The woman had lived in Fortuna long enough to appreciate a few things about the place. It was cheaper than most other Humboldt towns. Sunny. Neighbors were mostly great. But she hadn't been there long enough, apparently, to feel she was Fortuna-to-the-bone.
Perhaps she was too liberal, the woman mused, standing on the sidewalk in front of her house talking to a couple of out-of-towners. But ... what was it with this town and its police?!
"Fortuna loves its cops!" she said, her tone implying this didn't seem quite healthy. Every time one cop pulls someone over, she said, here comes another one for backup. Then they have that dog everyone makes such a big deal over, Zorro, the police K-9. And now the city was spending $2 million on a new police station. Two million dollars! For this small town!
It does make a person wonder: Is Fortuna the best place in Humboldt County to be a cop?
It's pretty conservative -- conservatives like cops, right? And of all the Humboldt places, more cops and their families live in Fortuna, per capita -- including many who don't work there. Fortuna PD office manager Robin Paul surmises that, ahem, they enjoy a quiet, safe town as much as anybody.
But liberals can like their cops, too. Arcata Police Lt. Ryan Peterson says the city treats his department very well. Good pay. Good benefits, including retirement health insurance. The city even throws a big Christmas party every year for all city workers.
Obviously, it all depends on how you define "best." Pay's one measure. Action, or lack of, another. Crime rate. Prestige, perhaps.
People outside of law enforcement may only think of the drama when they think of police: The officer-involved shootings or tumultuous leadership issues in Eureka; the officer-involved shooting, even more recently, in Fortuna; a harrowing rescue by a Sheriff's deputy or a big drug bust in Arcata, McKinleyville or SoHum. To a cop, though, law enforcement is also a job, with bosses and salaries and workplace minutia. And like any job, there's a career ladder, whether you want to climb it or not.
We hung out with officers in the busiest (Eureka), quietest (Ferndale) and reputedly best-loved (Fortuna) departments to ask how they see their workplaces. What are the rungs on a Humboldt cop's career ladder?
It was Friday in July. Inside Eureka Police Department headquarters on Sixth Street, Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez was nearing the end of his shift. Reyna-Sanchez has been with the department since February 1999. A burly, tall, imposing man who knows his bald head and bushy dark moustache intimidate people, he grew up watching "Adam-12" and "CHiPs" on television, and wanting to be a police officer. He worked in construction first, and was 32 by the time he entered the College of the Redwoods police academy. His aim was to get on the state highway patrol, but there was a hiring freeze. So he started in Eureka. It's just where he wants to be, turns out, even if there is a tad more paperwork than TV Town had led him to believe as a kid.
Eureka is busier than any other department in the county. Earlier, on the phone, interim Chief Murl Harpham -- who's been on the force 55 years -- had told me that Eureka's resident population might be 28,000, but the weekday population swells to 60,000 with workerbees, shoppers and people passing through.
"Just the fact that we're the county seat in the largest city north of Santa Rosa, with a major freeway right through it where you have to stop and go and whatnot, makes our traffic incidents very high," Harpham said. "We're No. 1 in a lot of areas you don't want to be No. 1: injury accidents; drunk driving arrests; pedestrians killed. Also, when we get compared to cities our size, usually they're bedroom communities ... their population decreases in the daytime because everyone goes off somewhere else to work. When people come here from other agencies and we tell them what our total calls for service are, and arrests, they can hardly believe it."
Eureka police deal with a lot of transients and drug users. And repeat offenders. Reyna-Sanchez said sometimes he'll arrest the same person three times in one day. "It's never ending," he said. Most of the arrestees belong to the city's resident population of 200-plus parolees, according to Harpham.
Eureka also has more specialty assignments than any other force except the sheriff's: detectives, drug task force, SWAT, school resource officer, Old Town patrol, crisis negotiations, evidence technicians, defensive tactics and more. Eureka is also second to the Sheriff's Department in numbers of violent crimes.
"Two things EPD officers don't say: 'It's too quiet.' And, 'It's getting boring,'" Reyna-Sanchez said. He likes that. "Work finds you. And because it's the county seat, it's where the jail's at -- every bad guy is brought to Eureka [and, often, let out onto Eureka's streets shortly thereafter]. I like feeling like I've earned my money."
A call came in from dispatch: Man down on K Street.
