Longtime Santa Barbara police sergeant trades badge for Bible after challenging career, devastating personal battles
In high school, at 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds, Mike McGrew pinned opponents with ease en route to becoming a national wrestling champion.
As a police officer in Santa Barbara for more than three decades, he regularly put the cuffs on alleged murderers, drug dealers and sexual assaulters.
These days, McGrew casts out demons.
“The enemy wants to kill and destroy,” he told Noozhawk. “When they get into the subconscious level, that’s when the enemy attacks.”
McGrew, a longtime detective and major crimes investigator for the Santa Barbara Police Department, used to be one of the most intimidating cops on the force. Some officers shot a Taser to subdue a suspect on the run. Others fired their weapons. McGrew tackled them to the ground.
But after a career in law enforcement, Sgt. Mike McGrew traded in his pistol for a tool that some would argue is far more powerful: The Bible.
These days he spends his time ministering to anyone and everyone, from police and firefighters, to people struggling with addiction, to homeless people on the streets. Every Sunday, he speaks to parishioners at Mariah Fellowship, a service at the Louise Lowry Davis Center near downtown Santa Barbara.
It’s a career about-face for McGrew, widely regarded on the street and in political circles as a guy you didn’t want to mess with. The transformation was not overnight, but more of a gradual, spiritual evolution that he is still undergoing today.
In fact, the past decade has taken more twists and turns than one of his late-night police chases while he was on the beat.
McGrew turned his life over to Jesus Christ shortly after the 2010 death of his son, Michael “T.T.” McGrew.
T.T. was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was 12 years old.
“The diagnosis turned me upside down,” McGrew recalled. “I didn’t even want to talk about it for about two weeks. I was angry.
“I was angry at God. If there’s a God, why does my 12-year-old have cancer and is missing a leg right now?”
After an amputation of one of his legs, battles with chemotherapy and 13 major surgeries, T.T. took his own life at age 20, through an overdose of medicine.
“He ended up committing suicide,” McGrew said.
His son left behind a suicide note that read, in part, “I love you. It’s no one’s fault. There’s just something inside of me that I can’t explain.”
McGrew believes it was the enemy talking to his son.
T.T.’s death started a chain reaction of emotions that McGrew had never felt before. Here he was, a trusted, respected police officer, a man who restored order, and kept things under control for a living, suddenly feeling helpless and confused.
He learned of his son’s death in the most unbelievable and ironic ways. He was at the police station, looking to speak to the watch commander, when another officer told him, “he’s at 1623 Garden St., No. 4, there’s a dead kid at the house.”
McGrew recognized the address as T.T.’s.
“I was in shock,” he said, but raced to the apartment.
“My son was lying on the floor,” he recalled.
The death was a devastating blow, but actually would serve as another step on McGrew’s journey toward faith.
“I am at peace,” he said. “My son is with the Lord. Now I know that he knows how much I love him.”
The younger McGrew died on the same day as the presentation of the annual H. Thomas Guerry Awards for valor and other courageous acts. With so many law-enforcement officers in town for the event, McGrew was enveloped in support from his comrades.
One of them was his cousin, Lt. Dan McGrew. While McGrew had never been a religious guy, his cousin was, and he started to listen a bit more to those beliefs. Not really knowing where it was headed, he took an interest in God and religion.
Then, one night, McGrew found himself at a Chris Tomlin concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, with a woman he was dating at the time and who has since become his wife. He didn’t know that Tomlin was a Christian artist, but agreed to go because it was “a date with a pretty girl.” During the concert, Atlanta pastor Louie Giglioaddressed the crowd, and McGrew felt like God was speaking directly to him through the man.
He said Giglio was saying things like “if your life is out of control, if you feel there’s no hope, if you are tired and burdened,” that God could take that all away.
“It was everything I was feeling at the time,” McGrew said. “I didn’t have any joy.”
He said the change he had started to experience during his son’s battles advanced to the next level.
“I went from having no faith, to that’s all that I wanted,” McGrew said. “It brought peace to me. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I had chased it at the bottom of an alcohol bottle.”
Now he finds intoxication through reading scriptures and laying hands on people. McGrew, who retired from the police force in June, was speaking the word of God during his final days on the beat.
After he found God, McGrew said he would have a hard time giving people tickets after he started talking to them. In one instance, a woman told her she was speeding because she had just been diagnosed with cancer. He asked her to step out of her car and then prayed for her on the side of the street.
Other incidents were just as serene. McGrew specializes in casting out demons from people, and recalls a day he responded to a call of a homeless man bleeding from his pants. McGrew donned gloves, and then prayed over him. Suddenly, a smell loomed over him, a smell he had experienced at countless homicide investigations: The smell of death.
“He started to contort his body,” he said. “We ended up casting a demon out of that guy.”
At a Christmas Eve service Sunday, McGrew prayed over parishioners along with police chaplain Charles Reed Sr., who is also a community services liaison for the city. Ten people attended the service, and McGrew is on a mission to grow the church and bring God’s word to as many people as he can. He’s now married to the woman who took him to the Chris Tomlin concert.
McGrew’s faith, he said, has turned his life around. He said God healed him from a battle with colon cancer and helped him find love again with his wife, Nicole. He has not had a drink since 2007, after struggling with alcohol addiction.
And part of his journey has been to forgive the alleged suspects he’s encountered, and to pray for them. One of the most high-profile collars of his career was the arrest of Robert Van Handel, the St. Anthony’s Seminary priest who was accused of molesting more than a dozen boys at the Upper Eastside school.
McGrew still walks with the swagger of a police officer, but these days his gait is humble and unassuming. Instead of the badge, baton and firearm, he uses his tongue, hands and Bible to bring peace and order.
“Being of service to the Lord brings me a lot of joy, and I didn’t have that for a lot of years,” he said.