The cop beat

On the streets with the Chico Police Department

Officer Paul Ratto fills out paperwork while parked at Enloe Medical Center. Like most officers, he complains about the large amount of time he spends doing paperwork.

Officer Paul Ratto fills out paperwork while parked at Enloe Medical Center. Like most officers, he complains about the large amount of time he spends doing paperwork.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

On Feb. 25, the Chico Police Department issued an unusually emotional press release. “Chico Police Patrol staffing pushed beyond the breaking point!” it began. The release reported multiple arrests between 4 o’clock on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 23, and 4:30 the following morning.

The narrative referred to “large fights stemming from house parties in the college housing area,” the issuance of 15 noise warnings, two Disorderly Events Ordinance violations, and 10 fires ignited along Sixth Street between Chestnut and Ivy streets involving couches, mattresses, chairs and garbage cans.

It went on to say that, because of the heavy demand, “over 90 percent of the city went without [police] service during this time frame. This type of juvenile behavior continues to be fueled by alcohol, egos, and tempers; all of which are totally unacceptable in OUR community!”

The tone of the release, written by Sgt. Billy Aldridge, was a notable break from the normally neutral, just-the-facts-ma’am police notices. Because of its emotionalism, it did not get posted on the department’s website. Police Chief Kirk Trostle would later tell me there is no place for such sentiments in a police press release.

But it served as a reminder that the police are also citizens of Chico, who see crime and violence much more often and intimately than the average Chicoan and have emotional responses as a result. It also triggered this story—a look into conditions at the Chico Police Department as seen during two ride-alongs and an interview with the chief.

The first ride-along was a morning cruise with Officer Paul Ratto on Tuesday, April 2.

Ratto, 35, has been on the force nine years, joining after a four-year stint as a Marine. His shift runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Today he was serving as a “rove,” which means he was working the whole city as back-up to the officers covering the city’s six beats.

“I have certain spots in town I like to go that I know have high criminal activity,” he said as the patrol began. “From working here for nine years, I recognize a lot of people. I know people on probation, on parole or with gang affiliation. So we’ll keep our eyes out for that as we go.”

He cruised through the parking lot of the Sunrise Court apartments on East 20th Street, where a stabbing had occurred over the previous weekend.

“I want to go through there and make sure there are not a bunch of gang members hanging out,” he said. “There were gang issues involved in that stabbing.”

The apartments are owned buy the Chico Rancheria Housing Corp. of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe.

“There are certain members of their community in there, but it’s not considered a reservation,” he said, although “the street name for the place is ‘The Res.’”

He said the number of reported stabbings in Chico so far this year had just about matched the 23 reported for all of last year. That number has since been eclipsed.

When asked about the Aldridge press release, Ratto said he was not sure he’d read it. “But, yeah, we are kind of bare bones out here,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of proactive enforcement going on. We get called and we go to that call, which means there’s not much preventative policing going on.”

On the homelessness situation in Chico, Ratto said there seemed to be more homeless people now than in any of the 10 years he’s lived here.

“Just in the last year it seems like it’s quadrupled,” he said. “What do you do with them? We are giving them tickets, but they don’t have money to pay the fines. So the ticket goes to warrant, and we’ll arrest them five times on the same warrant because they don’t go to court. I’m not sure where the solution lies.”

He said he’s talked to a lot of the younger homeless, who seem to be so by choice.

A dispatcher takes a call in the city’s dispatch center.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“They come here and panhandle and make enough money to get by,” he said. “A lot of them are able-bodied young men and women who could definitely work, but who knows?”

Ratto was born and reared in Alameda, where he lived until he joined the Marines. Once he got out of the military, he lived for a while in Santa Barbara and then came north to attend the Butte College police academy. His sister works at the Butte County Jail as a correctional technician.

“At this point, I have no regrets,” he said about his career choice. “It’s just like any other job. There are good days; there are bad days. Sometimes it’s really fun; sometimes it can get monotonous, like when you’re backed up trying to catch up with the paper work. Something that might take you two to three minutes on a call can take you two to three hours to write about as far as what happened and booking the evidence.”

