Friday, May 20, 2011

Yes, I'm Still Around

Ok, you all know it's been a long, LONG time since I've posted here. I've been entertained by Lt Pata's posts and well, my stuff doesn't even come close! I've had my plate a bit full on both professionally and personally, so the creative juices just weren't "there."

If you've been to any of the courses I've taught, you will here me mention the importance of keeping a life outside of police work; balancing work, family, outside interests and sleep (something, I never get enough of, which is why I'm up at 4am typing this entry!) are important but sometimes work does take over.

If you've been keeping up with what's been going on in the City and Department, you know we've been just a tad bit busy. The people I work with, for the most part, are fantastic. We pull together and get each other through things, good and bad. When things get tough, we get some how dig down and do whatever it takes to get the job done, whatever the job maybe. I've watched co-workers in Patrol, Investigations and CSI, work endless hours. Yes, there have been some bitching and moaning (some much louder than others!) but it's human nature. Bottom line, we know a job needs to get done and well, we take care of business.

It's times like this when work does intrude on our outside lives, whether or not you are directly involved in the investigation or not. So, thank you to the PD families, for understanding as best as they can & for the endless support, thanks to the officers and dispatchers who have had to cover shifts because others were pulled from their primary duties, thanks to secondary employers for understanding that this job needs to come first. I know plans have been cancelled, sleep has been lost, schedules altered and it hasn't gone unnoticed. I know we do things because it's expected of us, it's part of the job and it's just in our natures to step up - but THANK YOU. It's very much appreciated.

Honestly, it has been long couple of weeks for me. Between my regular duties, my volunteer job, the incidents of the last week and training, there's hasn't been a lot of extra time to catch up. But, I can say, this last week has been a great way to re-charge, network, work with a great group of people and exercise the gray matter (yes, I go home more tired after sitting in classes all day than working my 8 hour days at the Aquarium - and it's all physical labor at the Aquarium!). I, along with four other CSI Team members, have commuted back and forth to Napa so we could attend the California State Division of the International Association for Identification's Annual Conference.

I've learned from some of the best during this past week. I'll gladly admit some of the stuff was WAY over my head and above my pay grade and my eyes did glaze over once (or twice) when they were talking chemical compounds and other "stuff." I am coming back with better photography skills, ideas on how to over come some of the issues we run into in the field, and a better understanding of things in general. I've heard fascinating lectures, gone hands on to learn new techniques or test new equipment and have been met some of the most talented and fascinating individuals this field has offer! I need to thank the instructors who gave our team all of the help and individual attention we needed - sometimes, I know, it took a lot of patience and effort on your collective parts but it is much appreciated. Thanks for also letting us borrow your equipment!

Today is our last day in Napa and as I reflect on everything that's gone on, I have to say the best part of the Conference has been the people. I've met some great people from other agencies, gotten to tips from those working in the field and labs, many veterans and some like me, who are still learning. Nothing beats, in my eyes, learning from peers. While I'm very close to some of the team members I went to the Conference with, I think I've gotten to know each of them a little better - learned strengths and weaknesses, both personal and professional. I think this helps us understand each other a bit better and makes us more of a cohesive unit. I know you know this already but Peggy, Lyn, Marc and Lisa, you rock. I am proud to work with you and beside you (and thanks for keeping me balanced!)!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Uncle! Uncle! I give. By Lt. Pata

Living large in Marin County in the 80’s and 90’s was the order of the day. It was all about chemically imported self-indulgence coupled with the usual twist of have and have-nots in a tiny county largely invaded by a new culture.

Marin was all about family, and hard work. Now, arguably, it is still is part of the fabric of our county, but I’m not so sure anymore if it is the primary focus of Marin life. Maybe I’m confusing lifestyle with family life. Of course I could be wrong but when I look back on some of the ridiculous chronicles and portrayals of Marin in movies like “The Serial” or our alleged renown love-affair with hot tubs and massage using peacock feathers it seems like maybe someone (and you know who you are) maybe went a little too far. Now, saying that, I did contribute to the 4-20 culture (allegedly) as a student of San Rafael High School.

Today most of our citizens are well-educated, upper middle class to wealthy folks. Of course, like most places, there is a segment of our world that is underprivileged and probably underserved to some extent.

Marin County is breathtaking. You can be on top of Mt. Tamalpais in 30 minutes from virtually any hamlet in this county. Or you can be at the beach or touring one of the gallery’s in San Rafael’s downtown or maybe having a nice snack at some of our nice little dining facilities dotted all over our downtown. Soon you can barge into the new Marin History - Rock Museum on Fourth Street. Pretty cool.

I am so grateful that I did not get trapped into the new drug culture that many of my pals fell into. I think it was fear and serious injury (from mom and pop) that kept me flying in the right direction. Oh and Catholic guilt works too. Four short years into the job and I was shoulder hair long into it. I was buying drugs but not for my personal anesthesia. I had already developed a serious disdain for drug dealers and a pathetic acerbic pity for the users.

My pals and I were in the right job at the right time. Steeped in DEA, Customs and the FBI we were a fine working machine. I remember in the late 80’s when one of my partners John Donnellan developed a case that got Marin it’s first taste of the drug ICE. Back then that is what it was called. Methamphetamine smuggled in televisions and shipped to the US from the Philippines via Hawaii. It was a cool case, but we had no freaking idea what it was. I think a couple of months later 60 minutes had a story about the new drug explosion to hit the US.

There was also a group of “businessmen” we vigorously applied the Health and Safety Code to who moved over 1000 pounds of meth – but not the stuff you see now. We also found 1 million dollars in cash. The drugs and money were vacuumed packed. These guys were serious professionals and a totally different type of clientele that we were used too. In fact there are not many like that today in our area. We chased these crooks down from Marin to Oakland. We slept in our cars a lot during those days as we switched off the “eye” on surveillance to get our bad guys.

While I lost out on a great relationship with a pretty decent woman during all of this middle of the night stuff, I would not trade it. She found the right guy; of course I wish she had done that sooner than 3 days before our wedding. The 200 folks set up for the wedding coupled with my family flying in from Italy was a little hard to handle, but its amazing what a wifeless honeymoon with a pal, my big brother and the “left at the altar” story can do for a guy in the Caribbean. I am over it. I’ve met her wonderful husband and kids.

What was funny for me was that some of our targets were pretty well off people who sold their souls for money and lifestyle. These people had the cash to live a healthy life, more than a couple was in the music scene. Some I knew. Some you know. I was happy to provide them with the local if not federal vessel to deliver them to a special and secure recording facility of their choice. You didn’t see, read or hear that little tune…but some got there and you never noticed. The downfall of people I run into is really sex, drugs, money and alcohol. I have been disappointed more than a few times from whom I found in massage parlors and in the cocaine aisle of your local illicit grocery outlet. Mom’s, dads of pals I grew up with not to mention a childhood hero or two. Yes, the camera does add 30 pounds and most of the known popular culture types seen on the big screen or on a record cover are way – way smaller than you think. (Relax guys – I don’t kiss and tell.)

Along with the “famous” folks there were local idiots who thought they were Pablo Escobar. I did not mind sending them to prison mainly because they really did prey on those hapless morons who would rather spend their last $20 on a paper bindle of powder than get a sandwich. It was that screwed-up thinking that made narcotics a life consuming struggle for all of us. So in the end, everyone lost really. The dealers went to prison, I lost out on a 3 year relationship, some died of overdose, and some were walking test tubes for vicious STD’s and some ended up on the street. It’s an American tragedy in my eyes. When I look at those who gave up everything for the American dream and see those who have the roadmap in their hand and they wipe their behinds with it.

I remember one group of princes who thought they were the mafia or something. They were maybe 20 or 21 years old. These were the “haves” the kids that drove to high school in their BMW’s. This one crook had an Italian last name, so I guess that was his street cred. I volunteered to sit in the surveillance van while they parked it near these guys at a local bar with a bad reputation. These guys were not stupid, so they decided to start to mess with the van. I wanted to blast holes in the back of the van I was so p#@!d off.

They rocked the van, tried the doors and of course talked loud enough about what they thought was in the van. I remember pulling back the window covers inside so I could get a peek at these guys. As soon as I did I saw this face looking right back at me. Scared the crap out of me. Of course we had the cops drive by and shoo them away. The delivery driver returned and pulled me out of there. Unhappy Ralph made this group a priority. Awhile back I was taught it was ok to lose the battle but win the war. I have lived my life that way and – it works! Eventually, one by one I got my ability to deliver these vultures to a nice secured bed and breakfast.

Think I’m kidding? Ask the kid that kicked my behind and spit in my face while trying to rob me when I was 13. You see us “dark Italians” those with real ancestry to the “Old Country” (less than one generation away) never….ever…forget a good or bad deed. So almost 10 years later when this malscalsono (Italian for something a little dirtier than crook) was riding his motorcycle…without a license, illegally in front of me-I was allowed to re-acquaint myself with him.

