Two veteran Chico Police Department officers open up to CN&R
The Chico Police Department recently launched a program called “Ask a Cop,” which invites citizens to email questions about police procedures, department policy, codes and laws or more esoteric information, like the meaning of various insignias and patches on an officer’s uniform. The department curates the questions and answers them on its official Facebook page.
The program is CPD’s latest in a series of efforts to better engage the public, as part of its ongoing “community policing” strategy, and it got us at the CN&R thinking. As community watchdogs, our staff interacts with Chico police regularly to report on crimes and keep readers abreast of what’s up in the department. However, these interactions generally are geared toward specific issues or incidents. We wanted to go a bit deeper, so we contacted the department to do our own version of Ask a Cop with the kind of inquiries we’ve had on our minds and also those we think the public may have.
We assembled a list of questions, ranging from lighthearted to serious, some about policy and procedure, but mostly about the day-to-day experience of policing our community. Then, reporter Ken Smith sat down with Officer Jim Parrott, a 20-year veteran whose career with the department has included time as a beat cop, a detective, a hostage negotiator, being on the city’s first TARGET Team, and a founding member of the defunct Mounted Enforcement Team. Also present to provide some insight from a supervisor’s perspective was Lt. Rob Merrifield.
In a candid 90-minute conversation, the officers offered insight on a wide range of topics including Chico’s growing heroin problem, bike theft vigilantes, foul-smelling animal hides, the psychological toll of cop shows and the danger of being caught wearing someone else’s pants. Here are some highlights:
Are those uniforms comfortable?
Officer Jim Parrott: Actually, yes. We’ve had a lot of different ones over the years. Right now there’s a wash-and-wear synthetic version and the wool one, and I choose to wear the traditional [wool] one, just because I’m a little old school in that regard. In my career, I’ve worn a lot of different versions, from breaches and boots on my horse to a red vest on the TARGET Team to a suit and tie as a detective.
Any advice on how to avoid having to call the police?
Parrott: The main thing the city is dealing with in recent months and years is rampant theft. People need to take basic precautions because, unfortunately, I think the time has passed when anybody in any community can leave their doors unlocked, whether it’s vehicles or residences. Certainly, leaving property in a vehicle is an enticing target to a thief, and we’re constantly responding to those calls. Nobody deserves to be the victim of a crime, but there are definitely some common sense things that can be done to avoid becoming one.
If I see someone riding a bike while steering another bike and then ducking into the bushes by the creek, should I call the police? Confront them? Yell obscenities and run away?
Parrott: We tend to discourage people from confronting people on their own. That can go well, or it can go very bad. When someone calls and indicates they’re going to get involved, we encourage them to back off and let us handle it.
[The scenario described] is typical suspicious behavior, called “ghost-riding.” But is it automatically an indication of theft? No, but there’s potential it is. So there’s certainly no problem in calling to ask us to investigate, but we won’t always be available to do it. I’ll sometimes see calls like that stacked up on the screen waiting for an officer to be available, but [when they are] an hour has passed and the person has moved along.
I contact people all the time with bikes I suspect to be stolen … like if the person can’t explain how they got it or how someone who lives in a creek can afford a $2,000 bike … and the way we verify it is to run the serial number through our database, which is a national stolen property system. But in my experience, over 90 percent of the time it comes back clear because very few people record their serial numbers. We’ve been dealing with this problem in Chico for years now, and that hasn’t improved.
How do you deal with policing a legendary college party town?
Parrott: Every year, we try to do some proactive enforcement in the student neighborhoods to set the tone for what’s acceptable in this community in terms of student activities as it relates to partying and alcohol consumption. We’ve lost students over the years to alcohol overdoses and related issues, and drug abuse is a big factor, too. We try to encourage responsible use of those things. Laws change and culture changes, but that’s something that we deal with every year. Because of that proactivity, we often get painted as being anti-student, but the reality is we know from institutional history what sort of problems arise if we are just reactive in those areas. This first month, up through Labor Day, is really a time we’re trying to keep a lid on things and keep them from getting out of hand. I’ve spent a large part of my career at Fifth and Ivy, sitting on my horse every weekend. A party or a crowd can go from a couple hundred individuals into an organic mob in the snap of fingers. We’re aware of that, and our goals there are prevention.
I want to throw a party with a live band. Any advice on how to avoid getting shut down?
Parrott: There’s no guarantee, but there are some steps we find helpful on our end. There’s a form you can fill out to let us know you’re having a party at this location at these times, you’re having a band, you expect this many people to come, and the contact people. It gives us a head’s up because we know who to call or contact in case there’s a complaint or problem. It also helps us if we need to assist, if things get out of hand. People don’t realize this, but many of the parties we shut down, we’re doing it on behalf of the folks having the party who didn’t realize they couldn’t control it. Also, we encourage people to inform as many of their neighbors as they can.
