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November 30, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
Cops and bums

These are trying times for the Eureka Police Department. Members of the force have shot three people dead in the last year, one of them a mentally ill woman and another of them a boy of 16. In all likelihood, the city of Eureka will face expensive and difficult lawsuits in both cases.

At the same time, the department has been losing people in droves, and is unable to keep a full complement of officers on the street. Judging from the stories of good people who have left, morale is miserable. The culture inside the office seems astonishing and self-contradictory. From an observer's point of view, the EPD ethos seems to be that there is a Mayberryish kernel of the city that it is sworn to protect and defend. To protect and defend that kernel, the office is absolutely hopped up to the hilt against anyone who it regards as suspicious -- bums, activists, rowdy teens, even everyday civilians and, sometimes, fellow officers. It's a tense place.

Everyone knows that the status quo inside the agency is absolutely untenable, but there are a few good ideas for what to do about it. In the recent City Council race, only Larry Glass, who was eventually elected, spoke forcefully about the need for serious reform in the way the city polices itself. He said that the city had to find a way to up police salaries, so as to attract and retain officers. He wanted to see a return to community-based policing. Apart from him, though, everyone else in the race seemed to entirely stake their hopes on the new chief that the city is due to hire in the coming months.

Chief Dave Douglas, who first announced his retirement nearly a year ago, will serve his last day on the job this Thursday (Nov. 30). The city will spend the next few weeks combing over the 20-odd applications it has reportedly received to fill his shoes. And in the meantime, Capt. Murl Harpham, a 73-year-old who first donned an EPD uniform sometime in the '50s, will be taking over as interim chief.

Capt. Harpham has long served as something like the department's mascot. He's a stately old gentleman, a fountain of stories and folklore. He has a sort of magnetism -- several children and other assorted relatives have followed him into the EPD's service. But there's no doubt that he's from a different era, and if you don't want to take my word for it you can point your browser to

The site, developed by a friend and admirer, is a repository of Harpham's old chestnuts about the hookers, pimps, adultery, spousal abuse, venereal disease and moonbat hippies he's encountered in 50 years of service to the city. (Somewhat incongruously, the site also contains two stirring paeans to Ronald Reagan.) You'll never guess what happens when Murl and his partner set up a pal from the lumber mill to run a sting on a well-known local whore! You'll thrill as Murl and his partner go "undercover" with some UFO freaks! Your gut will bust when Murl pretends to throw a beaker of his own piss into a suspect's face!

It could be your last chance to get a flavor of what it was like back in the day. Depending on who the city hires next.

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Meanwhile, while down in Willits for the Thanksgiving holiday our eyes were drawn to an extraordinary story in the local rag, The Willits News. In the Nov. 22 edition of that bi-weekly paper (a sister to our Times-Standard, by the way) reporter Claudia Reed, in a story entitled "Transients left damage, moved on," recapped what was apparently a weeks-long occupation of that town by what appears to be a battalion of hobos dispatched from the Arcata Plaza.

"Down came the rain and washed the people out -- at least the young people with backpacks and dogs visible on Willits sidewalks and park grounds over the last month," Reed begins. "That they came here at all at the beginning of the rainy season, rather than in the easy-living summer, has most people convinced they were hoping to help harvest and consume the county's most famous agricultural product."

It seemed extraordinary, but a quick poll of locals conducted over the cranberry course confirmed Reed's reporting. A wave of "transients" or "travelers" or "frees," most of them young-ish, had descended on Willits in October, spare-changing all over town and "camping" in parking lots, etc. And then, all of a sudden, they had left. Among other eye-opening facts, Reed's story noted that the local free kitchen served "twice to three times the usual number of meals when the wandering bands arrived in town."

Willits, as the cliché goes, is a town of contrasts. It's half Fortuna, half Arcata. On the one hand, it's a town where the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club reign supreme. The local gentry -- including many assimilated hippies -- are just about as conservative and small-town-minded as can be. At the same time, Willits is the southern tip of the true heart of the Emerald Triangle, and serves as the capital of the hardcore marijuana belt that extends up to southern Humboldt.

Still, it seems hard to believe that anyone could be quite so stupid as to believe that growers would hire homeless people off the street to clean their weed. But the timing is hard to argue with, and Reed quotes the city's police chief, Gerry Gonzales, as saying he had received first-hand confirmation of the travelers' alleged motivations: "At least one openly said he was here to trim dope. He was lured here for that, but he was surprised he was not securing employment or free dope."

So, if the demographic stereotype does happen to be true, and if any Arcata "free" who made the trek south happens to be reading this, take a tip from Reed: You're not going to get hired, you lunkhead.

"Another fact the young people may not have realized is that most large-scale marijuana farms are part of a major, unregulated, for-profit industry, often making full use of contaminating pesticides and armed guards," she writes. "Those hired for labor in such an industry are likely to be chosen for their ability to work hard, remain alert and keep their mouths shut. Backpackers eating at food banks and sleeping in parks are not in great demand."



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