He said for the most part he is received well by the public.

“It’s hard to generalize. Some of the public is very appreciative. They wave hello and are glad to see you are there. But then there are others who are hostile right off the bat when they see a police car or uniform.”

He pulled off 20th Street and behind a white sedan, which for some reason raised his suspicions.

“See that hanging from the rearview mirror?” he asked, referring to a Christmas tree-shaped cardboard deodorizer. Technically the deodorizer was a violation because it could hamper the driver’s field of vision; it was also an excuse to pull him over.

But before Ratto could do so, a call came in on the radio from another officer.

“I’m at Christie and Cohasset; you know the Courtesy Motors car dealership?” the voice on the radio said. “I’m going to be 1085 in the area. I just had a BMA on a bike lose me. Was wearing a khaki-colored camouflage jacket and pants, it looked like. And he was riding a bicycle. I’ll be in the area.”

Ratto said the voice was his supervisor’s and that a man on bike was trying to evade him.

Dispatch called Ratto: “Three-seven, Chico.”

He answered, “Go ahead, this is 3-7.”

“Can you be in the area of Cohasset and Christie? BMA on a bike wearing all camo?”

“Affirmed,” he replied. “At 20 and 99.”

Generally speaking, Ratto said, those who evade a police officer do so because of an outstanding warrant, “or they have something in their pockets they are not supposed to have.”

He cruised the area near Courtesy Motors but saw no sign of the man on the bike. Then he got a call for back-up at an apartment off Pillsbury Road, where a man was spotted carrying bolt cutters and checking out bikes in bike racks. Ratto drove to the spot and joined Officer James Dimmitt, who was already questioning the man. Ultimately he was arrested on charges of prowling.

After booking the prowler, Ratto got a call about a possible suicide attempt at the Budget Inn on Park Avenue. A man had called the police and said he was tired of living and had no family. He had attempted to take his own life a few weeks earlier.

Ratto drove to the inn, located the man’s room and walked in through the unlocked door. The man was lying on the bed. The television was on. Ratto opened a closet door, then turned to the man, who was conscious but groggy and fairly non–responsive. He had tried to overdose on a prescription medication.

Ratto (left) assists as Officer James Dimmitt arrests a suspected prowler in north Chico.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

A fire truck arrived, followed by an ambulance. The man was carried out on a stretcher, loaded into the ambulance and taken to Enloe Medical Center.

Ratto followed, and when he got to the hospital, began filling out paper work. He then walked inside and waited for the man to be brought in so he could talk with him. But the man arrived unconscious. Ratto said he couldn’t give advice to an unconscious man, handed off some of the paper work to a hospital attendant, and left.

Driving away, he acknowledged that his job could be draining.

“Cops are just like any other humans,” he said. “We are full of emotional responses just like anybody else. What helps is that, through training and experience, you’re able to calm down and be professional. And you also know that when you become an officer that at some time in your career you may have to use deadly force.”

Ratto headed back to south Chico, to an apartment building on Olive Street, where Officer Terry Moore was questioning a toothless, red-headed man standing in a Dumpster and tossing discarded items into a shopping cart. Someone at the apartment complex had called the police. Moore responded and learned the man had a warrant out for his arrest.

Moore patted him down while explaining what he was doing. He then handcuffed the man and escorted him to the back seat of his police car parked nearby. He helped seat the man into the back of the car. As he reached to close the door, the man yelled, “Fucking pig!” Moore showed no reaction and went on with his job.

As we drove back to the station, Ratto said the previous three hours had offered nothing unusual in the line of duty.

“There hasn’t been much, other than an alarm that went off at a bank before you got here,” he said. “So it’s been manageable today.”

He said in his nine years on the force he’s worked under three chiefs—Bruce Hagerty, Mike Maloney and Kirk Trostle. He said he respected them all and that Trostle was a good guy.