Outside, Reyna-Sanchez opened the passenger door to the patrol car and I got in. He started the engine and headed for the 400 block of K. Nothing. Then, there he was, lying against a wall on the 300 block. "It's Larry," said Reyna-Sanchez. "He's a deaf mute. He gets drunk a lot."
Old Town Officer Drake Goodale, on his police duty bicycle, was already there, leaning over the man and trying to get his attention. Bobbie Barker stood close by, watching: She'd just left work to run an errand when she saw the man lying on the sidewalk, and she'd called the police. Reyna-Sanchez got out of his car and approached. He and Goodale reached down and grabbed the groggy, reeking man by the arms and gently pulled him to his feet. Had he been drinking? Could he walk? The man blinked at them. The officers pointed down the sidewalk and motioned that the man should move along, thataway. He shuffled off.
Barker, watching, looked mad. "The fact this country has people lying in shit ..." she said, choking up. "They were mostly concerned with whether he was drunk or not."
Back in the patrol car, Reyna-Sanchez said the police department's homeless liaison officer, Pamlyn Millsap, who knows sign language, has tried repeatedly to help him.
"He's homeless," Reyna-Sanchez said. "He used to stay at the mission, but he burned that bridge. Pamlyn has gone out of her way to find him housing, and he won't go for it. He'd rather be drunk." If the man had been unable to get up, he added, he would have driven him to the hospital.
Later that Friday night -- when drinking and mischief-making were expected to pick up -- I rode around with Officer Dave Chapman on part of his 4:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift. He patrolled streets and alleys and stopped for long stretches on a small side street intersecting busy Harris to watch for traffic scofflaws. He let them all pass, however -- this shift was one officer short tonight, and he needed to be ready to respond to calls from dispatch. The calls came up on his computer monitor in bursts, and he zipped back and forth across town, covering two of the city's three beats. He talked to neighbors worried about alley-junk thieves, dusted a windowpane for a burgling check-stealer's fingerprints, shined a flashlight into a door-busted barn, backed up other officers on domestic violence and drunk-and-disorderly calls, and took a man with a felony warrant to jail. In one apartment, he listened first to a drunk young man who said his roommates had been abusing him for two weeks, and then to the roommates, who denied it calmly and said he needed to get a job and pay his rent.
Chapman, finding no fresh evidence of abuse, said gently, "You're a grown up. You're not a child. You can move out." He handed him his card and said he was more than welcome to call back when he was sober.
"What we really are, are problem solvers," Chapman said afterward. "That's what I try to do."
There is some frank backroom chatter among the agencies about who's "better." Or more cautious. More respectful. More clean cut. Or something.
"I've heard that Fortuna police officers are frowned upon if they pull their gun," said Eureka officer Reyna-Sanchez. "The town wants them to appear nice." Even bad guys had told him that.
"Eureka cops are trained to be gun-ready," said former Eureka officer Bob Martinez, who now works in Arcata where, on his first incident call, he shocked his new colleagues by whipping his gun out of his holster.
"Arcata allows goatees -- not professional," said Eureka Old Town patrol officer Goodale. (The Sheriff's department, Rio Dell, Ferndale and HSU allow them, too, actually.)
During a brief period under former Eureka Chief Garr Nielsen -- who came in on the heels of officer-involved shooting scandals and was fired in the wake of yet more turmoil -- the Eureka uniform policy became so loose one officer called it an "anyform" policy. "With Chief Nielsen, he allowed ball caps, knit caps and alternate uniforms," said Reyna-Sanchez. "We joked about it, that it could be anything as long as you had a badge on." Now, as before the Nielsen moment, Eureka officers wear the LAPD-blue uniform and no balls caps, earrings, visible tats or goatees.
Rio Dell, meanwhile ... "Their uniform is tactical black pants, and a load-bearing vest on the outside; at a patrol level, it looks kind of goofy," said Reyna-Sanchez.
He also called Rio Dell a "starter PD." "It's where a lot of people go who can't get a real job," he said. "It's Mayberry. But there's a lot of crime in Rio Dell, too."
Goodale, who got his start in Rio Dell in 1991 and spent one year there on the county drug task force, said Rio Dell was "inundated with methamphetamine and unemployment." But he agreed it's a "starter PD" -- and added Ferndale and Fortuna to the starter list. And he was born and raised in Fortuna; initially, he wanted to work there, but he kept testing lower than other candidates. After Rio Dell, he jumped to much-busier Arcata in 1994. He was there 14 years before finally making it to Eureka -- the perfect place for an action junky.
