SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The Santa Maria Police Department employs 180 men and women, who all work together ensuring the safety of more than 100,000 residents and visitors. On Wednesday, only a select few of them earned recognition at the department's annual award luncheon.
Held at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge, the event is presented by the Santa Maria Police Department, along with the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"This is the day I look forward to,” said police chief Ralph Martin. “This is one of the good days you actually bring the community together, businesses together and educators from all over and recognize people that do a great job all year round. I'm just here supporting them and so proud of the work they do day-in and day-out."
During the 90-minute luncheon, Martin handed out numerous awards, including the biggest of them all, the "Law Enforcement Officer of the Year." Earning the coveted distinction is Detective Andrew Brice.
"It's pretty fantastic,” Brice said. “When you start this career, you set out personal goals for yourself and this was definitely one of the big ones I wanted to achieve sometime in my 30 year career and I'm just humbled to have it."
Martin detailed Brice's dedicated involvement in multiple homicide, sexual assault, violent gang and felony property crime investigations.
Brice later earned two “Lifesaving Awards,” which is given to those who perform an act of heroism in a lifesaving attempt during the line of duty.
Brice saved two lives during the year, once in April, the other in September.
“I worked a lot of overtime, which put me in the right place and the right time,” said Brice. “I was involved in life saving measures for two people. I can't ask for a better opportunity for personal growth than to be in that situation and to be able to respond."
In addition, Martin presented the “Lifesaving Award,” to several officers, including Sofia Marques, Roberto Ruiz, Monique Sandoval and Evan Stradley.
All four officers were honored for their role in the arrest of a domestic violence suspect.
The “Support Employee of the Year” is given to someone who shows a strong interest in fellow employees and the community, and is also willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.
This year's recipient is Christina Alvarez, who serves as the department's training manager. Alvarez had her hands in multiple projects. Martin said she is one of the department's “go to” people that he can rely on to provide assistance without hesitation.
"It's just an honor to be recognized by my fellow employees and peers in admin,” said Alvarez. “I have a wonderful job. I'm so blessed to be able to do the things that I do to support our police department and our support staff, so it's an honor for me to be recognized for the job that I normally do day-to-day basis."
This is the second time Alvarez has been honored with the award. She previously earned the distinction in 2008.
The “Dispatcher of the Year” is Chan Leam, who also has previously won the award.
Martin noted Leam maintains a high-level of professionalism and keeps her composure when speaking to 911 callers. He added she serves as the unit community events coordinator and speaks at numerous schools and events during the year.
"It signifies a lot,” Leam said. “It's special. It represents myself, but mostly, it's not just for myself, but the people I work with. It is a team in dispatch as well."
The “Distinguished Team Award” went to the detective bureau for its teamwork and commitment during “Operation Matador.”
The multi-agency investigation culminated in early March during the coordinated arrests of more than a dozen alleged MS-13 international criminal gang members.
Chief Martin acknowledged 2016 was a challenging year for the department.
"2016 was a monumental year,” Martin said. “In January, we had the last of the homicides, and then certainly culminating with Operation Matador. We had to bring some stability to the City and I couldn't be more proud of the detectives and the job they did, almost 24/7 for a couple of months and you see the results of that."
Martin added the community should feel good about the men and women who work daily to serve and protect.
"Certainly 2015-2016 it was tough for law enforcement nationally,” said Martin. “We want to establish a good relationship with our community, with everybody. They're here to serve. It's a very hard job and I think just seeing all the people here doing all the support for us, I do think we get that support in Santa Maria."