“I think he’s done well since he’s taken over,” he said. “The troops like him, and even with the financial stuff going on with the city, he’s still been able to keep himself in a positive light. He has the Police Department and the city in his best interests.”

Trostle was appointed to the job last June by then-City Manager Dave Burkland. Born and raised in Redding, the 48-year-old began his law enforcement career in 1988 with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, where he served for six years, including time on the bomb squad and detective work. In 1994 he was hired by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, where he made his way up to assistant chief in the investigations bureau.

He joined the Oroville Police Department in 2006 as assistant chief. He was promoted to chief in 2008 and was hired in 2010 as captain for the Chico Police Department. He and his wife, Patricia, who is the principal of Chico Country Day School, have lived in Paradise since 1988.

The youthful-looking chief has an engaging sense of humor that seems to have lightened what could otherwise be a rather somber workplace atmosphere. As Trostle was walking to his office to be interviewed, a female employee told him the department needed better duct tape.

“I need to tape up some boxes,” she said. “And maybe make myself some really cheap flip-flops.”

The chief smiled and shook his head and told her he’d do what he could.

Joking aside, the chief said making ends meet and being responsive to the citizens is tough under current financial conditions.

“I’m pulling all of our ancillary units—the street crimes, the gangs, the traffic—back into patrol because of staffing challenges. We have to adequately respond to the critical incidents we’ve been having in the community.”

As such, he said, those units that are designed to be proactive must take a back seat to responding to crime as opposed to trying to prevent it. The department’s three school-resource officers are also going to be reassigned because the school district is unable to help fund their duties.

Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle, left, with Fire Chief Jim Beery at a recent Chico City Council meeting. Both men are confronting staff shortages because of budget cuts.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“I gave the city manager a memorandum outlining the move,” the chief explained.

People think only about stabbings or shootings when it comes to critical incidents, he said, but such incidents also include traffic collisions, domestic violence, fights, prowler calls and suspicious-looking subjects.

“Those are all critical incidents because they can affect the lives of our citizens,” Trostle said, adding that a call about a suspicious subject requires the response of two officers, as do calls for domestic violence.

“Sometimes the domestic-violence response takes three officers because sometimes if you determine the perpetrator needs to go to jail and you are handcuffing them, the victim turns on you because you’re taking away that person’s spouse. It’s weird phenomenon.”

He said typically there are seven police officers on patrol duty covering the city’s 33 square miles and 88,000 people.

“If we have that domestic violence and you take three officers out, we are left with four for the rest of the city to handle significant incidents,” he said. “And that would include bank robbery or a man with a gun at a school.”

The department does have nine detectives working Monday through Friday who are also on call when not on duty.

“If we have a real big critical incident we can have them come out,” he said.

Trostle said the department needs 83 funded police positions and currently has 71, down three from two years ago. There are four vacancies for the funded positions, which means there are 67 officers available. But three of those are currently out on medical leave, dropping the number to 64.

As for the homelessness issue, he said the department is caught in the middle.

“As I told the council, there are two philosophies: One, that it is a social issue that doesn’t warrant police involvement. The other that [the homeless] are a menace to society and warrant police protection.”

He said it comes down to what the community wants its police to do.

“We have a lot of laws and ordinances on the books,” he said. “There’s no-camping and no-aggressive or deceptive panhandling ordinances. As for lodging, if someone is hanging out in an alcove of a business, there is a threshold where it is private property and that can be a violation. You can usually determine who is just kind of hanging out and who is camping; it’s pretty easy to differentiate.”

In order for the police to take action, there must be a complaint, unless the officer observes the violation.

“A lot of time the police can’t do anything because the citizen doesn’t want to come forward and say, ‘I will write a statement that I observed him doing this.’ If the offence is not committed in our presence, we can’t prosecute. We need a witness.

“So it’s not accurate to say the cops can’t do anything. It comes down to whether the citizens who see these things occur are willing to participate in prosecuting that offense.”

