Thursday, September 28, 2006

Citizen on Patrol—Day One

Today was my first day of official volunteer work, where I was given a police radio, a city truck, “volunteer” decals for the truck and the duty of keeping a mindful watch on the city’s numerous parks. It was fairly exciting, even though nothing remotely interesting happened, at least not that I saw.

There were some punks skating in the skate park without helmets (which is a sizable monetary violation for their parents), but I didn’t call it in. Half of me figured the best medicine for those kids is to see one of their friends crack open his skull on the pavement so they’ll learn that helmets—though they’ll mess up your hair and make you look like a tool—actually help keep you brains inside your head (what brains they have), and the other half of me knew that there was nobody to call for something like this. Sure, it’s a crime, technically, but if the park ranger or code enforcement officer are not on duty (whom I would first call for something like this), it isn’t a serious enough crime to radio the police dispatcher about. Though nothing would have given me more satisfaction than busting a bunch of skater punks, I ultimately let it go, grudgingly.

Listening to the police radio told another tale, however. I’m not hip to all of the slang and lingo they use, but I picked up a bunch of it in the three hours I was on patrol, as many of the things that went on were explained by the officers enough where I could make out the situation. It was like listing to a radio show in Spanish; I know enough Spanish to understand a few key words but I missed most of the subtitles. A number of interesting events occurred that the police had to handle, from some high school kid yelling at the administrative folks in the front office of his high school because he thought they stole his cell phone to a guy “taking care of himself” in the parking lot of the movie theater parking lot. For the high school kid, the police call for that is a 415—disturbing the peace—and I only know that one really well because my brother Jason was in a garage band in high school and we had several visits by the police for that exact call.

They wrote a song about it. It was a favorite of mine.

For the other guy… I don’t know what they call it but he gave a foot chase and I only hope he zipped up first, as an additional crime could have been transporting a load not properly tied down.

I couldn’t understand if they caught him or not, as most times I couldn’t translate the radio codes (or hear through the static that probably everyone else on the frequency is used to) quick enough to decipher the outcome. There were a couple of fights at the high school and a cadre of people pulled over, vehicle checks, safety checks, pedestrian checks and property checks. Plates were run, drivers’ licenses checked, people cited, justice done…if you believe in justice, of course.

In the big park next to the airport, I met up with the code enforcement officer and a “black and white” to issue a citation to a homeless woman for the camping violation. When we rolled up (that’s what they call “arriving,” rolling up,” she had pretty much taken over one of the picnic shelters and had, I’m going to guess, everything she owned in a couple of bicycle trailers and two coolers. If she was walking down the street, you would have no idea that, when she was kicked out of the flood basin last week, her and her boyfriend, aptly nicknamed Trippy, lived under the freeway overpass. It seemed cliché, but it was real. She reminded me of a brown-haired Calista Flockheart—rail thin, long hair, sunken cheeks. She didn’t take off her sunglasses, spoke slowly and moved as if she was under water.

She also had a dog, and before you tilt your head to one side and give a pitifully “aww” for the poor dog, he looked great, well taken care of, surprisingly happy. It is the one thing that I’ve noticed on these patrols, that most of the pets I’ve seen with the homeless look like great animals, sometimes more fit and full than their owners, which is a testament to the transients: They take care of their animals better than they take care of themselves.

She still got a ticket, one that she will more than likely neither pay nor appear on (and it was her second one this week; the flood basin was the other), and they will arrest her, put her in jail, take away her stuff to storage and her dog to the pound if she doesn’t have someone to give it to.

Now you can go “aww,” because that’s the real tragedy, just a loving loyal dog who knows nothing of homes or backyards.

After giving her a ticket, we explored the trees and bushes surrounding the park and discovered a hobo camp of sorts, complete with all of the accoutrements you’d expect. We posted an sign that required its removal within four hours and made a call to city services to come have it removed. I have always been an observant person, and when I was a kid, one of the games I played when I visited my grandparents house was to see what was different about their family room when I first walked in. My grandmother loved it and I enjoyed the challenge.

Because of my ability to notice small details, I impressed the code enforcement officer, though I wasn’t trying, just “doing my job.” The homeless woman adamantly denied that the stuff in the bushes belonged to her, and there was reason to believe her (what did she have to lose as she was already getting a ticket for that very thing), but I pointed out a few things to the code enforcement officer that linked her to the junk in the bushes. For one, in the bushes there was a tangle of dirty yellow rope stuffed in one of the bags, the very same type and condition of rope the woman was using as a dog leash. One of the bicycles in the bushes was the same make and model as the woman’s bike by the picnic tables, and there were dog tracks in the dirt everywhere.

It’s not much, but the officer said, “We should get you to teach the observance class.” It is always nice to get a slap on the back on your first day. I’m such a sycophant!

Good times.

I drove through the main park, the old park that has been in the city since the city began, like Central Park for NYC (before you write me and tell me that they didn’t start building Central Park until 1857 and New York was founded in 1609, I know, but I was just making the point that the park is old), a comfortable place where all of the drunks go in the afternoon. Great trees, comfortable benches… and prying eyes. The moment I pulled in the circular drive that led to the main lot, all eyes were on me, and they followed me, some with smiles, some with glares, until I drove away. They weren’t doing anything wrong, anything obvious to me anyway, so I had no reason to contact anyone about anything.

All in all it was a good day for me. I got a real taste of the work, I saw the plight but I did very little to change it. Did I make a difference? No, probably not, but my primary directive—to be a visible element in the city—was accomplished by only me driving around the various parks for three hours, listening to people getting tickets, cops calling in break-in searches with the alarms wailing in the background and numerous stops on a variety of things, nothing too serious. Well, unless you’re the guy behind the movie theater who’s going to have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life; that’s pretty serious, I guess.

I ended the shift with an interview for the local paper (the very one I’m trying to write a column for that they’re dragging their feet about…but then if you’ve been following the technological turmoil with the country’s newspapers, you’d understand the long wait) and a photo session to accompany the article about the volunteer program. I’m in the background, actually standing behind the truck in a quasi-natural pose you find in cigarette ads in magazines… you know, the high-society party where everyone is smiling or laughing, usually holding a high-ball of some kind of whiskey, wearing sportcoats with patches on the elbows and turtle neck sweaters… I’m the guy behind the bar, like Wilson on “Home Improvement,” so you’ll barely be able to see me… if you get the local paper here next Wednesday. If you don’t, no big loss. I've got lots of pictures of me if you need one.

The end result of today was the fact that I had a new responsibility, authority, a tangible purpose to a etheral and lofty goal. Patrolling the streets of the city offered me a chance to play sheriff, and it was pretty fun.

I’m just glad I didn’t have to use the radio for a call; at least not yet.

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