I was able to tap into that humiliation and the still sore behind to fairly enforce the law. I never broke a smile, but overdosed him on my syrupy saccharine-laced sympathy for him as I lawfully towed his motorcycle. It was like a spring day for me. The exhaust of the tow truck smelled like an Acacia tree as the fumes swirled and enveloped the motorcycle like the loving arms of God himself on the back of the truck as it drove away. I took a deep breath and left my former assassin on the sidewalk as I drove to a secluded area for the fist-pumping “YES!” I needed and deserved.

I look at my team from the past – a solid group of confederates with solid leadership and I see so many great cops now who fit that mold. I would love to lead a group with the same eccentrics and OCD compulsions with the economy size sense of humor to get into the worst parts of our little community and rock their world.

I’d want the same kind of guys and gals who would terrorize the fire investigators (as we did) early in the 90’s who temporarily occupied an office in our Task Force. I think it was Ken or Doug who tied a string of pull-a-part firecrackers to the shoulder rig (gun thing) of one of the fire guys. So when he picked it up, the rig pulled against the seat it was tied to and made “pop – pop –pop” sounds. I think this guy made a boom in his pants! God I loved it!

There was the very popular bar back in the 80’s and 90’s. This bar was in a central Marin town. Everybody knew it. Night Ranger, Journey, Huey Lewis, the Tubes all of the big bands back then knew it, played there and partied there. I used to go there all the time. I can even recall getting my foot stepped on by the guitar player of the band Night Ranger one night. Of course every rock star wore boots back then – so I needed a nice alcoholic anesthesia to soothe my pain.

The owner of said bar was this pathetic overweight bald guy who wore a hairpiece. This bar was all he had and probably the only connection or at least avenue to a steady staple of young doe-eyed ladies to be in his company, without the benefit of clergy…if you know what I mean. (May he rest in peace)

This guy was dealing out of the bar. Not a shocker, but a serious “no-no.” That was my ticket to shut the place down if I could. Now, I was a little conflicted, because it used to be a cool place to hang out, part of the fabric of our county and many acts got their start there. Actually it was in the Huey Lewis video “The Power of Love” if you want a little walk down memory lane. Was I going to shut down a Marin Institution? Yep. I was. With the help of my pals and an informant.

What’s an institution without captive customers -right? This really nice informant…and I mean it…he was a good guy ended up in our lap after getting busted by an agency for some drug thing. This guy would go on to be a very valuable and plugged in part of the community. I know he slipped – they all do, but I think his embarrassment never left him and made him work with underprivileged kids and families. I admire his turn around. I shake his hand and drop in on him when I can. Talk about a man who rebuilt himself and worked on getting on with the rest of his life. I was proud. I think he was maybe one of two that made it. This guy was not so shy about telling us what we needed to hear and then take it another step to close the deal and testify. He knew like we did, that in order to get rid of your connections, you have to be persona no grata with the criminal world and burn up the bridges behind you.

The pathetic guy that owned the place was more than willing to dive head first into the greed center of his brain when it came to buying and selling dope. The problem with this guy was that he was too stupid to do this for long without some bad things happening to him…like having our unit crash in his front door and when he did not do what the nice armed undercover guys asked – like get on the ground, we invoked the gravity law and tossed him to the ground. Before this guy’s behind hit the floor he was shouting out the name of his connection. Thank you very much. What he did not know was that as we were escorting this guy to the lumber floor, we were also at the connection’s home doing the same to him. Actually he had carpet. I think we gave him a rug burn. (And now a public service announcement: Attention drug dealers. If the nice heavily armed undercover team tells you to get on the floor, it is not a request. It is a profound invitation. Do it.)

While we were able to score lots of cocaine, the connections place was a little more interesting. The Uzi submachine gun and sawed off shotgun were a pretty strong indicator of the type of guy he was. I’ll say it. He was an “Adam- Henry.” (Take the first two letters of each word and subtract the balance.) Seriously. He was an angry, rotten kind of guy who was probably more than willing to “go for it” had he had access to the guns. I still keep a picture of the guns as a reminder of how bad this could have turned out. In the end everyone went to prison and the bar…well I’m sorry America, er at least Marin. It was fun while it lasted, until this someone bought it and turned it into a pharmacy.

The owner of the bar would go on to lose his liquor license, his toupee, his freedom and his steady stream of non-paying female consumer- event coordinators or “personal entertainment consultants.” He would later drop dead of a big heart attack a couple of years later. I wonder if there is a witness protection program in the infernal region? If there is an especially hot part of this place, who would get it, my dealer or his connection? Makes a guy wonder.

That’s it for now! Congratulations to a couple of folks who have done some great things in our area. Congrats to Captain Dave Jeffries for his promotion, to Chief Jennifer Tejada for her first Chief gig in Sausalito, for Chief Erik Masterson (my former partner) for his first Chief Job at Ross PD.

I would also like to send my greetings to our pals (readers) in Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Vietnam, our Dutch readers, our pals in Pakistan, Australia, Germany and the Great USA. I’m sure there is a couple I forgot – I will get ya next week.

Stay Safe. Ralphy,

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In the Nick of time… By Lt. Pata

The police dispatch center is usually the most frenetic and energized section of the department. The men and women that work in this job are, in my opinion, insane (and I mean insanely amazing!). I say that because it is a really hard job. The training program is over a year and these folks are constantly learning and participating in new methods to get us to you in a safe and timely manner. Toss in the calls from people who want to report seeing Elvis downtown and add a healthy dose of people calling for weather conditions in Lake Tahoe and if you are weak minded, you have the recipe for losing your mind.

I have sat in dispatch a number of times and would recommend it for any cop or citizen to see how it works. It is pretty amazing. The front office is also pretty crazy. The difference is the people can actually come in to the front office and engage our expert front office staff face to face. Once I had a guy walk in the office and demand I arrest his wife for adultery. On another occasion I had a former hooker pull a knife on me and slam it into the counter (Cue the “Boing!” soundtrack.) She was arrested, but now has been paroled to the eternal parole officer. (May she rest in peace.)

I worked in the front office as a Cadet and immediately recognized that I was not nice enough or patient enough for both jobs. So to make the world right and undo my past grumpy advice to the world as a Cadet we give you: Margo, Lori, Kelly, Lynn, Gina and Julie. In truth, your “customer service” experience is either their cheery voice on the business line or maybe your nice visit to our facility while waiting in our lounge……err holding tank)

After listening to years of storied calls from my brother and his fellow asylum occupants at the communication center, I can understand the coffee consumption, the nail biting, the foot tapping and all of the other stuff that seems to naturally come with the job. I am surprised they don’t have a large – industrial sized Pez dispenser for stress reducing drugs affixed to the wall. They do, however, have Dispatcher Anndora Lee’s infused water to help wash down the blood pressure pills and aspirin.

I have nothing but respect and attachment to the ladies and my brother because they deserve it…not because they have dirt on me. Well, OK some do! I can’t name them all, but Charly the boss is a saint in my book. Sabrina, Lisa, Shelly all of them are pro’s. Our dispatch center is famous for not having a huge turn over. That speaks of the community, our department, but most of all the people. Of course my respect won’t prevent me from goofing on them.

Imagine taking a call of a shooting and then sending your pals to the call hoping they make it back, so you can all tell a story, or maybe share in an adult beverage one day. The pressure must be debilitating.

One word can make the difference in this dangerous game. Ultimately it is the responsibilities of the officer to self evaluate a call and not get caught in the trap of what I call –reporting party induced coma. The suggested possibility of what something might be is a dirty trick – kind of mental Russian roulette.

Take for example uninformed or unverified perspective…What I mean is a caller might suggest a toy gun from their vantage point. Well, today, real guns look like toy guns. In fact they are partially made of plastic. The mindset going into that call is so important, and while we don’t disregard a dispatch – we have to make a mental call based upon what we think – not upon the message from a caller who may have never seen a gun before in their life. I can only imagine the years ticked off their humble and valuable dispatch lives from the internal inertia coupled with the caustic shot of gastric acids working over their stomach-lining like a pinball bouncing off the metaphorical bumpers of their gastrointestinal system. Add a gallon of coffee-chugged earlier to stay sharp and viola - Peptic Ulcer!

Our dispatchers are the mice on the wheel of our department. I say that respectfully because, while their equipment is good, their conditions are not so luxurious. Their room is a cave. It is as pleasant as we can make it, considering they are underground with no windows and essentially trapped like rats in a small room. I used to joke that we needed to buy a canary in a cage and leave it in the radio room as a poor man’s air quality monitor. The room is outfitted with all kinds of radios, phones, LCD and plasma screens that operate surveillance cameras in our back lot that make it look like NASA or NORAD. I guess the cameras are really a version of a window.

Cops are afraid of the dispatch center. I am. Imagine the insertion of stress via a plastic tube carrying the screams, crying, whining, at times angry and incoherent pleas, transported from the radio plug - directly into your brain. All of this happens for twelve hours a day and its piped directly into their ears and therefore their lives each time that freaking phone rings. What will the next call bring? Birds chirping keeping a resident awake? Maybe a shooting or stabbing? Will it be the desperate call for help in the middle of the night when mom or pop does not return from the toilet as they lay on the cold floor as their life leaves them, pulse-less. Maybe it’s the child that won’t wake up.

