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Late Shift: What Eureka's Police Officers See After Dark 

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Photo by Mark McKenna

Wednesday May 30, 2018, 8:30 p.m.-2 a.m.

Ride along with Sgt. Leonard La France and K9 officer Vex.

The E-watch shift starts with a briefing at 8:30 p.m. Sgt. Leonard La France addresses the three officers sitting at a narrow conference room table: Raymond Nunez, Matthew White and Elliott Aello.

Bald with an easy smile, La France has a decade on the three officers under his charge. A career government employee, he worked for the United States Forest Service for seven years before joining the Eureka Police Department in 2007. He was 28 at the time, older than most new recruits, and was promoted to sergeant in 2017. He works alongside his K9 partner, "Vex," a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois.

The briefing starts with a list of missing people and stolen vehicles: Be on the lookout for a white 2010 Buick LeSabre; a juvenile missing since Monday, wearing a green sweatshirt and black shorts; the name of a man who ran away from Crestwood Behavioral Health is familiar to the officers; they all sigh. La France mentions seeing a woman they contact often, saying she is now pregnant, and the men sigh again.

Nunez spent part of the previous night getting an arrestee medically cleared at the hospital — a duty that, according to La France, officers performed 2,100 times in 2017. In that same year, according to Chief Steve Watson, EPD officers made 3,424 custodial arrests, more than double the totals of the Arcata Police Department (1,568) or the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office (1,555). The rapid pace of an average shift, the ability to interact with a large number of people and proactively police what — population wise — might in other locales be considered a sleepy town, has been touted as a recruitment tool for would-be EPD officers. Retention is an ongoing issue and the majority of officers have been with the agency fewer than five years. They work 10- and 12-hour shifts, depending on the day of the week, rotating through A (morning-afternoon), C (afternoon-evening) and E (evening-early morning) watches for four months at a time. According to Watson, the current schedule takes 22 officers and five sergeants to fully staff (excluding special assignments), but vacations, sick leave and training mean the agency is frequently unable to fully staff its watches.

The E Watch officers claim their beats, with some gentle ribbing of Aello who, once again, volunteers to cover Beat Three on the quieter east end of town. La France will be circling the city with Vex in the back of his car, offering backup to officers when a call comes into dispatch. Within 10 minutes of the shift starting, one does. Officers on C Watch are in a high-speed chase with two motorcyclists. The officers pick up and go, jogging lightly to the line of patrol cars waiting in the corp yard. Vex whines with excitement as his master jumps in the driver's seat and starts the engine. Most police dogs last about five years in the job; Vex has been with the force since 2010 and is scheduled to retire next year.

"He's by far the best employee at EPD," La France says. "He's always happy to come to work."

click to enlarge Sgt. La France and K9 officer Vex. - PHOTO COURTESY OF EPD
  • Photo courtesy of EPD
  • Sgt. La France and K9 officer Vex.

The motorcyclists have been stopped and are being cited by the time La France arrives on scene at Jacobs Avenue so he cruises by without stopping, then turns back onto U.S. Highway 101 southbound to drive down Third Street, where many people camp in front of the St. Vincent de Paul dining facility. La France is taking a course online toward his bachelor's degree in criminal justice management and currently working on a paper about homelessness and drug addiction.

"A lot of crimes get blamed on the homeless but they're a small subset of that population," La France says. "We never get calls down to the [Eureka Rescue] Mission."

La France says he's not oblivious to the frustrations of Eureka residents. He monitors various social media pages to get a tenor of the conversation, Facebook pages like Operation Safe Streets, Take Back Eureka and Humboldt Crackheads, on which users post photos of homeless people and alleged criminals with their criticism.

"How much is social media impacting people's beliefs?" La France muses.

The next call is to assist Nunez and White at a jaywalking stop across from McDonald's on Fourth Street, where transient people often sit and cross the street against traffic.

The officers are talking to two men and a woman pushing a small bike toward a dark alley near the intersection.

"How are you doing tonight?" La France asks as White checks the jaywalkers' identification. They say they're good. La France asks them where they're staying. He recognizes one of the men, a regular on the arrest sheets who had recently gone into treatment at Waterfront Recovery Services. The man says he was clean for a month but didn't have aftercare in the clean and sober house he was released to. La France asks if they have looked into the Eureka Rescue Mission or Betty Chinn's program. They seem noncommittal.

"Officer White is citing you for jaywalking," La France explains. "And you need to get a light for your bicycle. Just like a car, you need to obey all traffic laws."

The woman is in good spirits. She tells the officers she saw a police officer speeding while talking on his phone recently. She laughs. Nunez laughs, too. White hands them the citations.

Something catches La France's eye in front of McDonald's.

"Is that Paula?" he asks Nunez. "She got a new haircut."