Complete this sentence: I spend the majority of my day on the job …
Parrott: Since I’ve been back in patrol the last two years, I’d say the majority of calls I deal with have a nexus to transients. Certain days it’s upward of 75 percent of calls, whether it’s people causing a disturbance, people camping or loitering in areas and people call and ask us to move them along. And nuisance issues like littering, alcohol consumption and drunk in public. I was a detective for six years, so there was a gap [in my time on patrol]. I’ve seen a large increase in those calls, and they’re throughout the city. Working day shift in the middle of the week, most calls have that nexus.
There’s a section in Chico’s municipal code outlawing the possession of green hides, or any stinky hides, inside the city. Ever gotten a call about that?
Parrott: I don’t even know what green hide is. You’re talking about archaic codes still on the books. I’m aware of the one that prohibits nuclear testing in the city that was adopted as a political statement, back in the ’70s or something, and obviously we have no cause to enforce it. I’m sure the hide thing was probably from over a hundred years ago and probably has something to do with the hide-tanning business. I mean, travel south to the rendering plant and you might get an idea what it’s related to.
If I’m smoking a joint on my porch and you drive by, will you stop to hassle me? How big of a priority is pot?
Parrott: Very low, and obviously that’s in response to changing laws as they relate to law enforcement, and we operate under the guidelines given us by the District Attorney’s Office. There are also issues of working with code enforcement regarding cultivation of marijuana in the city, because the city and the county have different codes. When it’s a complaint, that “a pot garden is bothering me” or “[the neighbor] smoking pot is bothering me,” we have to respond and kind of figure out what’s reasonable and what’s not. But as far as simple possession … I can’t tell you the last time I wrote a ticket for infraction-level possession of marijuana.
Lt. Rob Merrifield: We’ve probably written more of those green hide tickets in the last year than simple possession of marijuana tickets.
Does Chico have a heroin problem?
Parrott: Yeah. It’s pretty well-documented that there’s an addiction epidemic stemming from opiate prescription medication, then moving into heroin because of the cost differential. We’re seeing a lot of heroin use, and a lot of people I’ve arrested and talked to started with Oxycontin, couldn’t afford to maintain that and then moved on to heroin. Some people try it recreationally, but the lion’s share of people I’ve dealt with started from prescription medication. I’ve talked to lots of people who have tried [to get off opiates] for 15 or 20 years, have periods of sobriety, but that addiction is hell to kick.
At the beginning of my career, meth was a big deal, and locally cooked meth was a big issue, whereas now we see mostly meth that’s mass produced in other parts of the state. But we’d rarely see heroin. Meth is still a problem for sure, but there is definitely a significant rise in heroin use and possession.
Are there other public-safety issues you feel the public isn’t aware of?
Merrifield: Chico has a real significant issue with traffic safety that no one seems to be paying attention to. I think we’ve had eight traffic fatalities in the last year and a half … vehicles versus pedestrians, vehicles versus bicycles, and drunk drivers. But the number of people injured or killed in traffic accidents doesn’t seem to be a big issue for the community. You see stories about bicycle theft, but nobody really seems to notice how many traffic accidents we have, how many people get killed in traffic accidents, or the number of DUIs we continue to deal with.
Parrott: Another one I see is the number of people having mental health crises. I can give you an opinion that there’s a nexus between drug use and these things, but it’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument … does drug use trigger mental issues or vice versa? But when I started, we’d have to detain someone for a mental health evaluation once a month, and now it’s almost daily. It’s really impacting a lot of resources, especially at the hospital. I think there’s some interconnectivity, these significant issues mixing together—addiction, mental health and more people homeless on the street.
Why, with an understaffed police department, does it seem common to see so many officers respond to minor situations?
Parrott: That’s an interesting question because it’s indicative of the difference between people’s perception of what they’re seeing and what’s really going on. In the age of social media, with everyone having the ability to comment on everything under the sun, you get a feel for the common criticisms of policing in general, and that’s one of the most common. The simple explanation is they don’t have the information we do. They’re not listening to the radio; they don’t know what the complaint or reason for the contact is.
Also, no one is sitting around waiting for a bell to ring so we can all run off from here; we’re constantly patrolling the community. So if an officer advises he’s dealing with something, if I’m close by and available, I’ll head that direction. [If the situation is controlled], we’ll inform other officers we have enough people and they can leave.
Merrifield: A good example happened just this morning. One of our officers stopped a guy for a bicycle violation downtown. When he contacted the guy, he was hostile, and when dispatch ran his name they saw he had a history of arrest and assaultive behavior and asked another officer to assist. I came to assist, and while dealing with this one guy, we had a big group of his friends and their pit bulls just a few feet away yelling at us the whole time, saying “Fuck the police” and other stuff. A third officer heard the [subject] over the radio being fairly aggressive and also came to help.