Imagine being a dispatcher and being off duty. I would never answer the phone at home. I’d send it all to the answering machine and then when the phone rang at home, I think I’d do the wave with my family. I would be willing to bet none of our dispatchers have called and asked for weather conditions at their local police department.

Those calls for help do not come easy for some. It is an admission that there is a problem our clients can’t resolve. It is an agonizing realization that maybe their marriage should not be abusive and painful, or that my loved one should have come home or called days ago…or a mother’s worry that their child is on the street surviving the very best way they know. Our dispatchers and front office staff are the perfect reception center for these worried and desperate folks, programmed for all of it, but rarely do they ever get to see or hear the result. Very often they never hear a thank you. It’s like reading a book or watching a movie and never getting the opportunity to finish the book, or finish the movie. How much could it suck to constantly be the person that initiates the delivery of help, but never see the outcome? It would drive me crazy. It is like your mom turning off the TV before you get to see who committed the crime or who got the girl...on every show…every night.

Cops get to go to the scene and fix the problem, even if it is just to hold a hand and maybe share a quiet cry. The dispatchers are left in a lurch. They sit on the edge of their chair literally between life and death. The silence of a car calling out that they are on the scene…and the deafening pause between the crackle of the radio announcing the arrival and the disposition once the officers have assessed the situation. That kind of perpetual sitting on the edge of the chair should squeeze the life out of our folks, but still they persevere and somehow maintain their patience (usually) and their sanity.

There is a little phenomenon that happens from time to time, I like to think it is God’s little way of announcing an officer needs help. It happens in every department and is not an engineered function of our sophisticated radios. It is really, in my opinion, an external special-maybe spiritual force that reaches down and pushes the push to talk button on the portable radio during a fight. It is the cousin of the spirit or almighty wise-guy saint that also hits the push to talk button and broadcasts to the universe –when you are goofing on the boss or maybe another officer’s new girlfriend.

The “hurry up this guy needs help” sound is universal. After even a month on the job you get the meaning of the hurried unintelligible noise transmitted on the radio as a call for help. I can’t tell you how many times the radio mysteriously keyed up as the fight was ‘ON” between an officer and a bad guy. This is an unmistakable sound that reverberates between the portable radio on the officer’s hip to the rest of the planet. It is a jumble of furniture breaking, grunts or maybe moans that is the unintelligible –but widely recognized as a scream for help. Hear it once and you will understand the mechanism that our dispatchers must understand and harness when they hear sounds from officers fighting, to the 9-1-1 call where the fight is heard on the open line. For me, it is a contraction in my stomach that only releases the closer I get to my partner. How they do it is probably a curse for them, but a blessing to all of us.

Harnessing your experiences and giving our customers a wide variety of perspectives only makes us stronger as an agency. Let me explain: A couple of year’s back I was a patrol sergeant. Our dispatch center received a 9-1-1 call from a woman saying she had been kidnapped. The cell phone she used to call us suddenly went dead. There was a strong suggestion that this woman was an erotic roadside entrepreneur.

We had some GPS coordinates, but had no idea what she looked like.
Dispatcher Antoinette Cook was on-duty. Antoinette has more personality than most people I have ever met. Antoinette denies being a diva, but I would think she runs the show in almost any venue. I asked Antoinette to call the number back; however it went right to voicemail. That is usually a bad sign that the phone has been turned off. The detective in me asked Antoinette what kind of music was playing on the victim’s phone voicemail. I could clearly hear music, but I’m no longer hip, it was not the Doobie Brothers or Metallica so could not figure out who was singing. So what do you do when you are half dead and no longer hip? You ask your youthful members to step in and translate.

Like magic – the room went silent. Antoinette started to listen to the music playing on the victim’s voice message…about three seconds passed and I noticed Antoinette started to bob her head from back to front. As she did this her chair also started to rock back and forth. Antoinette then got into the groove of the song. I remember seeing her hair bounce back and forth as she suddenly blurted out “Beyonce!” It was hilarious to see. For me it was like Gene Wilder in the movie Young Frankenstein announcing the monster lives! In trying to solve this crime we had to turn to the voice message song to get a clue. In the process, Antoinette was able to get her groove on.

I took a chance and asked Antoinette to broadcast to our units to keep an eye out for a prostitute in the area of the GPS coordinates. I never thought this would work, but it did. About 15 minutes later we found the hooker and she had the phone. Oh and the song, was Beyonce.

Another time, I was a patrol officer awhile back and was in a foot chase with an armed suspect. I was out there alone, but I could hear the sirens coming to my aid. I called out on the radio “PD L-20 foot chase!” I followed it up with “He’s got a gun!” The calming voice on the other end was my big brother Nick. He was always my common sense mentor as a kid – usually cleaning up after my mistakes but always respectful of my decisions as wrong as they might have been. Nick’s voice and presence on the radio never seems to raise a peg on the decibel level. His delivery in a calm monotone voice is calming to me and as I look at his service over the years admire how he does his job. Of course the behind the scenes editorializing – er language, would make a hooker blush, but I guess that is his way of off-loading stress and I know the other pro’s in the radio room fire off at us and at our community- perhaps not with the same vigor… in the privacy of their cave. The nice thing for him is that he has a genuine tender spot for the gals who work with him as he would quickly deny. They deserve a purple heart for living with him, hearing his professional wrestling mania and his world travels to the next WWE adventure. I know ladies.

What was remarkable to me about Nick was as I caught up to the armed suspect when he hid in an external building closet, I was at a kind of a cross roads. Was I going to shoot this guy? I called out “PD-20 One at gunpoint!” Nick calmly repeated my message to the responding cars and then…there was silence…nothing.
I waited for my cover to get there so we could get this “scifoso” out of the closet and into my car with everyone hopefully coming out of this uninjured. I later reflected on that moment of silence. I know how my heart squeezes hard and stays contracted for that moment when I hear an officer call out the same message, and wondered what it would be like for my brother.

Now, Nick and I had a typical big brother little brother tumultuous childhood. He was (and still is) into wrestling and used me as his turnbuckle, or practice dummy. I have vivid memories of him jumping down on me from the top of the couch with his elbow shoved into my chest or gut as the air was purged from my little lungs. He also used the “sleeper hold” on me way before the disclosures for kids not to do this stuff at home. Of course I paid him back once – the pivotal moment of my life when I knew I was going to be an artist. I stabbed him in the leg with a pencil. Now back then, I remember we were all warned about lead and how it was poison. I thought I had just given Nick a death sentence.

So this all passes before me when he is on the radio and I am in the middle of something that is digressing into a bad, bad call. On the call above I had the one and only serious talk with Nick at the end of the watch. I remember walking from the back door of our station to my car. It was about a 50 yard walk. I remember we were both quiet. You could hear our feet shuffling across the pavement as I broke the silence and I said “Nick, do you ever worry about me on those kinds of calls?” Stoic and a little devoid of emotion, big bro said in his monotone and matter of fact voice “No, I figure you are going to die first.” I looked over at him to see the non-verbal queue that he was joking or poking fun at me. There were none. He walked away toward his car and never looked over. It was a little sobering considering he is older than me. It also made me reconsider my life-insurance beneficiary assignment! Of course I told my mom. She said with a smile and a heavy accent “Ralphy why are you so stupid?” She then said he was probably right.

Officers typically get the glory and the “thank-you” (if ever) but only deserve part of that. The balance of it really belongs to the person that called, but more importantly – the people that answered that call. The front office and the dispatchers. What’s the point of making a call if it won’t get answered? It is like asking a question and getting a stern question back – “Don’t you know? Don’t you remember?” That won’t happen when you call us. While privately, we might goof on your dilemma – like losing the handcuff keys in the throws of passion, we will still come and unlock you. And yes, we will throw a blanky over you first.

Stay safe and always keep a spare key in the nightstand. Ralphy

Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Coffee and Bad Girls by Lt. Pata

I just sat down at my favorite coffee joint in Santa Rosa, Centro Espresso, received a beautiful and expertly made Americano coffee and made my way outside next to the large oak tree. The sun is sneaking past the limbs as those annoying little birds try to serenade me into dropping some of my biscotti on the deck so they can have a snack. Not a chance. I know their kind. They start with a cute fly-by and then they land near you staring at you, head tilted to one side…staring with the one eye. Then they do the head cocked over fluttering the eye thing…It’s a cute little trick designed to manipulate me into breaking off a corner or my cookie so they can later fly away and deposit a gift on my car.

I come here when I can because it is not just the coffee it’s the people who make me feel at home here. Did I mention the coffee rocks? But the setting is pretty nice. It’s quiet. Oh, and the yoga joint next door is a nice – if not – leering location for my observations. I’m Italian, I marvel in the beauty of women. I wonder if DaVinci hung out at a little Roman espresso place.

I am traditionally not a quiet country setting kind of guy. Quiet used to be a harbinger of trouble. I can recall how the quiet actually made me uneasy. Sleep was a silent form of hell. That first few moments before unconsciousness crept into my room (or closet) and took possession of my body…Yikes! Now, perhaps because of the passage of time I seem to enjoy it. Maybe it is because I want to hear if my ticker is still whacking away as it should.

