On patrol with Oroville’s ‘thin blue line’
It is 3 a.m. on a weeknight on Oro Dam Boulevard in Oroville. I am heading home from a losing night at the tables at Gold Country Casino when I’m pulled over by a young Oroville cop, his flashing lights in my rear view mirror compounding the hits to good fortune I’ve already taken for the evening.
We engage in the traffic-stop ritual—driver’s license and registration, followed by the usual questions. Except they aren’t the usual questions this time.
“You on parole or probation?” the young officer asks. He also wants to know if there are current warrants out for my arrest, and neither is a question I’ve been asked before when I’ve been pulled over. When I answer that I’m neither wanted nor on parole or probation, he tells me that I was speeding, but was not too much over the limit, and that he’ll let me off with a warning after he radios in my info, but only if he finds that I haven’t lied to him.
I sit in my truck, bathed in the alternating blue and red lights of his cruiser, wondering what it was about me that made him ask such questions. I don’t think I look particularly criminal. I’m no young buck with “Born to Raise Hell” tattoos and a truck cab reeking of booze or marijuana fumes. And I wonder if my anti-Bush bumper sticker might cause me trouble depending on this young cop’s own political persuasion.
But my late-night paranoia proves groundless. The officer returns my driver’s license, tells me I came back clean, advises me to watch my speed, and bids me a good night.
As I drive home, I think about the time and the place where I had just been stopped, and I wonder if the questions I’d been asked—though perhaps not routine elsewhere—might be routine at that time of the night in Oroville, a town saddled with a high percentage of poor people, and the high crime rate that usually attaches itself to those kinds of poverty rates.
Go to AreaConnect, for instance, a Web site that ranks American cities by various measures of livability, and the sources of Oroville’s reputation begin to surface. In all areas of crime, Oroville ranks above the national average for cities its size. The overall crime index shows 1,099 reported crimes in all categories for 2004. That is the equivalent of 8,265 crimes per 100,000 people, nearly twice the national average of 4,628 crimes per 100,000 people.
So it’s no wonder that a young cop is a little wary at 3 a.m., and that he asks the kind of questions not usually heard by motorists about their status as potential criminals. When it comes to violent crimes, those 2004 stats show 164 arrests, more than double the national number for a population the size of Oroville—14,443, up from the 13,000 recorded during the last census. There were 22 rapes reported in ‘04, and 103 cases of aggravated assault. In those categories, too, the stats are astronomical compared with other towns similar in size.
Most of that crime is cooked up in a witches’ brew of poverty, booze and meth, with dashes of ignorance, frustration and testosterone adding spice to the mix.
A very thin blue line of young police officers guards the peace and safety of Oroville’s residents on any given night, just four young men in uniform charged with an enormous responsibility.
It is the thought of those young officers and the dangers they face that motivates me to call the Oroville Police Department the day after my late-night traffic stop to request a “ride-along,” the opportunity to accompany a police officer and witness a sampling of what they witness.
Actually, I request permission for two of us to ride along so that my wife can take pictures. We go out on a Saturday night, each of us riding shotgun in separate patrol cars. I’d requested a Saturday night because I thought it might provide the most action, but the supervising officer on duty—Ray Stott—says that a Wednesday night can be just as hectic.
Officer Stott, 28, is one of the four young men on duty this Saturday night. Before coming to work in Oroville, he did four years of military service, and a couple of years in law enforcement in Lassen County. He’s married, but he doesn’t spend much time talking to his wife about things he sees on the job.
“The first week I was doing this,” he says, “I came home three hours late one night. She was sitting up in bed wanting to know where I’d been. I’d just come from writing up a bad accident, and after I broke it down for her, she quit asking after that.”
He shows us the report-writing room, apologizing for the messiness. “I don’t mind writing reports,” he says. “Some guys don’t like it. But when I come in from a call where someone has victimized a child, I love writing that report, because I know the better that report is, the more likely that prosecution is going to be successful.”
He knows his job represents an uphill struggle. “We’re not going to save the world,” he says, “but I like to think we help where we can.”
Then the two patrol cars return to the station to pick up their ride-alongs. Stott introduces us to Officers Alex Houston and Alexi Fanopoulos. I’m to ride with Fanopoulos, my wife with Houston.
“If there’s any shooting,” I joke, “are you guys trained to throw your bodies in front of the civilian observers?”
Stott jokes back, “Nah, the way I figure it is at least we got shields tonight.”