When asked about Sgt. Aldridge’s emotional February press release, Trostle said he had talked to the officer.

“I let him know that, when we publish information to our community, we do it objectively, we report it as fact. We are neutral, and part of our profession is we just relate facts that speak for themselves. If there is emotion and passion, then I speak for the department.”

Officer Peter Durfee in the Chico Police Department’s evidence room.

Photo By tom gascoyne

Trostle said it’s tough to keep an emotional distance from some of the things the police deal with. He mentioned the incident of the young Paradise man who jumped in front of a Union-Pacific train near the Chico State campus a few weeks back.

“I’ve been on those cases before where you are picking up pieces of body parts and putting them in a bag while trying to shoo the seagulls away,” he said “People don’t want to see that or be exposed to that, but welcome to the world of the cops.”

On Friday, April 19, I went on a nighttime ride-along with Officer Peter Durfee, who happens to be the president of the Chico Police Officers Association. Durfee, 36, was born and grew up in Chico, is married and has a daughter, and has been on the force for five years. Prior to that, he was a baseball umpire who eventually worked his way up to the major leagues before moving back to Chico to attend the Butte College police academy.

“I started this later in life, which in my opinion is better,” he said. “I think it’s harder to be a police officer as a younger person because you are dealing with life and death, and at any time you might have to take somebody’s freedoms away or even somebody’s life.”

He said being an umpire helped prepare him for his current career.

“[Umpiring] was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress,” he said. “Stress is knowing if you make a mistake you’re going to be on SportsCenter at 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 o’clock every day. Or working in front of 50,000 people who are yelling and screaming. That’s stress. To me this is work.”

Tonight Durfee would arrest a sobbing 23-year-old woman for misdemeanor battery on her boyfriend and gently try to counsel her as he drove her to jail. He’d respond, along with six other officers and two Butte County Sheriff’s deputies, to a burglary-in-progress call in north Chico, in which a woman calling from her locked bathroom was safely extricated, though the burglar got away. He would admonish a young man for flipping off a driver of a car who’d yelled at him for walking against a cross signal. And soon after he would warn two young women about the dangers of jay-walking, an effort for which they would thank him.

He would also join fellow Officer Tony Ferreira in warning three young women who were having a birthday party in a campus neighborhood not to let the party get out of hand. Ferreira said he’d been given a flyer and picked up tweets advertising the party and stating that it would be heavily attended by fans attending a rap concert at the Senator Theater in downtown Chico.

The three women stood on the porch wearing Musketeer hats and whiskers drawn on their faces.

“Before you know it, it will be out of control,” Ferreira told them. “So if it starts getting too big, call us. … Some information that we somehow got makes it sound like they’re going to have a big after-party from the rap concert.”

“We’re obviously not at the rap concert, and it’s my birthday,” one of the women said, “so if there’re any problems…”

“Remember,” Ferreira said, “I have your names, so call us. But I also have your names, and if we have to come back and invoke the Disorderly Events Ordinance, you guys are going to be on the hook.”

One of the young women stepped back. “Well, what happens if a million people show up?”

Keeping a straight face, Ferreira replied, “If a million people show up we’re really in trouble because there’s not enough police to handle a million people.”

“Right, but…”

“But if 50 people show up call us, and we’ll come take care of it.”

“OK, thank you,” they said and stepped back inside.

The party stayed quiet that night, apparently. There were no complaints from neighbors and no calls from the young women.

The ride-alongs revealed a glimpse of Chico most of us never see—the sometimes sordid, sad and quirky behavior of our fellow citizens that is sufficient to draw the attention of the police.

They also provided a view of the police officers who deal with this stuff every day—a vision very different than the one we get after the red-and-blue lights flash in our rearview mirror.

Of course, providing a ride-along to the press probably induces top-notch presentations, especially from officers on a force looking for public support while the city’s financial backing remains stagnant and the crime rate seems to be growing. On the other hand, I came away with a gut feeling that these officers’ actions and reactions were genuine and reflected their training, experience and professionalism.