Spend a week with cops and you start hearing the same things over and over.
“People think it’s like a cop show on television. They think we can solve crimes in an hour.”
Or: “We’re human. Sometimes we make mistakes.”
Or: “It does get frustrating when we know someone is guilty but we have to spend so much time and energy just to prove it.”
Or: “Yeah, they (criminals) come over here because they know that if they get caught, the sentences are less than other places.”
Welcome to the inner workings of the Santa Cruz Police Department. It’s not Iraq or Afghanistan, but Interim Police Chief Kevin Vogel recently invited me to “embed” with his department for a week. The deal was this: I had complete access. I was welcome at staff meetings, briefings and on any calls. I was free to report whatever was said, except, of course, spilling the beans about a specific case, an upcoming arrest or details of an investigation. Then again, I wasn’t interested in specific cases. What I wanted to find out was this: are Santa Cruzans being well served by their cops?
The short answer: yes. Santa Cruz isn’t just a nice beachside community with a woodsy university and nice peace-loving folks enjoying the California lifestyle. There’s gang violence and there are hard drugs on the street. Mental illness affects way too many people in Santa Cruz and there aren’t services for all of them. The carefree hippie days of the ’60s are long gone; they’ve given way to a more serious, more violent brand of crime characterized by gang violence and a gritty mix of drug abuse, mental illness and homelessness.
When you walk into the police department, you step into a world that’s closed to outsiders. It’s a two-story office building on Center Street, just south of Laurel Street. There’s a community room out front and then there’s the front desk area—open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. That’s pretty much what the public sees. The rest of the building is locked down tight, accessible only to those with key cards.
There are two truisms about any police department and the Santa Cruz PD is no exception. Inside the doors of the building, everyone shares a common bond: security, loyalty and protecting each other. They share in one thing: it’s a dirty job.
SHIFT BRIEF The ranking lieutenant or a sergeant works through a quick and informative agenda—incidents from the previous shift, bulletins and alerts from other departments, accounts of any burglary clusters or even the latest on gang activity.
But they’re also individuals. And like any other organization, some get along, others don’t.
Imagine, for example, that you can’t stand the guy who sits next to you at work. You avoid him as best you can. But if you’re a cop, you’re still going to have to trust him to have your back during an arrest, a fight or even—rare as it is—a shooting.
You might be surprised by some of the traits of today’s police officers. They’re still tough guys, but in 2010 they recycle their waste and turn out lights when they’re not using them. Their managers hand out articles on best business practices. And, they’re not all guys. It’s a diversified workforce, a strategy that pays off big time when it comes to solving crimes, arresting bad guys and following up on the many depressing cases that head this way. There are victims’ advocates who work out of the department. There’s also a secretive federal task force that occasionally works out of the department.
There’s no controversy about it in house. “They’ve helped us develop information that we didn’t have,” said one detective. “We’re much better off now.”
A Look Inside
Today’s police officer is highly trained. I watched a group of young and fit officers from the SWAT team working on a highly disciplined exercise—over and over—to help make better car stops and also to cut down on any dangers to innocent passersby. It was only a few days later, that the SWAT team put its training to use. A 6-foot-7, 275-pound prisoner escaped from Dominican Hospital and holed up in a quiet neighborhood on English Drive. After four hours of searching and intense questioning, officers from the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office arrested the prisoner, Maurice Ainsworth.
SWAT teams from both departments not only moved in on the suspect, they also orchestrated strategies to evacuate neighbors and keep them safe.
Hidden away in the police building is a firing range. Several days during my visit, I watched cops practice their shooting. And they aren’t just firing from a comfortable standing or sitting position. They’re loaded down with gear and they practice moving, hiding and shooting, all at the same time.
Training, training, training.
Except, of course, when duty calls.
Most of the cases that come this way are things that most of us would work to avoid. On an otherwise beautiful day, I accompanied officers to the report of a dead body in the woods near Pogonip. At a turnout off Highway 9, we met the parents of a missing man. The couple objectively reported that someone had contacted them and said their son had overdosed and his body had been dumped in the woods. They also said their son was homeless, that he abused drugs and that cocaine was his drug of choice.
SWAT TEAM It was only a few days later that the SWAT team put its training to use. A 6-foot-7, 275-pound prisoner escaped from Dominican Hospital and holed up in a quiet neighborhood on English Drive. After four hours of searching and intense questioning, officers from the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office arrested the prisoner, Maurice Ainsworth.
SWAT teams from both departments not only moved in on the suspect, they also orchestrated strategies to evacuate neighbors and keep them safe at the same time.
“We just want closure,” said the mom, fighting off a tear. Dad was in control, almost professionally. He was thankful for the help.
