Bernard “Barney” Melekian has worn many hats in his long career in public service, and he is getting ready to add another.
Mr. Melekian, whose extensive career includes more than 40 years in law enforcement, is now preparing to take over as interim police chief for the Santa Barbara Police Department. As the department bid farewell to outgoing Chief Lori Luhnow on Saturday, Capt. Marylinda Arroyo will serve as the acting police chief until March 1.
Since September 2018, Mr. Melekian served as assistant county executive officer over public safety alongside County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato. Prior to that, he spent three years serving as undersheriff to Sheriff Bill Brown.
His other former roles include 23 years with the Santa Monica Police Department, and 13 years as chief of the Pasadena Police Department. From 2009 to 2013, Mr. Melekian was selected as the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services by then Attorney General Eric Holder. While serving with COPS, he oversaw the development of the concept of Collaborative Reform, a widely acclaimed alternative to the traditional consent decree. Mr. Melekian said he was able to travel around the country while serving as director, visiting police and sheriff’s departments in 32 states.
Mr. Melekian also served in the United States Army from 1967 to 1970. As a member of the United States Coast Guard Reserve, he was called to active duty in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm and served in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Melekian served a second tour of active duty in 2003 when he served for eight months in the Pacific area. He retired from the Coast Guard Reserves in 2009, after 26 years of service.
After his role with COPS, Mr. Melekian, 71, and his wife moved to Santa Barbara, where he continued to serve as a consultant for law enforcement agencies. He assisted clients around the country, which included working as a liaison for the mayor of Seattle.
In 2015, Sheriff Brown approached him about serving as undersheriff, an opportunity he quickly agreed to. Mr. Melekian contemplated retirement before taking the position, which he now describes as the highlight of his career.
His retirement was again postponed after being offered a position in Ms. Miyasato’s office, and further pushed off when he and Chief Luhnow met for breakfast several months ago.
Under the impression they were meeting “just because,” Chief Luhnow mentioned that she was thinking about retiring and asked Mr. Melekian if he was interested in leading the department.
“I weighed my answer for about 30 seconds and thought, ‘I would really like to do that,’” he told the News-Press.
He then spoke with City Administrator Paul Casey and things came together.
Mr. Melekian has known Chief Luhnow since her days with the San Diego Police Department, and had nothing but praise for the outgoing chief.
“I have to say, all of the people (in the department) that I’ve had live interactions with are indicative of the whole department,” he said.
He described the police department as “incredibly professional” due to its commitment to constitutional policing.
“I’ve been favorably impressed with everything I’ve seen,” he said.
As he prepares to serve the department on an interim basis, Mr. Melekian acknowledged the “challenging times” in law enforcement, regarding how policing should be conducted.
“I bring a lot of experience in dealing with issues of race and disenfranchised communities,” he explained. “What I find exciting is — and it’s already been brought to the table by Chief Luhnow — but something I’ve learned in my career is that an individual officer can make a difference in every life they contact.
“That philosophy is what I hope to bring, and to help ensure that, as the process goes forward, that the next chief embraces those ideals as well.”
Mr. Melekian said he plans on being with the police department for the next six to eight months, and expects to serve a role in the recruitment process for a new police chief.
With his many years in law enforcement, Mr. Melekian is no stranger to criminal gang activity, some of which has been experienced throughout the Santa Barbara area so far in 2021. He played a key role in reducing gang violence and gang homicides in Pasadena in the late ‘90s, something he hopes to continue as interim chief.
He also hopes to continue the community liaison program created by Chief Luhnow, which features two sworn officers that are assigned to work with various community groups.
“I think they will allow us to tap directly into the community and help us take the temperature of things,” he said.
He also explained the importance of gang-related crimes resulting in an arrest, which can serve as a resolution to the criminal aspect of the incident.
“If you do (make an arrest) … you break that retaliatory cycle,” he said. “If not, the community may feel, or the gangs may feel, that the cops don’t care and that nothing will be done.
“The Santa Barbara Police Department has demonstrated, on several occasions, that it has been able to do those kinds of follow-ups and have been very effective at it.”
He said he is the “first to admit” he needs to learn more about the gang activity occurring in the city, but said he doesn’t believe it will be a long learning curve.
Mr. Melekian said he also hopes to build on Chief Luhnow’s commitment to officer wellness and taking care of the whole person, while also hoping to build bridges with groups who are convinced that police are the source of the problem. He said he feels as if some of the “deep social problems in America” have been placed on police, and he would like to change that narrative.