"She got a haircut in jail," Nunez says.

La France gets back in the car, where Vex is whining, ready to work. He cruises down Broadway, up Harris Street, down the sleepy backroads near Sequoia Park. Occasionally a raccoon or cat will skitter across the street and Vex will bark. The dog responds to commands in German and English, but on these occasions La France will use his lone French command: "Vex, ferme la bouche!" Shut up.

It's rare that La France will send Vex into the dark. It takes time to "prepare him for success," as La France puts it, to suit him up in his bulletproof vest. And if La France needed to take a shot, it would be hard to do so without putting his dog at risk. (La France has never fired his gun in the line of duty.) There are strict parameters about when to use dogs but, more often than not, their mere presence is enough to make a suspect give up. (Vex has a surrender rate of 94 percent.) At the end of the work day — or night — he's a family dog, going home with La France where he keeps company with a Boston terrier and rescue pitbull. He will remain in the La France household post retirement.

A call comes in: a domestic dispute at a local motel. When La France arrives, Nunez and Aello are already there, talking to a woman inside the motel room, the door open. Her boyfriend stands outside in a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts, smoking a cigarette.

"I saw some things on her phone that upset me," he tells the officers.

"Do you need to go across the street and get a milkshake and calm down?" Nunez asks him.

"No," the man says, "I'm calm. You're not going to hear from me again."

"OK, so we're not going to be back here tonight?" La France reiterates.

"No sir," the man says. "Because if you are, that will mean I failed."

The officers radio in that they've finished, return to their vehicles and drive off in different directions.

It's close to midnight when dispatchers report a potential kidnapping: Eyewitnesses saw a female being pulled into a green Subaru in front of the abandoned K-Mart. La France heads south. The other officers are checking the main drags in other parts of town. No luck.

Another call: A woman screaming on Pine Street. When La France arrives on scene, White and Nunez are already there. La France stops briefly to talk to a quartet of young men smoking cigarettes on the front porch of a neighboring house. He hails one, who knows him from sight, and asks how work on the fishing boats is going.

"Good, it's packing season now," he replies.

"How's your mom doing?" La France asks.

The kid shrugs.

"Not good, huh? Oh well, you're doing good anyway," La France says.

"It sounds like someone is getting murdered over there," the young man says.

La France says his goodbyes and finds the open gate to the backyard where Aello and Nunez are standing, trying to calm down a wailing teenage girl sitting on a low stone wall. Two other teenage girls stand by, repeating her name as an elderly woman hovers, smoking a cigarette.

"You're so fucking stupid," the crying girl is telling Nunez. "I'm telling you all I want to do is see my best friend and now I'm in trouble for nothing."

"You tried to jump out of the car on the highway," says one of the other girls, her sister, it turns out.

Nunez sidebars with La France: "She was saying something about her mom and her dad, this is her grandmother's house here."

The girl's wailing increases in volume. Her mom punched her and her stepdad sat on her, she insists, that's why she ran away.

"I just want to go see my friend but she's mad at me because the police came," she says.

"You need to give her some space," her sister says.

"She's my best friend and I am going to see her," the girl howls. She goes into the house and slams the door.

The officers piece the story together. The girl ran away from her parents' house and her sister and friends drove up and down Eureka until they found her, taking her to her grandmother, who is her legal guardian.

"Is that your car?" Nunez asks the sister, pointing out to the street. She affirms. It's the green Subaru.

"Can she stay with you for the night?" La France asks the grandmother. She says yes but adds that if the girl leaves again, she's not well enough to "chase her down."

The girl storms back out.

"Cops are fucking stupid, they don't do shit," she says.

"Are you going to stay here?" Nunez asks. "Grandma, if she leaves, will you call us?"

"I'm not going to wait a second. I will call you," the grandmother confirms.

"I'm not fucking staying," the girl says, louder now.

Nunez raises his voice to a place just short of exasperation: "Stop. Yelling."

She does, going inside and slamming the door again. Her grandmother extinguishes her cigarette with a sigh.

La France returns to Vex and his patrol car, taking a call about a vehicle prowler on I Street. The suspect is wearing dark clothes and could be anywhere on the side streets, in the shadows. The sergeant cruises and looks. Vex whines.

click to enlarge EPD officer Raymond Nunez searches a backpack in the WinCo parking lot. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • EPD officer Raymond Nunez searches a backpack in the WinCo parking lot.

The hardest part about being a cop for a long time, La France says, is that you lose a lot of the optimism that brings you into the profession in the first place. Every corner of the city, every street, gas station and parking lot holds reminders of when you found someone bleeding out, dying of an overdose or hit by a drunk driver, past saving.

"We want wins, but we're working in a world where there are no wins," La France says.