A few detectives walked up the narrow path, through the redwoods and across the railroad tracks. A sheriff’s deputy was already at the spot where the body had apparently been left and where a slight odor of death was in the air. Later, two cadaver dogs from the Santa Clara County canine unit found where the body had been buried. And then the dreary work of digging down to recover the body began.
Detective David Gunter was one of those who had to recover the body. “It’s always sad in cases like this. But your heart really goes out to those parents. They just wanted closure.”
Drug abuse—particularly crystal meth and heroin—permeates the caseload. Gunter sat in front of his computer and showed me some dramatic comparison photos. A young woman’s first arrest for methamphetamine, say, might have come in 1991. Her booking photo shows a profile of someone who’s a bit out of sorts because she’s being arrested, but essentially young and attractive. Then Gunter clicked on a booking photo of the same woman in 2010. Oh, the ravages of time and drug abuse. You wouldn’t know it was the same person.
“They go downhill steadily. It’s really tragic.”
During my stay I was stationed in the detective bureau in one of their cubicles. Life there is strange. Detectives work out of cubicles, not much different from a high-tech office. They pop in and out of each other’s spaces, but instead of discussing the latest computer programs, they’re sharing new information on a rape, a robbery or the latest word from an informant about possible gang violence.
TRAFFIC STOP A SWAT team practices maneuvers over and over until it’s right.
There are also formal staff meetings where they discuss cases—but also everyday business, just like any other organization: upcoming trainings, equipment requests and, inevitably, the rejection of most of their requests. “It’s not in the budget,” said Det. Lt. Mark Sanders—not once, but over and over. And records are kept on any and all equipment. The record keeping falls on the Det. Sergeant, Loran “Butch” Baker—“our own Radar O’Reilly,” says Sanders.
I spent much of my career in a newsroom and the banter is similar in some ways. Lots of gallows humor, but things can turn serious in a hurry. On my first morning, I sat with Det. Gunter while we watched a closed-circuit interview with a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault the night before. Her face was hidden, but I could hear her explain what had happened to detective Mike Hedley.
Gunter briefed me about the strategy. “We have to get details. It’s really uncomfortable for us and for the victim. But we have to confirm absolutely everything. Especially because during the vast majority of these cases, drugs and alcohol are involved. Figuring out what happened is just a long, slow process.”
Slow it was. The victim had her own problems—she acknowledged her own mental illness. “You have to understand,” she said. “With my mental condition, coming to the cops is the last thing I’d do. I was assaulted. And it’s wrong.”
After an hour interviewing her, the detectives checked out her story. They checked the bars she had visited. They checked with the passersby who had helped her after she had run from her assaulter’s house. And they arrested the suspect, later charged with felonious battery. The assault had taken a few minutes; the investigation had taken hours.
If the wheels turn slowly in investigation, they spin fast in patrol. The patrol officers’ shifts start with a quick kind of staff meeting called roll call. The roll call room is downstairs with tables set up just like a Chamber of Commerce seminar. The ranking lieutenant or a sergeant works through a quick and informative agenda—incidents from the previous shift, bulletins and alerts from other departments, accounts of burglary clusters or the latest on gang activity.
On this day, the officers were briefed on a stakeout at a house on the eastside of Santa Cruz. It was one of those drug houses in which nearly everyone there was either on parole or probation. And not just for drugs—but for assaults and weapons violations.
One of the patrolmen explained his previous experience at the house: “We served a search warrant and couldn’t find anything. We kept looking, and finally pulled the carpet back. We found guns and ammo.”
The sergeant, Tom Bailey, had some information that connected someone else with the house. “If you see a dude driving around there in an Escalade—run a vehicle check.”
Santa Cruz is a lot of things to those of us who live here: surfing, UCSC, a kind of hip and easy lifestyle. But to the cops, it’s also about drugs, alcohol abuse and gangs.
Walk along with a couple of patrol officers from the gang task force on Halloween night and you’ll see it in a whole new way.
PEACE PATROL They suddenly moved ahead—fast—and ran after three guys who fled the scene. It wasn’t about any potential crime. “These guys were from somewhere else,” Forbus said. “They didn’t belong. They weren’t going to cause trouble tonight—they were potential victims.” In other words, the cops chased them off to keep them from getting hurt.
Being on gang patrol is a bit like playing the secondary in an NFL football game. You keep an eye on the action – who’s standing where, where they’re looking and what is their body language.
Two patrol officers, Carter Jones and David Forbus, offered me a play-by-play—their eyes scanning the crowd looking for certain movements. “See those guys on the corner?” Jones asked. “He’s ‘posting up.’ He’s taking a position. Now watch—we’ll move close, he’ll be uncomfortable.” Sure enough. The officers stood and watched—and the guy moved on.