As long as we are on the subject of silence, I used to draw in my home studio late late at night. I have always liked the late night. One night I heard foot steps. Certain that it was a goof, I ignored it. Then I heard it again. I got up from my table, opened the door and looked down the hallway. Nothing. Was I going crazy- or did the previous owner of the house not disclose that Casper the friendly ghost was a non-paying tenant? Finally after the third time, I got my gun and decided to check out the entire house. Not a creature was stirring…just the freaking cat looking at me as if I was insane. Finally I took a minute to study the sound and discovered, duh, it was my heart beat in my ear that I was hearing. That little incident caused me to see Mr. Doctor – who insisted that I might want to partake in a little pharmacological pulse-blood-pressure maintenance. My resting heart rate in his office was 136. I said yes. But I am not ruling out a ghost.

Cops do sometimes get creative in the sleep department. When you work all night and then come home to a brightly lit world, you have to improvise. For me, it was the dark closet and a sleeping bag. For some cops it was tin - foil the bedroom window to keep the light out – like it’s a grow room for marijuana or something. I’m sure the neighbors loved it!

As I sit here I am trying to get my hands around the violence of the last day. I am trying to channel my sympathy and concern for the 11 officers shot in the last 24 hours. It is not just about them, but their families, the effect on the community and those cops left behind that usually do not get time to mourn the loss because they are left behind to answer the radio calls. I toss around the disparity and juggle the emotions hatched in my head from some opinions I hear on talk radio about how much we get paid and wonder, how much should a human life be worth? What is the right number? Does a cop with a Master’s degree (actually his or her family) get a higher cash-out value? Its hard to listen to this conversation when the pay-thing makes page 1 and the shootings, to include 4 officers shot in their own police station, is buried (Quite literally in some occasions) on page 3 or 4.

I have known a couple of officers who have been shot and more than I care to know of officers who have been shot at - or who have shoot bad guys. It is not like the movies you never ask. Ever. If they want to tell you about their experience, they will tell you. It is very personal in nature. People always ask me, “So have you shot anyone?” My answer is usually loaded with sarcasm (What a shocker – and notice the cool pun!) is something like: “Not today – yet.” Or “No, but maybe someday…” I don’t know, but do you suppose people ask doctors, “Hey did ya kill a patient today?”

The shooting of an officer is a sobering event no matter where you are on the planet. We feel it. It sucks. If any good comes from it, - it is that extra couple of days worth of enhanced officer safety that is infused in our bloodstream. That might come at some cost to you, our public. Usually the price to pay is the stern look; maybe the hand on the pistol while it is in the holster as we walk up on your car. No one wants to get shot.

Of course some of us want to have a shot (Usually tequila and the good stuff!) but getting shot hurts. I have talked to more than a few shooting victims and they will all tell you universally, it hurts!

When I selected my pistol for work, I used some common sense and experience to find the perfect caliber. Remember I used to work at the coroner’s office, so I had some experience with bullets. It’s not necessarily the gun. It’s the bullet! So I shoot 45-caliber pistol. I am not so interested in how many bullets I have.
It is my goal that – God forbid - bullet #1 will do the trick. So to accomplish that, in this situation, bigger is better. I realize that it goes against everything suggested in my heritage. You know the .22 caliber behind the ear thing. But I am not settling a score. If I have to go down that dark road, then it is to protect you or myself.

OK, that’s a spooky little topic, lets move on to something fun. VICE!

As a new cop – who at the time looked 16, I was the victim of my older officers who decided it would be cool to put the new kid in a car and have him solicit hookers. I remember Jimmy Cook, the Intelligence Detective and another guy who now is lost on me – probably due to a few kicks in the head. They decided that it would be a good idea to send me out. I was a puppy. I had barely talked to girls, at least those who were not beating me up. Usually any conversation I had with girls was “Stop! Stop! I give!”

Jimmy Cook was a very cool cop. There are a couple of cops over the years that I looked up to who were right out of central casting for some cop adventure film like “Heat.” Jimmy was one of them. Mike Miller and Walt Kosta were also in that group. Jimmy is one of those guys who looked like a thinner, dirty blond Jack Nicholson. Especially when he is wearing his wayfarers. When the eyebrow and forehead crease broke the plane of his glasses, you could not tell the difference.

He was from the Midwest, was in the war and this guy knew how to talk to people. He was a little unorthodox, but that, I think is what made him successful. I remember once he had a call of an abandoned car in front of this apartment complex. He got on the PA system of the patrol car and announced the car belonged to a drug dealer and it would be towed in 30 minutes. I sat there as a rookie thinking we were going to get in trouble. He used the PA system at full blast in the middle of this neighborhood at 8:00AM! When we returned in 30 minutes…the car was gone. That is the “G” rated version of his magic. Of course there is more. Jimmy did not need to BS people. He connected with them on a Forest Gump kind of way – kind of like my Colombo routine, but his was genuine. The Indiana cadence made it all the more believable.

I remember way back when we did not have a Vice team. It was all done kind of at your own risk, and in your own car! So JC gave me money and a wire. We checked it all out and had a pre-arranged bust signal. Back then we had lots of young and not so young women working in a particular area known as the “track.” San Rafael was like the old west back then. It had a not so pleasant reputation in the 70’s and 80’s but if you were a cop, it was a fun place to work.

So there I was, barely able to ask a normal gal out on a date…usually sweating, nauseated and on the brink of a seizure and feeling like maybe I am going to make a boom in my pants. I am a little tentative even now because I hate rejection. I can barely look at the gal at the checkout counter of a grocery store without turning red.

I remember navigating my Mustang down the street looking for the right person to pick up. The idea was that I had to pick up this entrepreneur and drive until the gal made me an offer I could not refuse. Then I would go to where she wanted me to go to complete the “date” and call out the bust signal on the way. Now, remember, I had on a wire, so technically, I would not need to say the silly bust signal. But still, it was part of my programming. Oh and for those of you with filthy minds…no. We never did the deal. Ever. Yuck.

Scared to death, each block felt like I was on death row walking to the death chamber. Seriously I was sweating. I had a gun and all of that, but I was not brought up to talk to women the way I was about to talk to them…I would never bring up the context of this to my parents. I would however mention it at Thanksgiving dinner that I picked up a hooker – just to see if mom could pass ravioli through her nose. She never did, but for some reason my stories would always lead to a kick under the table. Usually as my stepdad wanted to know more. The quiet broke at the table when suddenly there was an “ouch!” and the wine in the wine bottle would sway from side to side vigorously as it seemed like we had an earthquake. In reality, it was mom kicking my stepdad. He was my proxy because I was too far away. Mom would usually say something like “Oh Ralphy don’t be like Beretta” referring to that stimulating and award-winning cop drama played by former Little Rascal’s star, acquitted murderer and the former Mr. Bonnie Blakely. (May she rest in peace.)

As I drove my car around the track, I see a number of young, but tired looking gals wink, wave at me and do their very best to make eye contact. I felt like a rock star for a second and then Catholic guilt came over me. I averted my gaze and noticed I was breathing like I had just run a marathon. Don’t laugh! It was spooky. So I made excuse after excuse to not pick up some of them….Uh, that one has big feet, stinky looking, um, too many scars from picking her face NO! That one looks like a guy!

Finally the hooker of my dreams stepped up. She was dinky. I mean she was maybe 4-11, and was maybe 100 soaking wet. I thought, OK, considering my murky progress and success with fighting those vicious hyenas in middle school, I think I can take this one if it goes south on me.

And so, I drove around the block about three times trying to get my courage up to pull over. I am sure this gal was thinking “What is wrong with this kid?” I had this internal fight with my brain and my body to pull the car over. It was not so easy. There was this pop-up cartoon in my head of my mom looking disappointed in me and simply saying “Ralphy…” Then there was the Serpico cool cop in me flipping his hair back, reaching under the seat to feel the cold steel of my gun prior to the pull over. Game on! I pulled to the curb like a tentative teen-ager walking across the gym floor at prom ready to ask the pimply-faced girl against the wall for a dance.

When I finally pulled over, I rolled down the window and said hello. I tell ya, I was feeling like I was going to make a boom right there in my pants. I was so nervous. Ladies, if you have not noticed…you own us! You have the ability to convert a once very nice dinner into a horrible legacy in our trousers. Now channel that power into good, please. Have mercy on poor stooges like me.

So there I am. I have some issues to deal with as I open my mouth to solicit this gal. Issue #1: I have never asked for a naughty thing like this before and could not practice this script without getting slapped by someone. #2: I was certain there was a nun watching me. #3: Any conversation I had with a girl was usually as I was on my back getting strangled.

The prostitution patron saint was looking down on me because this gal made it easy. She just asked “you wanna date?” I was now a little confused. Was I to take her to a nice joint and buy her a drink and then dinner and then take her to her hotel room, where I would say good night under the lit room number sign? Or was this hooker code for – do you want to pay for special talents forbidden by some religious books?

My guardian angel of common sense gave me a nice motivating twist of my small intestines to get me back on track. I simply said “sure.” This gal was probably thinking school was in for me.

She opened the door to my car and got in. I remember her getting in with all her stuff. She had a couple of bags. I was thinking – which one had a knife in it? Was she going to execute me behind a building – starting at my particulars and work up from there? Would I scream like a big sissy? Of course she could not stab me so long as she continued to eat her fried chicken in my car! My NEW car! I guess a girl’s gotta eat – in this case between shifts.