It's almost 1 a.m. when a call comes over the scanner directing the officers back to Pine Street. The girl has crawled out of the window of her grandmother's house and run off again, back out into the dark. Nunez intercepts her and sends her back to grandma's house once again.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 8:30 p.m.-12 a.m. Ridealong with officer Matthew White

Briefing starts with the usual list of persons and vehicles to watch out for. La France is a few days away from rotating off the E Watch and happy about it. He asks Nunez to share some details from a foot pursuit the night before, to break down the "good points and the bad points."

It was around 10:40 p.m. Nunez had recognized a vehicle belonging to a felony warrant suspect Daniel Langevin parked at a gas station on Harris and California streets, and thought he recognized Langevin going into the store. He ran the plate and called dispatch for information. Langevin was considered to be armed; Nunez said that if he had known that he would have made a different decision.

"He exits and I recognize him and at this point I think I should radio in," Nunez tells the officers.

Instead he got out of his car and initiated contact with Langevin, who bolted. Nunez followed, jumping over a wall and chasing him south down Pine Street. The two men scuffled on a residential lawn, with Nunez losing his radio and bodyworn camera in the process.

"All they could hear in dispatch was a 'click, click, click,''' says La France, who had sped to the gas station to find Nunez's empty cruiser. La France got out of his vehicle and listened, hearing the nearby struggle as Langevin yelled, "I'm not resisting."

"It was pitch black out there," says La France. "I wouldn't have found you if I hadn't gotten out of my car and listened."

Nunez says Langevin grabbed his head and reached for his duty belt.

"So this is active resistance," La France says. He asks, "What's on your duty belt?"

"Lots of weapons," Nunez says.

"You're literally by yourself, in the darkness, trying to get away," La France says.

"If I had known he was armed and dangerous, I might have done it differently," Nunez admits. The officers choose their beats again, with White choosing Beat 1 on the north end of town. He starts his shift by driving Fifth Street and turning onto S to park the cruiser facing southbound toward McDonald's. People tend to congregate there, he says, often crossing in front of passing cars. White likes to be visible where they get a lot of calls for service. He lights up a jaywalking teenager with a bag of burgers in one hand and a cigarette in another but lets him off with a warning.

Originally from the Spokane, Washingon, area, White graduated from Washington State University with a degree in political science with an emphasis in global politics. He studied in Vietnam and traveled with a church group to Chile. He went back to school for his master's degree, again in political science, penning his thesis on Muammar al-Qaddafi's speech patterns in 2011. He had a good job with the Transportation Security Administration, he says, but a friend suggested he try working with the Los Angeles Police Department to "get a little excitement in his life." Working for the LAPD, he says, proved challenging.

"It was very different from where I grew up," he says. "I was raised in a very upper-class neighborhood. I wasn't used to the violence, wasn't used to the hate crimes. It was a very dark time for me."

He says he saw things there that he hasn't been able to talk about to anyone. He likes Humboldt better. Former EPD Chief Andrew Mills made a pitch about the area's quality of life and the community's relative friendliness toward police officers. He liked the pitch and he liked Mills. When he first got here, he carried over some of his old habits, refusing to wave at the California Highway Patrol officers — "In L.A., we hated the CHP" — but since arriving in 2015, he's assimilated. The first time a sheriff's deputy waved at him and he didn't wave back, his trainer asked him why.

"We like the sheriff's office here," the senior officer told him. Now, White waves. He hopes to become a detective after a few years.

A lot of White's beat is traffic — stopping pedestrians, bicyclists without lights, speeding cars. He gave out more tickets last year than any other officer. In grad school he was fascinated by the "broken windows" theory of policing as implemented by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton under Mayor Rudy Giuliani: Take care of the small problems, the broken windows, vandalized cars, subway turnstile jumpers, sellers of loose cigarettes, and you'll take care of a lot of the big problems along the way. In New York, this evolved into Giuliani's controversial "stop and frisk" policy.

White leaves his beat near McDonald's to assist C Watch at the Taco Bell. The subject of the call is familiar to the officers, a 24-year-old man with a family history of drug use and possible mental illness. Both he and his father tend to drift in and out of the system. Tonight he's accused of causing a disturbance and physically assaulting the restaurant manager. When White arrives, he's sitting on the curb, a jumble of wrappers and 2-liter bottle of fruit soda in his lap. One C Watch officer is interviewing the manager, another watches the suspect, who occasionally raises his hands to bat the air. Soon he's in handcuffs and standing, the wrappers in his lap blowing across the parking lot. One officer empties his pockets, putting piles of change on the hood of the police car before transferring them to a paper bag to be checked in at the jail. The man yells, which White says is out of character; he's arrested often but he's usually cooperative. White gets his own paper bag and rubber gloves and picks up the wrappers and the half-empty soda bottle.

