Who let the watchdog out?

That’s what Sacramento police brass want to know, having come face to face with a one-man force known as Dave Jenest.

This mini-mart was the scene of a shooting in March where police were delayed in responding, they say, because there were not enough officers on shift to provide back-up.

This mini-mart was the scene of a shooting in March where police were delayed in responding, they say, because there were not enough officers on shift to provide back-up.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Dave Jenest sits in the middle of his living room floor, surrounded by dated videotapes, public records requests, internal police documents and reports of his own making. All of it chronicles the criminal activity that has occurred in his Midtown neighborhood since 1994.

Speakers throughout Jenest’s modest two-bedroom apartment allow constant monitoring of the squawking police scanner, which broadcasts calls for police service and remains on, 24/7. Four computers maintain a neighborhood watch Web site and a link to the Sacramento Police Department’s criminal analysis database, among other things. Meanwhile, two video camera monitors allow Jenest to view activity outside the complex. A long closet inside the computer room holds dozens of surveillance videotapes, as well as tapes from numerous City Council meetings where Jenest and other Community Watch members have testified. Boxes of audio tapes are labeled and stacked in various places, chronicling hundreds of hours of police dispatch calls.

Known for years to local cops as “the bunker” (so called, reportedly, for its location within a high-crime area), this is ground zero for Jenest’s Citizens’ Community Watch (CCW)—a combination neighborhood association/neighborhood watch program that over the years has worked to rid the Midtown area of graffiti taggers, car burglars, drug dealers and shopping cart vandals.

In recent years, however, Jenest (pronounced Ja-nay) has tied his battle for safer neighborhoods directly to the decline in the number of Sacramento patrol officers on the street. In domino-like fashion, Jenest lays out statistic after statistic in his attempt to convince all who would listen that management in the Sacramento Police Department (SPD) has cut the numbers of patrol officers and, therefore, reduced public safety.

Through the culling of internal SPD documents, taped 9-1-1 calls, California Public Records Act requests and anecdotal information received from officers over the years, Jenest has slowly gathered evidence of a department in crisis. Among his findings: high-priority 9-1-1 calls routinely go unanswered for long periods of time; numerous areas of town are left unpatrolled due to the department’s recent policy shift that no longer mandates that a minimum number of officers be on the street; and officer retention is at an all-time low.

Officers, both current and retired, as well as tenants of the apartments he manages at 1818 H St. and other community activists, praise Jenest for both his crime-fighting efforts and his attention to police staffing issues. His critics—specifically Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas Jr., his deputy chiefs and some City Council members—openly regard him as a pain in the ass; someone to be shunned and discredited, someone to be dismissed.

But his critics’ anger, Jenest supporters claim, is politically driven, stemming from frustration over Jenest’s relentless questioning of police management—and his constant contention that important staffing information is being kept from the public.

Indeed, for years Jenest and his group have asked Venegas and the City Council to provide hard data regarding the number of patrol officers on the street—a seemingly straightforward question, but one that has yielded few straight answers. While the chief, along with his management team, typically speak in terms of “authorized” positions, Jenest and patrol officers know those numbers are far different from the actual number of cops on the beat.

Venegas and his staff frequently cite the figure 411 as the number of authorized uniformed officers in the field, a number that includes cops in special tactical and problem-oriented policing units, sergeants and patrol officers. When pressed, Deputy Chief of Operations Albert Najera confirmed that 241 of those were patrol officers, with 224 actually patrolling the street. But Sacramento Police Union Association president, Victor Sanchez, claims that newer numbers show only 219 officers in patrol—19 of whom are out on injuries, restricted to light duty, have resigned or retired. Additionally, 30 of the remaining 200 are trainees—newly hired officers still in their 18-month probationary period, meaning they cannot be on the street unsupervised.

The fact that there isn’t one number everyone can agree on frustrates both Jenest and cops on patrol.

“I’m talking warm butts in the seat, not what’s on paper,” notes one veteran patrol sergeant with the department more than 20 years. “That’s what I need to care about—not an officer on pregnancy leave or on light duty or vacation.”

The same sergeant claims that it’s not unusual for management to give him 50 percent of the personnel he’s supposed to have, while still holding him and his officers responsible for covering 100 percent of the calls for that sector.

None of the officers currently working in the SPD who were contacted by the SN&R would speak for attribution because they feared losing their jobs, many of them claiming that attaching themselves publicly to Jenest and the issue of staffing problems would only bring them condemnation from the chief.