"Arcata was fun. It's a lot of peace, love and tie dye and question-authority people, and East Coast kids for who it was their first time away from Mommy and Daddy," Goodale said. "Little Berkeley North. Being a redneck Republican from Fortuna, after 14 years it was time for a change from the People's Republic of Arcata."
Eureka, said Goodale, has a higher level of professionalism. "Higher knowledge by officers in the field of law enforcement," he said. "Rank and structure are more professional."
Eureka's the place, Reyna-Sanchez said, where within two years you become well-versed in taking any kind of report: homicide, robbery, rape, embezzlement. Which makes Eureka officers prime for plucking by bigger departments out of the county.
"We're all a starter agency for someone -- Eureka for Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa for San Francisco," said Arcata cop Martinez, laughing.
And the county Sheriff's Department here is a feeder for other counties, said Sheriff Mike Downey. "People come to Humboldt for certification, and then leave. Three to four left in the last six months because they're going back where they came from."
Sometimes, though, they flee in the other direction.
Officer Chapman, from my Eureka ride-along, grew up in a tiny Sierra town. After five years in the military, four years getting his criminal justice degree at Chico State, and 2½ years with the Oakland Police he applied everywhere in Humboldt. The Sheriff's Department was hiring, and he jumped. And when a position came open on the Eureka force-- at a time when the sheriff was doing budget-related layoffs -- he took that. The pay was better than at the sheriff's, but worse than Oakland's. But pay isn't what motivated him. It was stability, and country life. "I make about half the pay here as I did in Oakland, and the cost of living is about the same," he said. "Being able to have kids in good schools, being able to go to the ocean and the redwoods -- to me, that's priceless."
So one officer's comfy Mayberry is another officer's dreary Mayberry. It's all relative.
Rio Dell Police Chief Graham Hill smarts at the notion that some consider his small-town agency a "starter PD."
"That is a terrible assessment of the Rio Dell police department," he said. He's worked in Rio Dell since he got out of CR's police academy in 1995, and he's been chief since 2004. "It's not a fair characterization. We've had people here with 17, 10, nine years of experience. Our least experienced employee has been here 2½ years, and has no plans on going anywhere."
Arcata Officer Martinez, who's a hostage negotiator, said one time he assisted Rio Dell officers with a barricaded subject. "And they handled that incident so well," he said. "They were professional and thorough and patient."
As for that ballistic vest worn on the outside of the uniform in Rio Dell? It's to protect officers' backs, people. "If you look at a lot of complaints of injuries with police officers over the years, it's their lower back," said Chief Hill. "I think it has to do with the heavy belt and the weight around your waist. You have the option of transferring that equipment up to the vest, and that shifts the weight to your upper body. It also makes it convenient because we're on call -- if you're leaving your house in a hurry, you can throw that vest on quickly."
And, hey, what's wrong with a goatee? asked Lt. Ryan Peterson, whose been with the Arcata police since 1999, and was in Blue Lake and the Bay Area before that. "Sometimes we hear, 'Arcata, they're touchy feely,' or, 'We're in our own little world'. All that is a misperception. What's wrong with touchy feely? What's wrong with compassion? We have a tough job to do."
Arcata is a progressive city, said Officer Martinez, who was also once a radio show host. More labor friendly than, say, Eureka. "We all work together," he said. "We have a Christmas party every year for the entire city." And, he thinks, Arcata cops are trained to be more patient -- handy with the rowdy plaza bar scene, where people want to fight.
Officers in every agency claimed that theirs offers professional, personal service to the people they've sworn to serve and protect.
Beyond that, there are daily differences. The really big agencies offer more options to specialize. The sheriff's department has dozens of different positions: in the jail, in marijuana eradication, in the boating division, or even in the boondocks as a resident deputy. Before he became sheriff, Downey patrolled in Shelter Cove and in Garberville; it took him a while to be accepted. With the huge landscape the Sheriff's Department covers, it can take a long time to get to a call, and a deputy usually can't get backup. The upside is lovely climate change: "Working the McKinleyville beat, you're driving the beach where there's fog, and within 15 minutes you're in Blue Lake where there's 75-80 degrees," Sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight said. "And, [unlike those city patrol cops], you don't go crazy driving in circles."