That’s when I realized something important. These officers weren’t profiling based on race or age or anything else. They were looking for certain behaviors, certain actions. They suddenly moved ahead—fast—and ran after three guys who fled the scene. It wasn’t about any potential crime. “These guys were from somewhere else,” Forbus said. “They didn’t belong. They weren’t going to cause trouble tonight—they were potential victims.” In other words, the cops chased them off to keep them from getting hurt.
Wearing colors does figure into the equation, but it’s subtle. “See that guy with the Kansas City Royals hat?” Forbus asked. “If you went and asked him, he couldn’t tell you a single player on the Royals’ team. He’s wearing it for another reason.” Still, that cap in and of itself didn’t mean that he’d be stopped. But he was noticed.
Around midnight, I left Jones and Forbus and walked back to my car in a downtown parking garage. I wasn’t qualified to be on patrol, but analyzing at the teeming crowd was a new experience for me. Three hours on patrol and I looked at things differently. The next morning, I read in the paper that incidents were few during the revelry. It wasn’t an accident. It was, I realized, preventive law enforcement.
Years ago, the city formed a Police Review Board, founded on the principle that police oversight should be handled by a public group of non-police. For a number of reasons, that review board was disbanded and replaced by the department’s own Internal Affairs Office and an independent police auditor, Robert Aaronson. Aaronson has worked with more than 200 police agencies in his career and has reviewed—by his estimate—4,000 internal affairs cases. He’s ridden along with cops hundreds of times. “What I look to do is provide a different perspective … to improve the performance of the organization.”
His impressions dovetailed with my own. “Santa Cruz is a tough place to be a police officer. It’s a transient population and there are a number of people with mental health issues. Those are real challenges.”
SHOOTING PRACTICE Hidden away in the police building is a firing range. Several days during my visit, I watched cops practice their shooting. And it isn’t just firing from a comfortable standing or sitting position. They’re loaded down with gear and they practice moving, hiding and shooting, all at the same time.
He agreed with my premise that the police feel misunderstood. “To be a police officer is to become a voluntary outsider to the community at large.”
He looks at it another way. “They’re the parents of last resort. They generally see us at our worst: when we’re drunk, when we’re angry. About 80 percent of their contact with people is not happy. Just imagine how often have they been lied to in various ways. Over the course of a career—it changes your perspective.”
Aaronson left me with one more thought. Gang violence, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse are “symptoms” of the general society’s illness. “They clean up the messes of our society. We don’t want to see it. So we don’t and leave it to the police.”
Each day I spent at the Police Department underscored that point. I sat with Det. Mike Hedley at the front desk while convicted sex-offenders lined up for their legally mandated monthly registration. One after another checked in. Hedley, with his game face, was unfailingly polite. “See you in a month,” he’d say. For me, it was a definite “yuck” factor.
Then there’s the property room. Two property clerks—Cyndi Schockey and Marilyn Ellenwood—keep track of property that’s found and also the possessions of anyone brought into custody. That means the smelly sacks and rotten backpacks that belong to the poor souls out on the street. Not a job for the squeamish—certainly not during the week I was there, when they discovered maggots in the bags they were storing.
The seamy side of law enforcement—it affects everyone who works at the department. It affected me the week I was there.
But this is hardly the whole story. I think of Det. Jose Garcia, describing details of a 7-year-old gang shooting that he’s still trying to solve. But he also discusses an even bigger goal: trying to keep kids from being lured into gangs. Or Det. Hedley, patiently interviewing the victim of yet another sex crime, asking difficult questions and yet offering support to the victim, all in an effort to prove a case against her assailant.
MANY HATS Here’s the challenge: law enforcement can’t and won’t solve society’s problems. They know more than any other group about Santa Cruz’s underbelly. They are also smarter and better trained than they were when I covered the police beat a generation ago. Capt. Steve Clark answers a TV reporter’s questions.
Or even at the weekly management meeting. Interim Chief Kevin Vogel could have been a top executive at any corporation—asking to keep overtime down and encouraging better public relations. Then there’s Capt. Steve Clark, handing out articles with tips to improve management techniques.
Police work isn’t just a matter of tracking down bad guys, either. At the management meeting, George Mohler, a mathematics professor from Santa Clara University, presented his latest research that could provide predictive strategies to crime prevention. In other words, research shows that computer modeling could suggest where and how patrol officers should be assigned based on crime patterns. It’s high-tech stuff. Not that everyone at the meeting agreed. “I’m a skeptic,” growled Sanders, the detective lieutenant.
I came away from my week at “cop shop” with conflicting impressions. I was amazed by the professionalism. Folks let their guard down. “We want you to ‘get’ us” is what they seemed to be saying.
But here’s the challenge: law enforcement can’t and won’t solve society’s problems. They know more than any other group about Santa Cruz’s underbelly. They are also smarter and better trained than they were when I covered the police beat a generation ago. Still, that doesn’t mean they can solve the problems themselves. The jails just aren’t big enough, and arresting people can only go so far.