Steve Reed, a 19-year veteran with the department who retired in 1999 after suffering a minor heart attack, confirms those fears, characterizing Jenest as the “voice of frustration for officers on the job who can’t say anything publicly because Venegas rules by intimidation and fear.”

And Jenest is nothing if not frustrated. He is an absolutist when it comes to police staffing, maintaining that Sacramento needs to increase its ratio from the current 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents to at least 2.5 per 1,000—the national average. And, he claims, the department’s decision to eliminate its minimum staffing level policy this year has only exacerbated the problem.

When implemented several years ago, the policy told watch commanders the bare minimum number of officers needed to patrol each district in each of Sacramento’s six sectors, on any given shift.

Steve Reed, a 19-year veteran with the Sacramento Police Department until his recent retirement, claims that low morale and poor working conditions are causing officers to flee the department.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Today, 31 out of 84 shifts are at or below the 1998 minimum staffing levels, according to internal documents furnished by an officer in the SPD.

“This isn’t a joke,” Jenest claims. “It’s not a [ploy] to get more money. It’s real and all you have to do is look at the calls for service and the number of calls that go unanswered or get delayed [response] each day, every day, every shift, to know it’s real.”

Most citizens, of course, have neither the time, nor the inclination, to monitor such data. But cops maintain that if the public knew what areas of town are left uncovered each day due to illness or vacation time, they might join Jenest’s cause.

So, what does it mean for residents when one officer in each sector doesn’t show up for work on any given shift? Two examples: In Sector 3, which covers the central city, the areas of McKinley Park, College Greens, La Riviera, River Park and the Fabulous 40s would be left uncovered. In Sector 5, which is bounded by Florin Road on the north, Franklin and Stockton boulevards on the east, Sheldon Road on the south and Freeport Boulevard on the west, the areas including Brookfield, Center Parkway, Mack Road and Turnbridge Drive would go without service.

If crime occurred in any of those areas where officers weren’t assigned, patrol units would be pulled in from other districts, thus increasing response time and leaving other areas uncovered.

Jenest provided a taped recording of an incident last month which illustrates the problem further. On it, one hears an SPD dispatcher’s voice saying, “Priority call … I have a [call] at 3041 Rio Linda Blvd. … on a possible shooting … at the Park ’N’ Save … call came from the business line. Subject said he’s been shot in the face … suspects are two male blacks, one wearing a hat and ran outside behind the market … no answer back at the business line.”

Coming from store owner Ramesh Govan, at 1:40 p.m., dispatch reported this was the second 9-1-1 call made on the incident, which occurred at 1:24 p.m. Friday, March 16. A sector sergeant was standing by at the time of a burglary-in-progress call and had no immediate backup, according to the audio tape.

A store clerk confirmed that Govan had refused to sell cigarettes to two youths, ages 14 and 15, earlier that day. Shortly after 1 p.m., they came back and shot Govan.

Following the second call, a motorcycle officer told dispatch that he would respond to the scene. It took another 47 minutes for the SPD to get a California Highway Patrol helicopter to conduct a search for the juveniles.

Although paramedics arrived on the scene first, medical help could not be given to Govan until officers arrived, to ensure the paramedics’ safety.

“Can you imagine? You’re shot in the face, you hear [fire engine] sirens coming and think help is on the way, but no one comes,” Reed says. “And then, you have to call 9-1-1 a second time?”

Speaking for the chief, Najera claims that while the lack of available patrol officers does result in some high-priority calls going unanswered for a time, “most of the time … they are calls of a relative low priority.”

Reed disagrees, saying, “This is not an isolated incident. No matter what management wants to tell you.”

Surrounded by his police scanner and computers, Jenest uses his Citizens’ Community Watch Web site, (www.watchdogs.org) as well as a blitz of faxes, phone calls and e-mails to pound the drum: Where are the officers?

“He’s a pit bull,” said retired patrol officer Steve Mauser, 43, who left the department after suffering a spinal injury on the job in 1997. “Dave asks the questions that no one else will ask. He’s not some scanner junkie to be [dismissed]; his numbers are right.”

But Jenest’s style—often dogmatic, frenzied and unrelenting—can be hard for many to take, at least in large doses. Unmarried and semi-retired (he manages the apartments where he lives and does freelance computer consulting), Jenest’s fervor about criminal justice issues can partially be traced to his youth, when he was, in his words, a juvenile delinquent. He admits to being arrested when he was young, but won’t say much more, although it is clear that the subject is painful for him. Also painful is the memory of his fiancée, at age 19, being killed in an auto accident on a southern California highway.