I have a confession: I almost fell asleep in Officer Jason Hynes' patrol vehicle.
It wasn't his fault; he was interesting enough, answering questions about himself and the job. Possibly I'd mis-timed my ride-along. Earlier, a little after 5 p.m., Officer Paul Diaz had given me a tour of the newly renovated little Ferndale police station on Berding Street -- the new, dark red carpet; a new lobby (to replace a locked door) with a phone where a person can walk in during closed hours to call the dispatcher over in Fortuna. Ferndale PD is doing all right. Seventy percent of the general fund is devoted to it. It has four officers and three volunteer reservists. Diaz showed me the small evidence room (one of Officer Hynes' domains) with its tower of lockers; the hallway where the update report folders hang on hooks beside the dogcatching noose. Yes, he said, Ferndale police chase loose dogs. Help wounded deer. And they used to go after loose cows, but now they refer those calls to the CHP.
Diaz had also told me that they all wear black uniforms now -- had switched to them when the Eureka Police wore black, too, and then Eureka went and switched back to blue. Sigh.
Then he'd turned me over to Officer Hynes, at about 6 p.m., first briefing him on a call from someone in public works who'd caught kids partying behind the old gray barn at 8:30 in the morning. With a six-pack of beer. "He thinks he scared them this morning, at about 8:30, because he heard them running down the creek," Diaz said.
"At 8:30 this morning?" Hynes had repeated. "With beer?"
Hynes and I got into his Crown Vic. He grabbed a tuning fork and whacked it on the dash board then held it to the radar gun to check its calibration -- whinnNNNNNE, it went, as the red number on its digital screen fluttered up to "65." He steered out of the small paved lot -- flanked by a grassy area and dumpsters, lures for deer and cats -- and drove up the main drag toward the city park. Cruised slowly alongside the park. Turned and headed down Berding, passing the police station. The radar gun whined as a car approached and passed. Hynes picked up his Kenwood radio mic, called dispatch: "Fortuna 4Paul1," he said (his call sign). She repeated that and said, "Go ahead." He asked her to check a license plate number. She ran it. Nothing to report.
It was a gray evening, and the big barns in the green fields opposite the fairgrounds were like oil paintings framed in the car windows as we passed. People well into their post-dinner routines rode bikes, jogged, walked the dog. A man, on foot, waved as Hynes passed. He waved back. Same thing happened with a little boy stopped at a corner on his bike.
"I get along with a lot of the people here," he said. "Even the ones I've arrested. As the saying goes, they wave with all five fingers here." Diaz had made the same joke.
Hynes is one of those quintessentially square-jawed, fit cops, not the also-quintessential soft and round ones. He has blue eyes and boyish looks, though he's in his 40s. He grew up in the Bay Area. Worked odd jobs: real estate, hardware store, helping autistic kids. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, he wanted to be a cop.
"Corny as it sounds, I like helping people," he said. "Plus, there were some things that went on in my past, and to some friends of mine. And then 9/11. Everything happened at once."
Six and a half years ago he went to College of Redwoods' police academy. He was 35. His plan was to work a few years in Humboldt County, pay his dues, then scat. He's been working in Ferndale ever since.
But he lives in Eureka -- more action there. "Ferndale streets roll up at 8 or 9 o'clock," he said. "Too quiet for me."
We were on the other side now of the one-square-mile Ferndale PD turf. Turning at the Williams Creek and Grizzly Bluff intersection, driving a country lane across the open fields.
"You go to Ferndale to get your post certificate," he said, meaning the intermediate certification that follows the basic one from the academy. "It's really a stepping stone."
But he's stuck here, he said, because of the economy. It's a buyers' market -- who are you going to hire? The guy from Ferndale, or the seasoned cop from, say, the bankrupt city of Bell, in Southern California. Even the Eureka PD was getting applications from those big-city refugees from layoffs.
He doesn't want Eureka, though, either. He misses his family, and the Bay Area. "I like a little smog, a little noise," he said.
Ferndale's a sweet town. His favorite moments have been helping a kid retrieve his lost bike and a couple find their lost camera. There's a lot of community service work like that -- every night, someone patrols through town and checks to make sure businesses are locked. But the action, if any, is mostly DUIs. And many of those, oddly, happen in the daytime.