This social worker directed me to a lonely area of the track, her place of “business” so she could commence with her version of non-taxable services. As we drove I tried to engage her in a little conversation. She was all over the place. She looked everywhere to see if we were being followed. Of course my cover was in a car behind us, but they were doing a good job of following loosely behind.

Unfortunately for me, she did not get into naughty conversation with me. She directs me to drive my NEW car down this dirt road and behind some tall grass. I was feeling uneasy because she had not said a word about the particular details of this little enterprise. Finally as we sat all alone in my car, she asked if I wanted a certain task performed without the benefit of clergy and very unceremoniously – here in the weeds. I felt like my mom would walk in on us at any moment. I hesitated, and then said, “Uh – ok.”

She named her price and I whipped out the cash. (You thought I was going to say something else didn’t you? Go to church you saucy voyeur!) Once she secured the case, I called out the bust signal. I think it was WOW; I am really going to like this…..

I waited…nothing. I said it again…WOW I am REALLY going to like this…Nothing. The gal was getting ready to explore my zipper soon and I was squirming in my seat like I had ants in my pants. I said it again…WOW I AM REALLY GOING TO LIKE THIS….as purposeful as I could and completely like I was reading a script.

I was panicking. Dread and terror took over my cerebral cortex. I had sweat rolling down my brow. This gal was making a move to my privates and got within a millimeter of the protected and secured zipper area. I think I let loose with a small gaseous eruption as the fear center of my brain took over all other functions of my body and yelped out a red alert. DANGER! DANGER! Where was my cover? I was ready to jump out of the car like it was on fire. I was not a happy boy. In fact at that time I was thinking I had to go to confession and wondered how many days I would be in church praying to balance out this sin of which I was complicit.

I now wonder if God has a rebate program or perhaps there was some prayer adjustment for work-related sin. Maybe a two for one deal or a God-pon, like a coupon but for graces. Call it a blue chip stamp program for sinners.

Time and space slowed to a crawl. I can remember seeing the knotted, blistered, work-worn spindly fingers attached to the mitt of this purveyor move in slow motion from her side toward the steering wheel release thing. As she did this I held my breath as I thought about how I was going to get out of my car – or better yet get her and all of her food and debris out of my car! As soon as I put my hand on the ejection seat handle (Uh, car door) my saviors’ arrived! Jimmy and his partner laughing as hard as I had ever seen. Ya, I was thinking it was funny too. I was thinking how funny it would be to visit them in a rest home someday paralyzed with age as I introduced the same favor upon them.

As the nice Vice officers walked up to my car the woman looked over to me and told me not to say anything. I waited until she was out of the car in handcuffs before I disclosed that I was a cop. Remember I had seen her kind in action in Junior High!

As I progressed in my career I would once again be subjected to the dank and sinister world of sexual deviance. I would eventually go on to work in our Street Crimes Unit, be sequestered in the public toilets trolling for any chicken hawk that would have me, or George Michael, and of course there were the massage parlors. All of it for another harrowing “blog” and yes, you can bet that it came up at just about every sacred family dinner, Christmas, New Years, My birthday, Thanksgiving…all of them. Would my mom pass that ravioli through her nose? Guess you will have to read on.

Stay safe. Ralphy

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sex, Drugs, and Pepperoni Pizza By Lt. Pata

Confidential Informants are a pain in the behind. Seriously. They are yesterday’s crooks and tomorrows suspects. I still have informants calling me-twenty years later because they are in trouble or need something. It is like having a relationship with a crummy business partner who is a drug addict. You know the one that takes the profits and runs to Vegas with some harpy he met hanging out by the debris box around midnight at some club.

These guys and gals are sketchy. They often think they are smarter than you or that they are living a role in some episode of “The Wire.” The reality is that most are using drugs and are probably doing some petty larceny on the side. That is my experience, of course these citizens may have changed in their pedigree and might just be good honest members of the community now. But let’s face it; even those members of the community go on to other forms of larceny. Take some members of congress, maybe a televangelist or infomercial representative for example.

I can think of a dozen informants that my team saved from long prison sentences to get to the bigger fish. It is a dirty little business and often I went home and prayed to the informant god that they would get a nice canker sore or the split on your fingers –right on the tips, you know -the ones that hurt and are usually related to a really cold day….I’d even settle for a bad case of dysentery with no toilet in sight. Seriously, these people, especially to us Italians, are a necessary, but annoying amoeba on the food chain of life. The mafia is also not so happy with these guys, but then again, according to my pop, the mafia was invented by the late President Nixon and never really existed. Ya, neither did dinosaurs pop.

Informants come in all shapes and sizes. Most were drug addicts or bad business people which is how they came to our attention. Lots and lots of them were scorned women. Guys, if you are a dope dealer, don’t make your female paramours angry.

I had one gal as an informant who was promised a music career with her drug dealer and occasional product sampler and sales associate. This gal and this guy were as exclusive as you can be when you are married hanging out in clubs and dealing dope. I mean he shared everything with her, to include the STD that keeps giving and even the blessing of a pregnancy without the benefit of clergy.

The problem for this guy was that he said a little too much in the pillow talk - “baby I love you” department. After he returned to his wife and kids from a long weekend in Vegas, she would have a little time to think, apply ointment to her new medical condition and make reservations at the local planned parenthood.

I think the deal breaker for this gal was when this guy failed to appear to her “recording session” and pay for it, she was genuinely scorched with anger. That little anger, in my business is key to all good female informants. That little raging inferno of jealousy, STD and financial vacancy is the perfect storm for a good informer. And I was more than happy to help stoke that fire.
I brought my pal and a can of figurative gas with me to douse on this innocent victim of cocaine. (Sorry, huge sarcasm and not an ounce of sympathy assigned to that last morsel.) Each and every time I visited this gal – always with a female partner, I did my best to keep her from feeling sorry for this guy. How do you do that?…Easy, show pictures of him with his beautiful wife wearing a mink. It is a little trick my cousins in Italy taught me. I think a couple of senators in the 70’s went that way.
I would always end the meetings by asking her how her medical condition was and maybe dropping a flier for the free clinic in her mailbox. It worked. Don’t laugh.

My gal was really good a “playing” stupid and was really angry at this guy. So much so that she agreed to introduce another woman to him as a potential drug user and maybe another cocaine induced conquest. Of course she was a well trained and heavily armed undercover cop, but hey, they need a little love too.

Like a dog to a treat, this loser went for it. He did it because the sex / greed reception center in the brain was swollen with narcissism and unhealthy laziness which caused this guy to sell drugs instead of work. I was more than happy to accommodate his delivery and safekeeping to a state run bed and breakfast. And deliver him I did. Nine years later, I understand he has a better appreciation for women. I will write more on this maroon, another day. It is a good story.

And then…there are the control problems. I had to work with a guy once who was a huge control problem. This guy was not a bad guy by design – he was just a selfish petty drug dealing Marin guy who thought everything was owed to him. We developed this guy on a nice sunny afternoon – signed him up went through all the paperwork necessary, ran it by the D.A. and got him out of jail. He was a good informant because he could get us some weight. We were a major unit which meant we were not so interested in the gram dealers. We wanted ounces of cocaine and bigger.

After getting this guy out we had “the big talk.” I told him the rules, reminded him that the money we gave him was not his and was designated to buy drugs. We instructed him how to drive nice so we could follow him and told him to talk so we could hear him in the wire. These were rules that were not so hard to follow. Well, so we thought.

When we turned this guy loose for a planned deal, he drove like a maniac. We had cars on him trying to keep up with him. This guy took his car. Of course we searched it first and him, but we were not prepared for the Indy 500 car race just to get to the deal location. Of course he needed to stop in first for a car wash (with our money) and then dinner – I think it was pasta with scampi (with our money) and then to the meet. We would have usually tried to call this guy or drop in on his dinner, but we had no idea if the dealer was going to meet this guy there, and of course he had the radio on so loud in the car that we could not hear the phone. Personally I wanted to crash into his Mercedes like a kamikaze pilot to teach him a lesson.

The deal never happened and he was the recipient of an index finger in the chest coupled with a couple of motivating if not cathartic words from me. (Expletives deleted.) We made him pay us back, set up another deal and quickly learned that he was not able to pull off a good case for us. I think he was annoying to the dealers too. We fired him. I am not so sure what happened to this guy, but it would not surprise me if he ended up in a ditch.

Now I did have a couple of informants who were unbelievable. Some had to work off a little trouble and I had one that just wanted to help. He/she was surrounded by drug dealers and just wanted to get rid of them. Another was a nice person who worked at a place where lots of mail was handled and was exposed to package after package of drugs. This person just thought it was wrong.