I don’t think anyone expects the police to go one-on-one with everybody they meet. Just for our own safety, we’re looking out for each other. If I see Jim has someone pulled over, I’m not gonna just drive by and yell, “Good luck with that, Jim!” I’m probably going to pull over and see if he needs any help. Even if I don’t do anything, I’m just there, which I think encourages that everyone stays safe.
Donut or Danish?
Parrott: Coffee. I think that’s more of a universal cop thing. If you’ve ever driven past Dutch Bros., you’ve seen a patrol unit in line there. I think the donut thing stems from [the fact that donut shops] used to be the only place open 24 hours, and cops would go for the coffee. We’re not offended by it, but honestly, it’s coffee.
Merrifield (who pointed out two fresh boxes of donuts in the break room during a pre-interview tour of the station): Have you tried donuts? They’re awesome!
Any particularly good excuses you’ve heard from someone getting busted?
Merrifield: I think the most common one, and it’s a universal thing among law enforcement agents anywhere, is “These aren’t my pants.”
Parrott: Whenever you find someone in possession of anything, whenever you pull some dope or anything out of their pockets, they say, “These aren’t my pants.” It’s become a big joke we all use. “Oh, these aren’t my pants!” It’s even more common than people saying, “I just had a couple of beers.”
What’s the most dangerous part of Chico?
Parrott: Chico isn’t the type of town that there’s a “wrong side of the tracks” or whatever. Some people think Chapmantown is a bad area, but it’s not. What we do have is different addresses throughout the city that might be problematic, and they change. We have problem people, problem families, but there is no bad side of town.
Merrifield: From a traffic standpoint, I’d say Eighth and Ninth streets. People travel so fast … the speed limit is 35, but they go much faster. And there’s a lot of people crossing, particularly around Ivy.
Do you get a rush from hauling ass with the siren on?
Parrott: Like anything else in this job, you become numb to that stuff over time. So the first few times, for sure [it’s exciting]. But when you do anything enough, you get numb to it. Even death, as much as we deal with it. At the academy, I imagined how much seeing a dead body would bother me, but fast-forward a few years and even that becomes blasé, after going to autopsies for homicide cases and watching a pathologist open up a human body.
We used to have a more aggressive ride-along program, and it was great … I felt jinxed because every time I’d take people around, nothing happened. But I’d drop them off and they’d be like, “That was great!” We forget that the average person finds a lot of the things we do interesting.
Would you encourage or discourage your child from becoming a cop?
Parrott: I have no regrets about my career, but I would not encourage my children to be officers. I’m toward the end of my career and I’m looking forward to doing something that’s not as soul-crushing as this job can sometimes be. It’s affected me—my world view, my cynicism, things like that. I feel I do a good job of dealing with that. But I don’t think I’d encourage them to do it.
What’s the difference between a good cop and a great cop?
Parrott: I think a great cop is always learning. A good cop works for five years and gets all his skills down and does his job day in and day out, but a great cop is always trying to learn more and get better at his. Having been through investigations and the extra training and study required there, I think you could spend 30 years in this job and not explore everything there is to explore.
Merrifield: From a supervisor’s perspective, I think a great cop is one who keeps at the forefront that we are in a service industry. The people out there are our customers, and we should be thinking of how to provide really excellent service. It’s so easy to make encounters with people positive ones. We need to remember who we work for, and a great cop always remembers that.
Parrott: I agree wholeheartedly. It sounds corny, but so many of the private sector’s concepts of customer service are applicable here. You’re dealing with people who aren’t always at their best, and it’s important to realize that. It can be as simple as validating what someone is going through. There may be nothing tangible I can do for someone, but if I come out and just put my hand on my hip and say there’s nothing I can do, as opposed to spending a few minutes allowing someone to vent, maybe provide them options to look at things differently, that’s the difference between doing a job and providing service.
What are some of the psychological challenges?
Parrott: It’s a hard job, and nobody [other than fellow officers] gets it. On some level, our families don’t even understand. In that context, it’s no wonder that sometimes we have a bunker mentality, but you have to fight through that. Combine that with the fact that the way most people are informed about what we do is through Hollywood, in TV shows or movies. Unequivocally, they’re all bullshit. Even reality shows like COPS misrepresent things in fundamental ways. And it’s everyone’s God-given right to Monday-morning quarterback us, because everyone knows what it’s like to be a cop, because they watch it on TV. It’s one of those frustrating things. So if you can come through this with a halfway decent sense of humor about that, and an understanding there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to navigate it and not become too cynical, then that’s good.