Officer Fanopoulos has been an Oroville cop for two years. The first week he served, he was called to a stabbing, with blood soaking the carpet and staining the walls of a room in a local motel. A woman had left one of the casinos with a guy she’d picked up. Both of them were drunk. One thing led to another, and then that thing led to her stabbing her new companion in the back, nearly killing him. That same week, Fanopoulos was called to the scene of a fatality in which a drunken woman had wandered out in front of a car that struck her at 35 miles an hour, killing her instantly.
Oroville law enforcement is a rough place for beginners.
Fanopoulos is working an overtime shift tonight in order to bring the Saturday night force to four. When he picks me up, he’s already been on duty for four hours, with six yet to go, barring some late-night emergency that will add to his overtime.
“I love my job,” he says, “and I can’t imagine doing any other. You never know what you’re going to get into any night you go on duty.”
On the dashboard of his cruiser is a picture of his little girl, Emma, 2. He is also the father of a 1-year-old, Evan. He lives in Chico because he doesn’t like the prospect of bumping into people he’s arrested at the supermarket. “You don’t know how they’re going to act,” he says, “and I don’t want to risk unpleasantness around the kids.”
There are places on Oroville’s south side that would not look out of place if they were magically transported to the Third World, would not look much different from a favela in Brazil or a barrio in Honduras.
These are places bred of extreme poverty, with tattered cloth serving as curtains covering cracked windows, where parolees live next door to children neglected by crack-addicted mothers. Hope has little chance for survival in places like this, where even the pets are furtive and scruffy-looking. This is where the American dream goes to die, or where it arrives still-born. It is an America where urgent needs at home have been neglected while billions are squandered each month overseas.
Still, it’s a pleasant night. We drive by Big Lem’s Barbecue on Meyers Avenue, probably the best place for ribs in all of Butte County. Big Lem is sitting with a bunch of customers at one of the picnic tables out front, and he gives a friendly wave.
“Lem’s a really good guy,” Fanopoulos says. “He’s been the victim of burglaries. Guys come out of those bars across the street thinking they’re invisible, and they’ll do a break-in almost on impulse because they’re too drunk to think it through.
“There’s a lot of parolees and people on probation here on the Southside,” he says, “and there’s also a lot of late-night foot traffic around here, with people up to no good. Lots of people in this area with little or no education. We get lots of calls for assault and battery, mostly alcohol or drug-related.”
8:21: A man and a woman have stretched some very long jumper cables between two cars that look to have been stolen from a wrecking yard. The cars are rusted-out hulks, and the jumper cables run from one side of the street to the other. Fanopoulos recognizes the woman. He has arrested her twice before, but tonight he just stops to check on her and see how she’s doing.
She is Kristin, a 28-year-old woman trying to wean herself off a meth habit. She doesn’t want me to use her last name. “I mostly just do bud these days,” she says, “but I used last night, I won’t lie.”
“Smoke it or slam it?” Fanopoulos wants to know.
Kristin lowers her head. “I slammed,” she says, “I won’t lie.” Her answer is rapid fire, and it’s clear she’s still tweaking.
“You’re not in trouble,” Fanopoulos assures her, but he asks if he can do a routine check, asking her to follow the point of a pen with her eyes, each of which is dilated differently. She knows the drill, and together the two of them—cop and perp—instruct me in the symptoms of chronic meth use.
“You’ll see that the pupil kind of stutters as it follows the point of the pen,” Fanopoulos says, and I can see that.
“It’s a kind of jerky movement, not a flow,” Kristin adds rather clinically considering the fact that it’s her symptoms under discussion. Since she’s cut back on her meth intake, she’s put on a little weight, wearing a little paunch in fact. “I was down to about 110,” she says, “and pretty sucked up. Now I think I’m about 130.”
She first started using meth in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, when she was a kid of 13, the child of addicts. Her mother died of lung cancer when she was 5, and her stepmother “was so jealous of me that she beat me all the time.”
“But we’re friends today,” Kristin adds, “because I understand now that what she was doing was due to her usage.”
Of Fanopoulos, she says: “He helped me open my eyes. I’m getting myself together.”
Part of her optimism, or desperate hope, (or denial, considering the fact that she’s admitted to having slammed meth just the night before) comes from the fact that she is planning on getting married to a man who is currently in jail on drug charges. “He treats me like a queen,” she says, but an outside observer can be forgiven some skepticism about Kristin’s rehabilitation, even while hoping it’s well under way. She’s paid some hard dues, and it shows. She and Fanopoulos are about the same age, though the differences in health and appearance would lead anyone to suppose otherwise.
“I dropped out of school in the 10th grade,” Kristin tells me. “I had a good upbringing, but it was tough as hell, with all the evilness behind those closed doors. I tried to get my GED later on. I missed passing it by just one point.”