So here is how is worked back then. I suspect that the informant enrollment program is still the same or very similar. 1) Select a nice target to be an informant, or sometimes they come to you via a nice note from the jail or a call to the tip line. 2) Check on their background. Lets face it…they are usually troublemakers. It’s a dirty business. 3) Meet them, make no promises and run them by the D.A. 4) Make no promises (yes again) and get them out with a court order or work with them when they get out. 5) Find out the motivation. Some people you can’t work with and you put them on the shelf. The whole deal thing on TV is a fallacy. No one really gets to walk. They get convicted and do their time. The judge and their attorney’s can make that a variable based upon their cooperation. Sorry, no free rides. I left a lot out on purpose…there is way more but it’s boring and top secret. And I’d have to kill you.

There were always female informants (Usually ex-wives or ex-girlfriends) that wanted to use their wily ways to perhaps convince you they had more to offer than working a deal. There were the strippers and adult film stars who came to the meetings dressed provocatively and had that apple in their hand. (Genesis – old testament)

We never met these gals alone and in private on purpose. Ever. Some have suggested naughty unlawful behavior as proof of their commitment. (Punishable by death in some countries) Of course later on they could potentially exploit this to get themselves out of trouble. I had one gal ask for consent to have sex with her dealer apparently to close the deal. She explained that this was part of her routine. We, of course said NO in about every language we knew. I was not so sure how I would explain the child support payments from the County of Marin to the taxpayers, I but I knew it would be on page 1 of our local paper. I have never wanted that kind of fame. But some went that way. I had a guy from one of my dope schools end up going to prison because he played house with an informant. Of course she snitched on him the second she was caught with drugs.

I met one young lady who was barely 18 and dropped out of school. She did not have a clue how to buy drugs but thought she could because it seemed cool on TV. I used her once to call a wanted felon. I had his phone number but knew he would not show up for me…presumably because I was not his type…at least until he went to prison. I had her put on her best squeaky voice and had her call him. It was beautiful. She called and gave him her first name.

When he drew a blank…she worked him over. “What you don’t remember me?” He took the bait like a trout at the fish hatchery. He suddenly “remembered.” Of course he was right, they had never met, but again, the greed / sex center of the male mind is unbelievably transparent, shallow and malleable. She suggested they have a nice pizza together and perhaps do something naughty afterwards.

The primal caveman response in his brain took over. This guy had pin wheels in his eyes. The trance was almost audible. He was like a cartoon zombie walking with his hands up toward his hypnotist. He was a prisoner to his privates and the direct hormonal conversation between them and his sex /greed center, leapfrogged over the “common-sense too good to be true” portion of his brain and delivered him to our humble and wanting hands.

Of course we arrived two hours early to have a pizza – part of our “cover.” This guy was disappointed when six of us introduced ourselves inside the pizza joint after we sat next to him at his table. After a year on the run, he was captured and taken to the big house. And, of course, he had some party dust in his pocket for the after show with his date. Sucker. God I love this job.

…Back to our interview with the young woman and about what she was going to do with her life. She told us that one day she wanted to be an adult film star. Seriously. Again I was looking around for the Candid Camera and “gotcha!” I forgot about her until a year later when a nice package was delivered to the PD in a paper bag with my name on it. The package was delivered to my then den-mother at the PD, Nellie who was working in the front office. I was back in patrol from my time in the Task Force and received the call to the station. Sweet Nellie handed me the package and I pulled out the box inside right in front of her.

The box was a commercial videotape that displayed a number of unclothed men and women in geometric and may I add non-ergonomic positions doing unimaginable and transformative things. I think Nellie saw it as I jammed the box back in the bag quickly and ripped the bottom out as I was so embarrassed and a little scared at what I saw. I slowly removed the video tape box far enough to see the autograph and note from my former wanna-be informant wishing me well and announcing her triumphant arrival in the adult film business. Of course I had to watch the video in the privacy of my home with a number of my friends and had to self medicate my self with a foamy beverage as I witnessed the depravity and exploitive script for this young lady. Some excerpts were reviewed a couple of times to validate her acting skills. Of course all of us had this look like a dog that hears a strange sound, head tilted to one side, eyes wide open.

Well that’s it for now. I have to send a “Oy!” to SRPD Pal Marina Simoncini with the Australian Federal Police- a reader, Suzi Kim with Santa Monica PD also a reader and of course all of my new pals from the SMILE conference weeks ago in Santa Monica. I also want to recognize Jimmy Hoffa, not a reader, as far as we know. Stay safe. Ralphy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fighting fair hurts! By Lt. Pata

In 1986, I was a rookie and not-so street smart. I lived in Marin County, California so I was not exposed to the kind of stuff I would later be exposed to as a cop. While I grew up in a lower middle class area, our version of trouble was speeding, maybe stealing a car or two, breaking into a building to party and maybe participating in some unlawful botany. Not me, of course, my pals.

I learned to fight in junior high school and I was terrible at it, but even that was kid stuff, and those girls were really kind of mean. Fighting as a cop is nothing like it. Adults who fight are usually moron’s, but fighting a cop, with a gun, who has lots of friends who dress like him…well, that is kind of insane.

In the police academy they teach you how to fight fair. Its funny how much of our job has to do with perception of what should be acceptable. So fighting fair looks better on TV or to the public, but often is more painful than street fighting. I used to love the TV shows COPS or CSI Miami, now, they are the bane any cop’s existence. It used to be that when you testified to a jury, you were the expert. Now they are. They watch these TV shows and feel like they know how to do the job. I remember having to tell a jury once, for 20 minutes, that the science on CSI was not necessarily practical and how we really did things.

I am waiting to sit in judgment on a jury for a brain surgery gone wrong. I have watched enough episodes of “House” that I think, given an Exacto-knife and maybe a drill, I could pull it off. (Said with unbelievable sarcasm)

I have had similar heart-wrenching conversations with parents of murder victims. One wonderful woman once stated in desperation that she did not understand why we could not solve her child’s case like they do on reality cop shows. I felt like a jerk, but reminded her that for every one case you see on “The First 48” there are a number that never make it on TV because they are unsolved.

TV has had a huge impact on our job and depending on the video point of view and its context, seeing is not necessarily believing. But let’s face it, cop shows sell. They are interesting – which is why there are lots of shows about the job and not so many about librarians or accountants. I’d like Di Nero or Pacino to play me. Maybe Dennis Farina.

OK – Funny story time. Many years ago I worked a pretty significant case. The case was profiled on one of those reenacted detective shows. I knew the date and time it was going to be on, so, of course, I told everyone that they had this guy who was going to play me on TV. What I did not know, was that he was a nice bald man, about-oh, lets be charitable and say 300lbs. You know the kind of guy that has sweat spots under his chest and food stains on the top of his belly. Ya. I was a hero the next day

This police thing we do is violent at times. If you are smart, ending the fight as soon as possible, even doing stuff that seems shocking, like punching a guy in the chops, while not pretty, works. Trust me, the “5 from the sky” (a real police move) doesn’t work for me. I tried it once. I lost. The fist sandwich to the jaw sometimes works. But only if you don’t have access or time to get to some pepper spray or a Taser.
Oh and TV writers and cop book fiction writers - punching a guy in the chops hurts. So the multiple tenderizing of a crooks jaw on TV is kind of dishonest. One good one delivered briskly and with some profundity might break your hand.

Pepper spray works if you are a good Christian and go to church every Sunday but not if you are too close or in a room deploying it. You always know when the satanic fluid directly from the infernal region got everyone in the room too – just look for the 4 or 5 cops leaning against the house or building with that slime stuff from an alien movie falling out of their nose as they ball their brains out and wretch. It works, but it is a hazmat experience. Yuck.

The Taser or Electronic Control Device as we call it – works. Usually. I’d like to meet the guys that dream up these things just to see what makes them tick. I would have liked to be in the lab when they came up with this idea. “Hey lets make this gun that shoots darts into people, and THEN, let’s send a current through their body!” Cool! Well, I have to tell you, an ECD being deployed is kind of a religious experience for these tough ex-con’s who would otherwise need 700 pounds of cops to keep them on the ground.

The problem- if you want to call it that -with the job is that it is easy to have a complaint filed against you for just about anything and especially for using all this stuff they give us to end the fight.

Let me serve up an example of how not to do it… in the late 80’s I was crossing the street, in uniform to help out a guy who was sick. Halfway across the street an old Ford pickup with three men inside the cab became acquainted with me, er - actually the hood of their truck became acquainted with me. I flew over the hood and landed in the beautifully landscaped city planter box.

Of course I landed first onto the concrete portion of the box on my back and then rolled into the soft dirt inside. I was not happy. I was hurt. When I got up, I walked up to the driver and opened his door, this time for a proper introduction. An open can of beer fell out from the floorboards. And for those of you who care…it was domestic beer, a Marin County felony.

The group of men was drunk. Unhappy Ralph lost his cool, picked up the can of beer and threw it into the cab of the truck. I didn’t hit anyone and all I did was get my new friends foamy with the suds in the can, it still felt good to do my part to pick up the littered can. I told ya, I was mad. Well that little delivery of aluminum, hops and barley justice landed me a citizen’s complaint. No one complained about me getting run over, but I can understand that I did waste a beer, so, I get it. Guilty.

The merchants in my town were very cool after the accident. After my little circus act, one business brought me out a towel to clean my uniform and another brought me a cup of coffee, exactly how I like it. It made me smile and took the sting out of my back for a few moments.