“As I began to grow up, I tended to gravitate toward people who made careers in law enforcement,” he said. “I knew I was stupid and I knew I had made mistakes. [When] I started to take responsibility, I moved on into a direction that would help people; and my feeling was that if you do something to help police officers, you help the community.”

Illustration By Irina Beffa

His love and knowledge of computer technology led him to work with and market products to law enforcement agencies throughout the state and the nation, products designed to allow officers to have instant access to both photos and criminal backgrounds of suspects while in the field.

One way that Jenest feels he can help Sacramento residents is to point out the problems that are caused when patrol staffing is down and there’s a high turnover.

While 12 officers resigned in 1999, that number jumped to 24 in 2000, internal documents show. And, just four months into 2001, 23 officers have already left—seven of them joining the Sacramento County Sheriff’s detective unit, district attorney’s office and public defender’s investigative unit. Another 16 are on their way out, according to Sanchez and several officers who are applying to outside agencies.

“I could work through the pay bullshit,” one 11-year veteran patrol and senior field training officer told the SN&R, “if I was appreciated. I’m looking at another agency right now that has lower pay, but the management isn’t condescending to its officers. Money is nice, but it’s not everything.”

Other officers echo similar sentiments; even those who say they are not leaving claim that Chief Venegas’ attitude toward his troops is one of indifference and arrogance when faced with officers’ concerns. One example: In recent months, Venegas has said he is unconcerned by the number of officers leaving the department, noting that the SPD wasn’t “the Army” and officers could leave anytime they wanted.

Deputy Chief Najera was a bit more reflective, though quick to claim the so-called “mass exodus” wasn’t what it seemed. “I am very concerned,” Najera said. “This is a new phenomenon we’ve had in this department. But you talk to any department in California and you’ll [see] there’s a crisis in recruitment and retention.”

Najera’s got a point. Statewide, it’s a seller’s market for police officers, with departments competing against one another as never before for the same candidates. But while current and retired SPD officers claim that this department’s troubles are caused by low morale, inadequate staffing levels and low pay (compared to surrounding jurisdictions), Najera says most of the blame lies squarely at the feet of better retirement plans. “The fact is, people can retire earlier, with more of their pension and that sets up a system where you’re losing experienced officers earlier,” Najera says, adding that it doesn’t help the retention situation when surrounding jurisdictions like Folsom and Roseville, which are smaller and less demanding, are in the position to offer better pay.

From Reed’s perspective, Najera’s claims don’t ring true.

“You always want more money, especially on this job,” Reed says. “But if you were to chart this on a graph, you’d see that morale would be 75 percent of the problem and pay would be 25 percent.”

Jenest agrees, saying the numbers bear the contention out. “Low morale is caused when you don’t give people the resources to do their jobs,” Jenest says. “It’s caused when calls stack up; it’s caused when the chief won’t tell his officers straight-up, what’s going on.”

Najera does concede that his officers deserve better than what they’re getting in terms of information from and communications with police administration. He also says he agrees that SPD needs to offer its rank-and-file better compensation, commensurate with what other agencies are getting.

“But that people are calling [the SN&R] and telling you that it’s not safe out there concerns me,” Najera says, “because point-in-fact, it’s safer now than it was a year ago. And that’s a tribute to those guys who are out there.”

If that’s the case, why, many officers wonder, are sector sergeants forced to answer calls for service, when their role is to supervise their officers? And why are officers routinely stopped from answering Priority 1 calls because no other officers are there to back them up? And how is it, both veteran supervisors and patrol officers ask, that domestic violence calls and burglary calls often go unanswered for 90 to 120 minutes, as they did last June during graveyard shifts because there were no units available in Midtown?

“It seems like our managers and the people running this city have a very different view of what we’re doing,” one patrol sergeant said. “They forget what it looks like, being in your patrol car, looking at your little computer screen, seeing all those calls pending and feeling so helpless because you can’t go.”

Union president Sanchez says the solution is obvious, and won’t cost the department additional funds. Until patrol is fully staffed at 240 officers, Sanchez says, the department should redeploy 40 officers from the SPD’s problem-oriented policing (POP) unit, which has 80 officers on duty right now. POP officers provide concentrated enforcement in specific areas of town, such as Alkali Flats, that have ongoing problems that have not been addressed by routine patrol.

Such programs as POP have received widespread praise from residents in the affected neighborhoods and from officers themselves who generally feel that their actions within this unit yields longer-term results, therefore decreasing calls for service in those areas. But many of those same officers also say that POP units are best utilized only when patrol is fully staffed.

So far, no compromise has arisen following discussions between Sanchez and both Venegas and Najera on this issue, due to the popularity of the POP program, even when Sanchez suggested POP officers could be redeployed to patrol on a rotating basis, until patrol is fully staffed.

