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