In the academy you get all of this tactical purposeful movement stuff. How to walk, talk and use the restroom with authority. They teach you enough to be able to swim to the center of the pool, but not necessarily how to get back. As a cop, you do carry in the back of your mind a little fear that your actions might cause a complaint. I used to think it was just me and Catholic guilt.

In the old days, it used to be a citizen who thought your behavior was not acceptable called in your name and you got yelled at. Now it’s YouTube or video and it can look very bad. It kind of explains the high-blood pressure and heart attack thing with cops. But isn’t it true that integrity is doing the right thing when you think no one is looking? So many more times than not, our people do the right thing.

Think about it, maybe guys on the most wanted list have an equally stressful job wondering who is looking over their shoulder, and when the next car stop will put you back in prison. Well our guys and gals know that and try to prepare for the next stop to be the last stop. Apply that scenario every time you drive, or get out of the car to handle a call. Multiply that over 35 years, add a pinch of fast-food and an alcoholic beverage, maybe a cigarette and viola! Heart attack. Now, in my 40’s I understand the mechanism.

I fought fair once. I lost. Getting your behind kicked is an education. As a cop you quickly learn you are: 1. Not that invincible, 2. There is always someone bigger than you. 3. You should do your best to stay in shape and 4. Turning left away from trouble is Eve offering you a bite from a tasty apple, and an intoxicating trance but one you have to fight off because it is part of our job jumping into the deep end.

If you had to get your behind handed to you, I guess its better to graduate from this little painful experience at age 21 than 41. It is easier to bounce back, and if you are seriously injured, at least you have some time to heal and find another type of work, rather than be an unemployed and a lame candidate for a job at 41 years old.

I have told others, and I really believe that doing 20 years at this job is like being in the NFL for a couple of years. All of the bouncing around, getting in and out of your car with all the stuff on, going from seated to jumping out of your car and running full speed for maybe 20 yards then tackling a bad guy or getting your head whacked adds up.

Police work is not like the stuff on TV. Each night you don’t meet the woman or man of your dreams, have a shootout or a cathartic experience. But each night, if you are a good cop, you visualize the shootout before you arrive at a call that is sketchy. Cops know, the 911 hang-up call with people screaming in the background, or the robbery alarm-call at the bank, where no one answers the phone. It is a pressure valve check on the old human body, but one that is so transforming, that you would not have it any other way. (For the record -I also visualize the girl sometimes. She is usually crazy about me and a member of the Swedish Bikini Team. She is also sight impaired and has a pizza in her hands.)

The wear and tear of this work does mess with you but, like any good drug, after you sleep it off you are ready for another dose of adrenaline-induced insanity. Next thing you know you are 20 years into it and some damage is done. After all of my years of being spit in the face, that little truck thing, falling down stairways, burned by crack pipes and most thoroughly getting my butt kicked, it has been a great career, one I would recommend to the right person and an honorable way to participate with your community.
But it hurts sometimes and thankfully there is this little thing called “worker’s comp” that pays the doctor’s bills.

I think more of my pals have ended up on the receiving end of the scalpel and with fused necks and backs, than guys I have grown up with on the job who have gone out on time. The quality of life after getting a wired neck is not so great. Someone should consider a barcode tattoo on your behind for all the times you end up in the hospital answering the same questions.

An example of how fighting fair doesn’t work is the time I was knocked out by an ex-convict. You don’t forget about these things. It’s like your law enforcement first kiss. It was around 3AM and it was right in the middle of our city on a busy night. I had just given this guy a break and asked him to pour out his beer. (Ya I know, me and beer.) When I walked away from him, he walked up behind me and hit me so hard in the back of the head that I’d swear it knocked the fillings out of my teeth.

The momentum of that smack turned the earth back a rotation. The cartoon stars over my head and the coo-coo clock sound were there! I remember it. Ralphy took a dive in the first! Those are the days I wondered – did I really check the police box? I should have checked the firefighter box on my application.

I got up and took him on- fighting fair. I was not happy. This guy messed up my hair, my uniform – 100% wool and my $100.00 shirt was dirty. When I looked down I noticed I had a hole in the knee of my pants. That was it! An Italian felony. Game on pal! Its one thing to knock me out, but my pants? Are you kidding?

I got up to take him into custody after calling out my location. Worst thing I could have done. I should have taken a nap on the sidewalk. He proceeded to beat me like a rug. I was busy doing all the cool move stuff my instructors in the academy taught me and none of it worked. I remember rolling around in the center of the street with this guy, as my back-up was coming from miles away. I fought this guy for 9 minutes. I remember seeing sky and street, over and over as we rolled around. Then came my chance. I thought this guy was going to eventually kill me. I resorted to caveman stuff and simply strangled him in the gutter of the street. This was all I had left.

My stick was gone, my mace was gone, my uniform was in tatters, my hair, was a mess the only thing I had left was my gun and for some reason, I felt like I could not kill this guy for a fist-fight. Although, after glancing at my pants, the thought did cross my mind. Barbarian!

Some weird thing overcame me. As I was watching this guy get sleepy – actually the life leave this guy, I let up. I relaxed my grip on his throat because in my head I thought he was done fighting. It was almost like he gave up. Well, he did but only because of the motivating, if not liberal application of my hands, to his neck.

My plan was to roll him over and handcuff him. Those, of course, were not his plans. Instead, he sharply applied his knee to my intimate parts rendering me a lump on the side of road – retching. At this point I was thinking that nothing was working and now, in front of God and maybe another future Mrs. Pata I was going to barf my brains out from the pain. I remember wondering where was the love? Why were none of these big, strong, bar patrons not giving a brother a hand. It’s like I was the dinner show or something. Not one of them stepped in or even tossed a lit cigarette or maybe a bottle at this guy. I needed an AFL CIO guy or Teamster to pull this guy off of me.

I look back and I guess I understand that if this guy was doing me in, perhaps it would not have been advisable to jump in. I would have killed for a stake and a bottle of holy water. This guy was all over me. Right now I’d kill for a steak! Writing makes me hungry.

I later learned that my sparring partner was insane. He was released from the Marines for being too crazy and, was placed in a state run mental institution. His probation report read that he was “imminently dangerous to society.” Well, if that’s the case, I can understand releasing him! It’s like leaving the henhouse door open for Christ sake!
I’d like to take whoever decided it would be a good idea to let the Tasmanian Devil out of his quiet and medicated world for a ride.

After the brisk application of the felon’s patella to my privates, I fell over and he got on top of me. Right as that happened I heard sirens and the next thing I remember was someone trying to take my gun from me. I was scared to death and did everything in my power to not let this happen.

I remember rolling over on my gun so whoever was trying to take it would have to roll me over and work a little to get it. I had nothing else. I was exhausted, scared and hurt. For some reason, probably the idea that I was going to witness my execution, I could not open my eyes to see that it was one of my partners trying to take my stuff, so I could be treated by paramedics. I ended up getting a second wind and started to fight off my partner. They actually had to subdue me a little to get me on the gurney for treatment. As it turned out, I was just scared and beat up. No lasting damage, except, of course for my freaking uniform and my pride.

I do remember fighting this guy again in my dreams for a while. I used to wake up exhausted. I’m sure I was a fun date. The nightly boxing match eventually went away. He was sent to prison for 3 years. When he returned, it was business as usual. I actually had coffee with him a couple of times at the downtown 7-11. We never talked about it. I learned to get over this, that it was not personal. It was just business. Of course I never turned my back on him again. He would go on to stab a person – at the same 7-11, a year later, and go back to the joint a couple of times before he too was summoned to the infernal region. I can’t remember how he beamed up, but I had an alibi.

Stay safe and don’t turn your back on psychopaths. K? Oh – and don’t come near me with a beer. Ralph.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On your mark. Get set…. By Lt. Pata

Alrighty, so I get it. My blogs are not blogs at all…they are short stories. Guilty. Since I started on this little adventure, I was not sure what I was doing, so I called my little contributions -blogs. Um, they clearly are not. To give you an example of my technological shortcomings, when I started police work I used to write everything in pencil. Now, it is the computer. So it’s not hard to imagine that I am “challenged” in a computer way. I have cyber envy. I am digitally vacant.

My versions of the “blogs” are small morsels of my past, comingled with some of the present. Next thing ya know POOF! they go on a little longer than desired. It’s a curse. Its funny but the only time my trap is shut is when I am typing this thing. Also- remember that I can’t type and talk at the same time. To fall head first into the stereotype, I am Italian and, well, ya know the whole talk with your hands thing…for me its true.

The response to all of this blog stuff has been pretty amazing. Who would know that people were interested in this stuff? I mean after all me and my pals are not some big-city cops doing the shootout a night thing. (In reality – even they don’t do it each night. And thank God for that.) But their stories I’m sure are just as interesting. Actually, the way I look at it, they are really lessons in some ways. But I have been blessed – and at times cursed – with a great career surrounded by huge personalities in a very interesting community. I have to take a few lines and thank Beth Spotswood from CBS5 eye on blogs and Phil Bronstein at the Chronicle for giving us a little time and recognition on their own blogs and for seeing what we are really trying to do, which is chip away at some stereotypes and let you look over the wall to see there are really no big surprises.