8:48: Fanopoulos responds to a call for assistance at Motel 6. Helen, a very inebriated young woman, is raising hell. Officers had responded to this complaint earlier, warned her to quiet down, and this is a callback. The manager wants the woman removed from the premises.
“Please don’t take me to jail,” she says.
“You lost that option when you didn’t listen to the warning we gave you when we were here before.”
“Just calm down, Helen.”
“You cannot make me go to jail barefoot. I want socks. I want socks. I want socks.”
“You stupid asshole.”
“You stupid fuckin’ cops. You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me. I am not breaking the law. I am not breaking the law. I am not breaking the law.”
And so it goes until Helen is stowed, still screaming at the top of her lungs, in the back of Houston’s patrol car. Those back seats are covered in plastic so as to make it impossible for suspects to sequester drugs or other contraband they might have gotten into the car with them. The plastic covering also makes it easy to wash out the feces, urine, spit or vomit some drunks leave as a souvenir of their experience.
Helen probably doesn’t weigh 100 pounds, but she is a handful, animated by the adrenalin rush that comes with fierce alcohol-fueled anger, and a possible assist from speed.
She has a scratch on her leg, and Fanopoulos has blood on his hands and forearm, a health risk he immediately treats with antiseptic lotion, fearful of the possibility of AIDS or hepatitis.
Helen is taken to the Butte County Jail and placed on an eight-hour hold. She’ll be released in the morning without being charged. The officers’ hope is the experience will serve as a wake-up call. It’s a faint hope.
9:10: A 53-year-old man on a dark side street reports an attempted mugging. “I’m a big guy,” the man tells Fanopoulos, “and if this young kid tried to strong-arm me, he’d probably be wired enough to try that with anyone.”
Fanopoulos jots down a description of the alleged mugger: “slender, white, wiry build, looked like a crankster.”
“Not many people want to mess with me,” the complainant says. “This kid’s lookin’ to roll somebody. It looked like he had something in his hand. A knife, maybe, but he was so little compared to me. I told him, ‘Keep your distance, you don’t want any part of me, dude.’ “
Meanwhile, across town, Houston stops an older car, a couple riding without seat belts fastened. When info comes back, it turns out the driver has a suspended license.
Houston warns him about the seat belts but must cite him for driving on a suspended license, a second offense. The officer asks if he can search the vehicle, and both passengers give permission. He gives a cursory look, but because they’ve been cooperative, and because he doesn’t particularly want to be bent over looking into the back seat of a car without backup on the scene, he thanks them, tells the passenger to take over driving, and bids them goodnight.
9:30: Four young black males in a 1999 Buick arouse suspicion, and Fanopoulos provides backup to Stott as he questions them, pulling up behind them as their vehicle idles in a vacant parking lot. One of the males in the back seat makes a call on his cell phone as the driver is being questioned. It looks rather suspicious, but Fanopoulos breaks away from the scene to respond to a distress call from an 8-year-old girl who reports that her aunt is being beaten up by the woman’s boyfriend.
Fanopoulos races to this call—because it’s already abundantly apparent that nothing motivates him more than threats to children.
“I’ll be playing with my kids at home sometimes,” he says, “and I’ll think about some kid I’ve seen on shift, some kid in an abusive situation, and it just gets to me.”
9:33: Fanopoulos pulls up in front of a small and very modest house on Midway Street. Three people are standing out front awaiting his arrival, silhouetted by a porch light. The youngest is the girl who had called 9-1-1 to report a beating in progress. She is crying, shaking with adrenalin. A cat slinks inside, looking for a place to hide from the strangers.
The story unfolds. The girl’s aunt had been at a wedding with her boyfriend. They’d returned drunk to pick up their kids, who were being babysat by the young girl, her mother and her 14-year-old sister. The aunt and her boyfriend began fighting because the aunt wanted to continue partying, but the boyfriend wanted to go home. The girl heard the violence while she was taking a shower. Then the aunt and her boyfriend left with their two infants—a 2-month-old and a 3-year-old.
9:45: If, as the young girl suggested, the aunt was taken against her will, that constitutes false imprisonment, a felony. Misdemeanor domestic violence is also on the table, as is a charge of child endangerment. Fanopoulos speeds to the address he’s been given, and we roll up in front of a house set back off the road.
It is very dark, and I have no idea where we are. Fanopoulos tells me to wait in the patrol car, and he dashes into the darkness with two other officers who have arrived on the scene, all of them following their flashlights toward some dim houselights.
