By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
Hancock College will keep its police department and will increase its budget in an effort to rebuild the agency after some turmoil.
The board of trustees voted unanimously this week to reject switching to a department of only campus safety officers and eliminating any sworn police officers.
The decision, contingent upon hiring a new police chief to lead the rebuilding effort, would cost the college more than $1.5 million, according to one estimate, as it expands the number of police officer positions and campus safety officers.
In reports to the board, law enforcement experts have expressed concerns about too few officers, inadequate equipment and other deficiencies in the agency, prompting discussions about the future.
“The outcomes that we want for student success is that students feel safe, and that our staff and all of our visitors feel safe and are safe here on campus,” said board President Hilda Zacarias. “That’s one of our basic responsibilities. And for our policy, other boards have decided that the way to do that is by having a POST-certified police department.”
POST stands for the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, an agency that sets requirements for law enforcement officers in the state.
The new plan calls for 14 positions, boosting the number of sworn police officers and campus safety officers by one each to 5 and 5.5, respectively.
A campus safety officer proposal envisioned a director, a supervisor, a records/dispatch employee and nine security workers for a cost of $889,000.
The current police department budget is approximately $990,000.
Officials say Hancock police officers are among the lowest paid locally, leading to struggles to fill the jobs at all ranks.
Former interim chief Ronald Schram, who previously worked for the Cuesta Community College Police Department, spelled out the agency’s flaws and possible fixes in a report to the board.
Having a number of interim and short-term chiefs in recent years has hurt the department, Schram said, adding that the top job is an essential component
“Without that it’s going to continue to falter. Without a strong leader, without consistency in leadership and a continuity of command, it can’t grow,” Schram added.
He suggested a recently retired sheriff’s deputy or police officer from a local agency could be key candidates for the job.
“I believe you can find a chief, I just think we have to work hard at it,” Schram said.
Past discussions about the Hancock department’s future have included whether the campus should contract with an outside agency — the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department or the Santa Maria Police Department. But those ideas were rejected last year.
The agency has lost several personnel in recent months, leading to those slots staying empty while the board mulled the department’s future.
The police department, now led by Interim Chief Chris Nartatez, a retired Santa Maria sergeant and former Guadalupe chief, is budgeted to have 13 people, but has about nine after losing staff members.
Several community colleges, including Santa Barbara City College, employ campus safety departments, meaning they don’t have any sworn police officers.
Most speakers at a recent meeting urged the board to keep the police department.
One staff member related two incidents where police officers being present helped out during urgent situations involving female students fearful of stalkers.
“There was no crime reported because our officers prevented the crime, and those students felt safe,” said Julia Townsend, a Hancock staff member and mother of a former student.