To read the entire interview, visit


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