Off in the distance, I can hear raised voices, but I do as I’m told, though the longer the officers are gone, the more my curiosity urges me to get out of the car to see what’s going on.
It’s a good 15 minutes before they return. No arrests are made because the kids appear safe now, and the aunt shows no visible injuries.
“What was that yelling I heard?” I ask.
“Oh, that was just the guy being belligerent,” he says. “You get used to people chippin’ at you. He was hollerin’ about how he makes more money than we do, and who the hell do we think we are? The usual stuff.
“It’s a little frustrating, though, because I have no doubt that guy was hitting his girlfriend, but there’s just no case. But you want to protect the children.”
10:30: Fanopoulos returns to the house on Midway. The girl is afraid that her aunt’s boyfriend might retaliate because she called the cops on him, and Fanopoulos assures her that he will keep an eye on things.
Across town, at an AM/PM mini-mart, Houston responds to a call regarding an older woman who is frightened because people in a car have been harassing her. Houston talks with her, calms her, warns her about the dangers of walking at night, then gives her a ride home to a run-down trailer park where neighbors peek from behind their curtains at her arrival.
10:39: Fanopoulos drives up a hill where he can get good cell-phone reception. “Excuse me,” he says, “but I’ve got to check in with my mom.”
It’s the first pause in activity since we left the station more than 2 1/2 hours ago. So much for the stereotype of fat cops sitting around doughnut shops.
“My mom has stage-four cancer,” Fanopoulos says. “She was diagnosed four weeks before I was supposed to finish up at the police academy. I almost flunked out because I was so freaked about my mom.”
10:45: The calls have slowed for the moment, and Fanopoulos takes the opportunity to drive through one of Oroville’s nicer areas. He seems to want to do some public relations for the city—and he would, in fact, make a good PR man—though it’s a tough sell after some of what we’ve already seen on the southside. Still, he wants to tell me about the good things going on in Oroville, about the growth spurt, and the promise of new businesses opening, the Gateway Project, and new commercial development.
We pass several blocks of well-maintained colonial and craftsman-style homes. “These are some nice older places,” he says. “Wish I could afford to live up here. We don’t get many calls from this neighborhood, but if we do, it’s something serious.”
And then we’re back driving through downtown on Bird Street, a scene that negates his attempts at boosterism. Most of the downtown stores are vacant. The Brown & Co. Department Store, once an anchor of the business district, stands empty, with smaller boarded storefronts in all directions. A gaggle of young patrons mills around in front of a bar, the only sign of life for several blocks.
10:55: We join Houston, who has stopped a kid in dark clothing riding a bike erratically, without lights. The boy, about 15, has a marijuana pipe in his pocket, and the story he tells seems riddled with inconsistencies. When Houston tries the phone number the kid gives him for the place where his father is supposed to live, the number is reported to be not in service.
Houston tries to talk with the boy, to throw a little scare into him about the dangers of riding his bike in the dark this late at night, and about using marijuana, but the kid seems unimpressed. Houston puts the boy’s bike in the trunk of his patrol car and gives the kid a ride home. The boy’s father is not happy about having his son brought home by the police, but Houston is glad to have spared the kid a trip to juvenile hall.
“It’s a whole new set of problems,” Fanopoulos tells me, “of children raised in poor, single-parent homes, basically raising themselves in the streets with their friends, smoking, drinking, with little or no adult supervision.
“We don’t want those kids to be scared of us, but we do want them to respect what we’re saying. Some of these kids, though, you can’t reason with them. We’ve got gang problems, too. Norteños. Some of these kids just don’t care. They’re out to make their stripes, and they don’t think things through. An older guy who’s out on parole, he knows what’s going on, and you can reason with him, but the young kids have no fear.”
11:19: In the patrol car with Fanopoulos, I make small talk, asking a kid’s question. “Have you ever fired your weapon on duty?”
“Yes,” he answers. “I did. Once. I had to kill a dog. It had been hit by a car and it was in agony. They told me over the radio to shoot it and put it out of its misery. I remember telling them no, but then I saw that the animal was suffering and I was the only one who could end that, so I shot the dog. It bothered me for a couple of days.
“I’d never fired a gun until I went to the police academy, and it was a big concern I had about the job. I am tasked with the responsibility where I could be asked to take a life. I asked myself, seriously, ‘Can you honestly do this?’ Could I live with it? And I had to work to resolve that issue and to know I could do it if I had to in the interest of public safety.
“You don’t want a cop who can’t react. The gun is not for show.”