I am a regular Joe, or Giuseppe, I guess. I just happen to come from a cop heritage that rubbed off on me, my brother Nick, my sister Diana (an ex-FBI employee and probably a spy) and maybe someday my boy. But he is kind of leaning towards being a paleontologist. I don’t care what he does. Really. I want my little guy to just love his job as much as I love mine. And, of course, buy daddy a nice Harley or Indian motorcycle someday. I just hope he does not do what his Cousin Dave did and join the freaking fire department. Holiday dinners are tense at our house. I guess every family has a black sheep. Ours is more like mutton. Thanks Dave.

I goof on myself, my family and “others.” It is a flaw, a weakness in my construction. I keep names out of it and try to be sneaky with some details that – if disclosed might make things a little too specific. It’s all true and in most cases there was a witness. Of course I have paid off the witnesses or they had an accident and are no longer with us. (wink)

Police departments are supposed to be a microcosm of society. And our little slice of heaven is just that. We have a nice variety of employees with piercings, tattoos, and people of all walks of life, color, religious beliefs, cultures, gender preference and political affliction.

It makes our world interesting and provides our customers some balance and absolutely some empathy and flexibility. It also keeps the old guys like me young and a devotee of the urban dictionary. All of the divorces, deaths, kids, births, marriages, financial issues-all the stuff our community suffers or celebrates, we do too, both at work and at home.

Suiting-up at work is not unlike getting ready for war, a paintball match or maybe for a few rounds in the ring. For those really sensitive types that saw the word war…yes, I know, we are not at war with our community. Trust me; someone will bristle at that little word. But take a look at what we wear. Bullet resistant vests, guns, bullets, tasers all of it wrapped in a nice 100% wool package. Oh and leather. Lots of leather.

The transformation is kind of cool to watch. A variety of fresh faces, like Officers Anthony Augustyn – usually on his way in from law school, Geoff Bowker, maybe Kim Larkey or Rob Cleland casually make their way across the parking lot and into our back door in their jeans, shorts, flip-flops with their iPods blaring and sometimes dragging behind them their suitcase, yes suitcase, with their work stuff in tow. All smiles until they hit the locker room.

The sardine can we call a locker room is small, cramped and the lockers – relics of WWII submarines -I suspect, are small. We shuffle things all over this little compound, kind of like a kid in high school with lockers in all of the buildings storing our things all over because we ran out of space in 1964. Closet poles are all over the place with jackets and rain gear hanging in long forgot corner’s of our police basement. The former briefing room is now the patrol officer equipment, helmet and gas mask storage room. Our guys and gals keep their suitcases there which contain report forms, gloves -maybe a snack or two and of course the obligatory Penal or Vehicle code. For those of you dying to know…the ladies have their own locker room. For those of you that thought otherwise, go to church. Now.

Not that I watch, but having been through the ritual of getting suited up for work is kind of a work in progress. First all of any sense of your past world is removed. You take off the shirt with the questionable graphic logo, or maybe the peace sign or whatever might actually indicate your bias.

The switch is almost religious in a weird way. The officers, me included, keep their religious medallions on or in the front pocket of their vest. Some have special tokens or mementos tucked in the front pocket where the Kevlar plate designed to slow down if not stop a higher caliber bullet resides. I keep a laminated photo of my son and a star with my girlfriends badge number in here. Some officers have painted in white on their black colored vests their blood type and donor status on the vest, a grim reminder of what this job can become in a moment. It is a desperate and polite message to the trauma center about what they might need quickly and what their wish would be in the event of the unthinkable. While we are on this happy subject, we also have locker letters and final arrangement documents for our peer support team to access in the event of that day.

Before the vest, you put on the black T-shirt. On hot days you use the material that wicks away the moisture. Doesn’t really help because on a hot day you could easily sweat off a couple of pounds of water. Where does it go? To your bullet resistant vest, of course. Now repeat this throughout the year and VIOLA! You have a lab experiment strapped to your body. A seasoned veteran officer could be found on the hottest of days – maybe in the walk-in cooler at the local 7-11 sitting on a stack of comfortable cases of beer.

While you can wash the liner of the bullet resistant vest, you can’t really wash the vest. So, the sweat and yuckiness is yours to keep until you get a new vest every 5 years. Nice huh? I like to call it “patina.” Some guys like Cpl. Mike Byers think its bad luck to wash the liner, kind of like a baseball player’s superstition and hang the vest like it is some sacred relic. It’s a nice little olfactory gift as I walk past his locker each day.

On cold days you wear layers of stuff. Maybe long underwear and of course the black T-shirt. About the black T-shirt. It is relatively new to us. We have been wearing it about 10 years now…that’s new. It used to be we wore white T-shirts under our uniform but we felt that it is kind of a give-away to a crook. If you work nights, the white shirt doesn’t work well with the blue uniform. I am a traditional kind of guy, so I like the white T-shirt, but as a safety thing, I get it. We are all about not being seen when we don’t want to be seen.

After strapping on the vest over the T-shirt then comes the 100% wool pants or maybe if you are a contemporary kind of cop you have on the cargo shirt and pants. I like the cargo pants. They are comfortable and they have a material that will stop from ripping in the very likely event of a tear. There is also a large selection of pockets to put your stuff in. The new pants and shirts come with rubber knee pads and elbow pads built in a very Smart idea, but not very official police-like for me. It doesn’t show well, and let’s face it, some of what we do is kind of showy and so it is not what you wear to a funeral or a council meeting…-Same thing.

Gotta have boots! It is the next thing that will cost you a mint and you put on because in reality it is the only thing that looks cool in uniform pants and it does have some utility. You can buy the mortuary boots, you know the cardboard ones that will last you a month or spend the money and get the good ones. The $200.00 brand is made with love and waterproof material. The good ones are also really light, an important feature if you have to run after a crook.

From the boots you put on the gun belt or the “Sam Brown” belt. OK, this should your first clue that this might be a sketchy job. We wear two sets of belts. Yep. There is the regular black belt that keeps the trousers up and then the utility belt, yes like Batman’s belt, that keeps your weapons and adjunct equipment properly stowed. This belt is attached to the other belt by way of mysterious straps of leather adorned with shiny snaps. Seriously, you would think the Marque de Sade was the designer of this uniform – or maybe Michael Jackson’s wardrobe guy.

The belt holds the gun, two sets of handcuffs, gloves, radio, ASP brand “baton” (an impact weapon) Extra bullets? Check! They are there on the belt too. All of it has a purpose and all of it is used virtually every night.

Our “stuff” is loaded up and checked in the locker room. The gun and electronic control device (Taser) are checked outside for obvious reasons.

When I see football players or baseball players in the locker room I think of our team getting ready. Not to play, but to provide our service and to prepare for whatever might come our way. Will tonight be the night we get in a shooting? Will all of my guys and gals come in at the end of the watch, in one piece, much-less alive? The game face goes on when the uniform goes on. It is a state of mind. Don’t get me wrong, it is not like a church here, briefings are very spirited and there is some time to yuck around, but the air seems different in our building than when it did just before you walk in. And not just because Mike won’t wash his vest carrier or because of the dank, musty smell of the dungeon we call a police station.

When these courageous and selfless officers come out of the locker rooms, whether it be the men’s or women’s locker’s they are ready to go. You can see the change in behavior from the moment they passed the backdoor into our little, dark, cramped world.

Some people have said we look mad or maybe mean. OK, sometimes we do. It is part of the game-day ritual. Take a look at the football player on the bench. How about the stare from the bullpen? It is the same mechanism, with just different results. It is state of mind stuff.

The job will sneak up and get you if you pretend to be Deputy Barney Fife. There is some science that the “friendly” or passive kind of cop has a problem getting killed. That is not to say the roulette wheel will not land on your number – no matter who you are. Take a look at officers who are getting killed. They are well trained heroes who were greeted with misfortune. As I write this two officers have been killed in the last two weeks. One last night. It is all about balance, fate, training and luck.

After the uniform and briefing, it’s time to strap on your office, a two-thousand something Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. This is a boring looking, but fast little car. It has been the industry standard for a number of years, both as cop cars and as taxi’s. But that has all come to an end. Ford stopped making them. Soon you will see all kinds of new cars hitting the street. It is actually pretty exciting.

Once you hop in the car, you check out all of the stuff that makes it your office. The mobile data terminal, the first aid kit, the stop-stick, the high-powered rifle and the bean-bag shotgun. The mobile data terminal is what we get our calls on – actually we are dispatched on the radio, but the details, the dirty little details -are on the screen. The MDT’s also give us criminal and contact info with photographs, car info, you name it, and you can get it on our MDT’s. And to those who would feel a little irregular about all this info based stuff, all of it is audited and checked and encrypted. It keeps us honest and totally transparent. The stop-sticks – they are a James Bond like device that will flatten tires of bad guys (And good guys alike who forget they are on the road) who are trying to get away. A car chase with the stop-stick deployed usually will be good for a set of police car tires. It happens.

Here I am trying to make this a simple more bloggy type blog and I am already five pages into it. And I am just getting started. So in order to facilitate the function of the blog, I will stop. Yep, to my critics I say – There ya go!

Stay Safe – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Ralph.