The radar gun whined -- higher for a fast car, lower for a slow car. Mesmerizing. Once, startlingly, Officer Hynes pulled a guy in a big maroon truck over for darting unsafely in front of another car. They chatted a while. He came back and ran the guy's license through dispatch. Went back and said, "Have a good night."
The guy had told him that he was distracted by the patrol car and didn't see the other car coming. Hynes accepted it. The guy wasn't a repeat offender.
And it was back to cruising, circling the city, looking for cell-phone-using drivers, waving at people. Daytime, it turns out, is the busier time in Ferndale. Everybody is out and about then.
I started nodding not quite two hours in. Hynes understood.
He is planning to leave Ferndale soon for the Bay Area or somewhere farther south, even if he doesn't get a cop job.
"I will move out of here within the next couple months," he said. "I'll flip burgers, anything."
OK, but if he did stick around here? "I'd want to work in Fortuna," he said. It has just the right amount of calls for service versus community service type duties.
Turnover and change plague some agencies more than others. Sheriff Downey said that even with dozens of frozen positions, he's constantly in a hiring mode as officers retire, leave the region or move to higher-paying local agencies like Eureka and Humboldt State. Officer Diaz, who's been in Ferndale since 2005, said he's been through three chiefs already. He admits his agency is a training ("starter") agency. Other officers have gone to Rio Dell, and to EPD. He's sticking around -- it reminds him of the small town where he grew up in southern California.
"If I was in it for the money, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Eureka Police Department, meanwhile, is feeling a bit flush these days, since voters passed Measure O last November, a sales tax that boosts funds to public safety, among other things. It's currently hiring to fill three vacant positions. And it's getting fancy cameras for its patrol cars.
Rio Dell, recently restructured under a budget crisis, laid off three officers and the records specialist, leaving it with four officers and a chief. The officers remaining got raises to bring them in line with comparable departments. In Arcata, turnover is pretty low, said Lt. Peterson, and most people who leave are retiring.
In Fortuna, said office manager Robin Paul, not much has changed other than Chief Kris Kitna's retirement last year and William Dobberstein's promotion to chief. And the city lost its school resource officer position. Oh, and Fortuna is getting that new police station -- half of which, she noted, would actually house the Public Works Department's fleet. And it just ordered two new patrol units. They'll arrive in September and will be traditional black-and-whites, but not Crown Vics -- Ford's not making them anymore for police work.
And Fortuna is still raising money to keep that dog, K-9 Zorro, on the beat, after cutting it from the regular budget and asking for donations instead. The dog unit was budgeted at $21,500 last year, including $10,000 in overtime for handler Sgt. Jason Kadle. This year the city wants to raise at least $25,000 to keep the team going.
Midway through Rodeo Week in Fortuna, on an evening when every resident seemed to have descended on Main Street, burgers cooked, cotton candy wound around sticks, and a police-staffed dunk tank drew a crowd.
The tank was a fundraiser for Zorro.
Three generations of Fortuna Sullivans -- Jessica, Lindsey and baby Scarlett -- smiled as Chief Dobberstein reported for his dunkings.
"I can't believe the dog costs that much," Jessica kept saying.
Still, she feels safe in Fortuna. She laughed, and nodded at all the police officers standing round, some in drenched gym shorts and uniform tops. "I grew up with a lot of these kids' parents and some of the older cops."
"Once you're here, you never leave," Lindsey said. "Which makes you feel pretty safe with the cops, because we know them. They're committed to the community because this is their home."
It's true -- most of the Fortuna Police officers were born and raised in this city.
On the other side of the dunk tank audience, Fortuna Officer Tim Dias stood amid some of his fellow officers. Dias turns out to be a textbook example of someone struggling to calibrate his position in local law enforcement. He was a logger for Pacific Lumber for 20 years, until he got laid off. Then he retrained at CR to be a police officer. He started in Rio Dell, where he figured he could regain social skills he'd lost "talking to trees" all those years. The pay was still low back then, so after four years he moved up to Eureka -- where he lasted three months.
"I liked the more Mayberry of Rio Dell," Dias said.
So he went back there for a year. And then, seeking better pay again, and a little more action, he moved over to Fortuna. He's been on the force five years.
So maybe Fortuna is one man's happy medium; just enough action, just enough money. But that doesn't mean it's "the best." Right?