"Food and liquids can't go into the jail," he says. "If someone wants us to keep something, though, we'll keep it at the station. Even if it looks like garbage, if he says he wants it, we bag it and mark it."

A lot of items never get picked up; in the corp yard there's a pile of bikes and backpacks and trash bags.

click to enlarge EPD officer Raymond Nunez prepares to arrest a man after he refused to leave the WinCo parking lot. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • EPD officer Raymond Nunez prepares to arrest a man after he refused to leave the WinCo parking lot.

After some time scanning for speeders and a non-citation traffic stop of a man pedaling a bicycle without a back light, White goes to assist officers at WinCo on Harris. The store has complained about a man parked in the lot who has been banned from the store but is refusing to leave. Officers run the name but it's a wobbly call. The suspect has warrants but the offences are merely citable and if he's taken to jail he'll undoubtedly bounce right out. But Nunez makes the arrest anyway, which gives him cause to search the man. Officers find a small baggie of methamphetamine in his hoodie pocket. He puts him in the back of the police car. The suspect, a young man with wide, red eyes, is quiet. Nunez begins methodically searching his car. In a backpack on the backseat there's a kit with a white bandana, a strap, a needle, a spoon and a condom. Nunez tries and fails to get the trunk open. It appears to be jammed. White asks the suspect to tell him how to open the trunk and maybe they can avoid towing the car. The ruse doesn't work. Nunez pushes the seats back, looks in the gasoline reservoir, pops the hood.

"Once I found an AK-47 strapped to the inside of a car hood," Nunez says. After the car is searched, he locks it again and prepares to take the man to jail. It's 10:23 p.m. White predicts that the parolee will probably have a new court date and be back to pick up his car by midnight. (Jail records reflect that he stays until 6 a.m.)

"He was very cooperative," White says, adding that they probably won't tow the car. "He didn't give us any flack, any fuzz."

La France says most of his job is to go around and talk to people; officers working on their own, sometimes with limited back up, need to know how to de-escalate situations. One of the sergeant's most challenging regulars was a very large woman who would periodically get drunk and require a ride to jail. La France would have to subdue her without hurting her or getting hurt. He learned that she liked country music and would play Johnny Cash in his car. Soon she began calling him "Officer Johnny." After about three years, she went to treatment in Redding. Officers agree that wins like this are few. With the co-occurring issues of mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness generating many of their calls, there is little in the way of either carrot or stick to effect real results. Criminal justice reform has largely decriminalized possession of drugs and paraphernalia; offenses that five to 10 years ago might have sent an arrestee to state-mandated treatment now simply slide off with a citation. The resources that do exist are hard to access: Detox has a waiting list, mental health services are often over burdened, simple medical treatment at the local hospital can mean hours of waiting.

White, too, has his regulars, which is why he offers to respond to a call for a woman shoplifting at WinCo, out of his beat. He recognizes her name from previous shoplifting charges. This time it appears that she's being uncooperative with the staff, who allege they have apprehended her with around $50 worth of merchandise.

"Usually she's OK, but she was involved with a theft at the mall recently where she pepper sprayed someone," White says.

By the time he gets there the woman has calmed down. She's waiting with smeared mascara in the bright back room of the store, where two loss prevention employees watch her warily.

"She's calmed down now, we don't want to press charges," one tells White.

"I'm so embarrassed," she says. She'd been clean for almost a month before she returned to Eureka for her court date and fell back in with her old crowd. She doesn't know why she stole, she says, but she's sorry.

"They're saying they're not going to file charges against you, but you need to leave," White says.

"You're not going to file charges?" she repeats, putting two hands over her chest.

"No," one man says.

"Oh, thank you," she says, obviously relieved. "Can I give you both a hug?"

"No," the men say. They open the back door and let everyone into the parking lot. White asks the woman where she's going and if she needs a ride. She appears to think about it.

"I was staying with my cousins but I can't go back there because they're not a good influence," she says. "Maybe I'll go to my friend on McCullens [Avenue] but I don't even know if they're there."

"Can I give you a ride?"

"No, no, I can walk there."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, thank you officer White."

White gets back in his car. Reflected in the side mirror, the woman hesitates on the sidewalk for a minute. She can go east, back to her cousins' house, or south, toward the friends who may or may not be home. Tomorrow she has to find a way back to Southern Humboldt. She looks at the back of the vehicle as though she might change her mind and accept a ride after all. Then she slings her bag over her shoulder and begins to walk south, away from the store and toward where the hazy halogen street lights fade to pitch black.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

"He didn't give us any flack, any fuzz." EPD officer Matthew White

"You're literally by yourself, in the darkness, trying to get away." EPD Sgt. Leonard La France

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Bio:
Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018.

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