Former Sacramento Police Officer Steve Mauser says Dave Jenest is on target with accusations about patrol staffing being too low.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jenest agrees and points to personal experience with delayed response times as proof, he says, of the need to beef up patrol ranks.

When Jenest first took residence in his neighborhood in 1994, he lived at 1808 H St. Police records confirm that in one month alone in 1995, there were 26 calls for service to the complex. The elderly apartment managers were terrorized, Jenest and residents confirm, and vandalism, drug deals, auto thefts and break-ins were the norm.

“I discovered that I moved into a neighborhood overrun by pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers,” Jenest recalls. “And I heard all of this talk about community policing … but didn’t see evidence of this in our neighborhood. My imagination was struck—how could we sit here in the state’s capital, hear talk of community policing and yet we lived in this crime-infested neighborhood?”

Jenest started his neighborhood watch program and began patrolling the neighborhood almost nightly on his bicycle, which was equipped with a portable laptop computer, cell phone and hand-held scanner. He and others, like fellow neighborhood watch activist Phil Pincombe, would routinely videotape evidence of graffiti, drug deals in progress, shopping cart thefts, as well as other nuisance crimes, documenting everything they saw and logging every time they called police. Jenest says there were numerous times when he made a citizens arrest and there were no police units available to respond.

The atmosphere changed, however, when, during the process of Jenest hosting a national online forum on neighborhood crime issues, a Las Vegas Police captain suggested to him that he seek out his own contacts with SPD street cops, much as he had developed informants in his neighborhood. Unbeknownst to Jenest at the time, Sacramento Police Sergeant Tom Cooper was watching the exchange from his computer. A short time later, Cooper contacted Jenest and the two met.

Within 60 days, calls for service to the complex dropped to two per month—something Jenest attributed directly to Cooper and his patrol officers. “That was key,” Jenest said. “There’s no way we could have done that without their efforts.”

That experience spurred Jenest to continue his efforts when he moved next door and began managing the apartments there.

Darlene Burnett and Debora Quitman, who have lived at Camellia Manors for 11 years and six years respectively, claim the complex is quite different today than it was in 1996, when Jenest took over. Both say their experiences prior to Jenest coming aboard were similar to those of the tenants at 1808 H St. Parents with children in the complex did not feel safe letting them play outside, they say.

Burnett and other tenants credit Jenest’s immediate installation of security cameras at either entrance of the complex, his monitoring of those cameras, as well as his aggressiveness in getting problem tenants evicted, with making their complex not only livable, but also safe.

Through April 1996, Cooper and other officers continued to work with Jenest and his organization, and Jenest felt certain his efforts would continue to be welcomed by both the police, police administration and the City Council. Indeed, in June 1996, then Mayor Joe Serna lauded Jenest’s group during a council budget meeting, holding Citizens’ Community Watch up as a “model program” and asking that Jenest meet with Serna’s staff to provide the same presentation he had just provided to the council.

Three years later, however, after Jenest began to publicly question the chief’s budget priorities relating to the number of patrol officers on the street, both Serna and Venegas began a counter-attack, which included publicly questioning the extent of Jenest’s working relationship with officers.

“I’m sure a few officers … have worked with his so-called group,” Venegas said in May 1999. “Maybe one or two officers … the kind of officers, frankly, that we may be having problems with, the ones who are … feeding him information.”

Those comments, along with an earlier charge made by Venegas that Jenest was operating an illegal security company (a charge that the district attorney’s office refused to prosecute), which stemmed from Jenest’s routine videotaping of neighborhood graffiti, drug deals and other crimes, can still raise the blood pressure of the Midtown activist.

“Chief Venegas has waged a disinformation campaign against our group,” Jenest claimed, “and repeatedly attacked my credibility and impugned my character. This is what you get in this city when you ask the hard questions.”

The SN&R wanted to ask Venegas about comments he has made against Jenest, but was told the chief was out sick for three days and could not return our calls.

But Venegas isn’t the only one who turned on Jenest after initially supporting his efforts. Councilman Steve Cohn, who once said Jenest’s involvement with police had made a positive difference in the community, now claims Jenest is simply “obsessive” and does not understand the “big picture” in terms of police staffing levels.

“I don’t know whether we have a problem or not, and I won’t categorically say that there isn’t a problem,” Cohn says. “But it seems suspicious to me that I’m hearing all these numbers and getting e-mails from the [police union] right now, in the middle of contract negotiations.”