11:25: When we ride up on Tawni Windmiller, she’s sitting beside her bike at the edge of a weedy vacant lot. Off in the distance somewhere, her boyfriend, Harold, is asleep in those weeds, nursing a bad leg wound that she says was infected until she drained it and drenched it in hydrogen peroxide. “It could have killed him,” she says. “I saw that red line beginning to travel up his leg, and I thought, ‘Man, I better clean this out.’ “
Tawni is 40, but she looks much younger, despite having suffered heart attacks and a series of strokes brought on by a congenitally undersized heart. The homeless mother of two grown children has been living on the streets of Oroville since 2005 after walking here from Sacramento to get away from a police force she felt was harassing her in the capital city. She walked. From Sacramento to Oroville.
She likes the Oroville cops much better. “I love ’em,” she says. “They’ve saved my life, many times. Sacramento cops were pretty twisted. They assaulted me once, but generally, I like cops.”
She supplements SSI income by recycling stuff she gathers near the roadways. “This town’s rich,” she says. “You’d be surprised the stuff they throw away.”
As we bid her goodnight, she calls after us. “I’ve worked hard all my life,” she says, “and you can describe me as a 5-foot, 2-inch spitfire.”
Fanopoulos concurs. “You don’t want to deal with her when she’s been drinking,” he tells me when we’re back in the patrol car.
11:42: Back on the Southside, Fanopoulos pulls up into a vacant lot beside a tightly clumped bunch of small-frame bungalows, low-rent housing for many of the parolees and SSI recipients who are subsisting in this neighborhood. Three young kids are hanging out, smoking cigarettes across from a heavily patronized bar and liquor store. Rose, 18, is recovering from a recent miscarriage. She and Crystal, 16, treat Cody, 15, like their younger brother. His mom is on parole, and his father’s dead.
“I don’t do nothin’ wrong,” Rose says, and when I ask if I can take her picture, she says, “It don’t matter.” Of Fanopoulos, she says, “he’s got a very busy job, especially around these parts.”
And, speaking of how she makes her own way around these parts, she says, “you do what you gotta do. I’ve never had no problems with the police,” but she wants to know what kind of time her uncle is facing for having recently robbed the Southside Mini-Mart.
As we drive back to the station, Fanopoulos sighs in frustration. “This isn’t these kids’ fault,” he says. “Sometimes we try to act as parents. They come to us with issues they’re dealing with, and they’re real inclined to make bad decisions. You just want to take them home sometimes. I have a hard time not making other people’s problems my own.”
And of the Oroville P.D., he says: “Oroville’s got a bad rap. That we’re a terrible department, that we don’t know what we’re doing. But we’re a good department. We don’t have the budget they have in Chico or Paradise. We’ve been looked upon as a place where young cops come to get started, then leave, but that’s changing. I’m proud to put on this uniform every day.”
Fanopoulos and the other young family men charged with keeping the peace in Oroville make less than $3,000 a month, and they pay their own health insurance out of that pay. “We don’t do this job for the money, that’s for sure,” he says. “We could work for PG&E and make much more.”
It is nearly midnight. Except for that 30-second call on his cell phone to his ailing mother in Visalia, there hasn’t been a moment’s respite, not a minute when the alert level was less than high.
“It will be steady like this until about 2:30,” he says, “until the bars are cleared out and those people go home. Then it starts up with the burglary calls and the early-morning drug offenders still on the prowl.”
I’m exhausted, and I say so.
“It’s a young man’s game, that’s for sure,” he says, and the 34-year difference in our ages settles on me with undeniable reality. If Oroville had to depend on me for its safety from this hour on until dawn, the town would be in serious jeopardy, though the peril it faces is still pretty real. When I consider that these underpaid young men on an understaffed police force are all that stand between Oroville and anarchy, and are often the first and sometimes only line of help that can be counted on by that legion of sick, homeless, and troubled people who exist—just barely—at the bottom of that barrel.
My wife is already at the station in the report-writing room, and we say our goodbyes. After we leave, Fanopoulos and his fellow officers will be called to Swagger’s bar where a guy has punched out a window, sustaining a bad cut. The bartender is trying to hold the guy down when officers arrive. The scene is slippery with the guy’s blood, and he will not follow commands.
It will turn out that the man is on probation for assault with a deadly weapon, and he resists arrest. Officers wrestle with him and manage to get him into a safety restraint called a “wrap.” Once in the squad car, he kicks at the doors and the cage, and bangs his head against the window. At the jail, he refuses to blow into the breathalyzer, so officers take him to the hospital to do a forced blood draw.
And, just before he ends his shift, Fanopoulos makes one last drive down Midway to check on the frightened 8-year-old girl who’d made the earlier 9-1-1 call. The house is dark, and all is quiet.