Dave Jenest and fellow Community Watch member Phil Pincombe sift through numerous public records act requests and internal police department memos that the watchdog organization has accumulated over the years in its fight to prove that high-priority calls are going unanswered for too long.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The police union and the city are expected to return to the bargaining table soon, prior to going into binding arbitration in June, where staffing levels, officer redeployment, pay and benefits will be debated.

When Cohn was relayed information contained in many internal documents showing the number of officers exiting the department, the areas of town left uncovered and the constant calls for service which stack up on a routine basis in each sector, Cohn remained non-committal.

“If [officers leaving] is a trend that continues, that would concern me,” Cohn added. “But I’ve been given numbers that show our retention level is better than area agencies. As for the other [numbers] … I always want as much information as I can have, but I never assume I have the full information. It’s not my job as a council member to be the chief of police.”

That answer doesn’t wash with Jenest, who claims that citizens have a right to not only question their government, but to receive answers as well.

“There’s a climate of intimidation when you start asking these questions,” Jenest said. “And this [police] administration and the city has done everything they can to stonewall us.”

It is perhaps telling that Sergeant Cooper, despite his early and ongoing positive working relationship with Jenest, would not return calls from the SN&R.

“The chief has made it clear that anyone who associates with Jenest, or talks about staffing problems, won’t be around much longer,” said one veteran police supervisor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “Venegas has even told Victor Sanchez to distance himself from Jenest,” he added. (Sanchez confirmed the story.)

But the more than 15 officers interviewed for this story—ranking sergeants, supervisors and patrol officers, either on-the-job, retired or about to resign—claimed that Jenest is correct when he says that the lives of officers and the lives of Sacramento residents are being jeopardized by the elimination of minimum staffing levels and the low number of patrol officers on the street.

Both Jenest and officers further contend that Venegas has purposefully misled both officers and city residents in the past, by claiming the department hired 101 new officers in 1998, when, in fact, he simply rehired the same officers whose jobs were supposed to have been cut as part of that year’s city budget, using federal grant money to do so.

Deputy Chief Najera, however, says that while it “doesn’t appear” that the department did a good job of explaining the situation to officers on the street and to the public, what is important to him now is that the department did not have to cut those officers from the force.

But even former City Councilman Rob Kerth acknowledges that while the federal grants did, in fact, save many officers’ jobs that year, the city and the chief were playing a game of semantics when they made the announcement. He also concedes that if the city had not been certain that the feds would approve the grant, the council would have proposed cutting about 50 officers, not 101.

“We all understood what was going on,” Kerth said. “The city, the [federal government] … these weren’t additional cops we were hiring.”

And it is that candor that Jenest claims should have come from the chief and the city at the time.

“If you don’t have enough money to hire additional cops, that’s one thing,” Jenest says. “But it’s quite another to claim you hired 101 new officers, when that wasn’t the case. It’s dishonest, it’s misleading and it’s wrong.”

Jenest has argued for years that numbers coming out of the chief’s office are fudged, hidden and otherwise obscured from public view—whether one is talking about staffing levels, response times or the true number of calls left pending during each shift throughout the city. Many former and current officers back him up, frequently referring to the various numbers coming out of the chief’s office as “purposefully confusing.”

And while even allies will concede that listening to Jenest is often like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hose, so intense is his delivery of his message, no one, save Venegas & Co., questions the veracity of his numbers.

Former cops agree with him, as does, not surprisingly, the union’s Sanchez. But given the fact that the union and the city will enter into binding arbitration this summer to resolve a year-long contract dispute, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the public to wonder just how high the din of unhappy voices would be if a contract that officers liked was already in place.

While Sanchez acknowledges that the lack of a contract contributes to declining morale, he and others maintain that the dispute has little to do with staffing issues, which the department already controls.

“This is about priorities,” Sanchez said. “Management’s priorities versus the priorities of cops on the street. And when you look at the numbers that Jenest and others have, you’ll see the [difference].”

And today, as officers continue to flee the department at an ever-increasing pace and calls continue to go unanswered, it looks like the man who many wanted to dismiss at one time, Jenest, just might be validated in the end.

“There are some people who ignore Dave because of his style,” said Kerth, the former City Councilman who represented the North Sacramento/Del Paso Heights area for eight years, prior to his recent mayoral run. “But that doesn’t make him wrong. The things he’s brought up for years are coming to pass today.”

Added retired patrol officer Steve Mauser: “We in law enforcement often [decry] public apathy and are constantly calling for our citizens to get involved. Well, this is what it looks like. If Dave wasn’t asking these questions, who would be? I think the citizens of [Midtown] should be glad he’s there.”