The Time Spent Saving Armando

Second of Two Parts
By Chris Lavin

LA MESA – It is just after 6 p.m. when the night shift and its supervisor sit down for the nightly briefing.

On this night, this is what will stand watch for La Mesa. With a couple of exceptions, it is a very young crowd. Four patrol members, led by older officers, review the work of the day crew and hear the description of a car stolen at gunpoint just hours before. There is talk about a possible rape and increased suspicious activity in a city park.

And then the officers are off.

Gary Moss, an ex-Navy avionics mechanic and one of the more mature men of this shift, climbs into his patrol car, clicks on his on-board computer and signals to the dispatcher as he leaves the new police station’s underground garage that he is on the road.

Moss is assigned on this night to the northwest quadrant of the city, one of four patrol cars that, theoretically, will keep a presence across the city and be able to respond to calls while watching for criminal activity.

Almost immediately, Moss gets a call.

He is summoned deep into a clean, well-kept apartment complex off Lake Murray Boulevard by a young, single mom who was having trouble with her 17-year-old son – call him Armando.

Armando had been fighting with his younger brother and announced he was leaving and not coming back. His mother is distraught and defeated. “He has run away,’’ she says. “I don’t know what I can do.”

The easy thing for Moss here would be to size this whole episode up as family squabble that will, most likely, resolve itself. It is cold out and Armando was wearing shorts. Still, Armando is 17, under age, and his mother has described him as having spent time hanging around a 50-year-old neighbor who gives him money. This has a feel of something that could go bad.

By policy, officers must immediately post missing person reports on underage children so Moss returns to the police station with a photo and his notes in hand. For the next 45 minutes, he sits in a cubicle deep in the bowels of the police station pecking away at a keyboard and making a phone call to warn the 50-year-old friend not to fund Armando’s flight.

Meanwhile, the streets of the northwest sector are uncovered. If some miscreant chooses this moment to rob a 7-11 on north Baltimore, it could take seven or eight minutes for officers to travel from other parts of town.

In cop talk, a robber can be a mile away for every minute a response takes.

And this is a constant trade off in police work. Do you sit and wait for the high-profile robbery event that can happen virtually anywhere at any time or do you handle the call for help from Armando’s mom?

“Of course, we have to do both,’’ says La Mesa Police Chief Ed Aceves. “We are not in the business of telling our citizens ‘Your call doesn’t matter, we’re waiting for bigger things.’ But those calls take time. You’d be surprised how quickly an entire shift can get busy at the same time.’’

In 2011 the patrol officers handled 22,000 radio dispatch calls while making 25,000 of their own initiated "contacts'' with motorists or investigating suspicious activity.

And on this Monday in January, the end of a holiday weekend, this is immediately true. Somewhere in La Mesa a young woman has insulted another over Facebook. One girl and her friends pile into a car and pull up into the driveway of the other and exchange words that can be heard through the Parks Avenue neighborhood. One girl threatens to shoot the other and the police are called.

When guns or the threat of shooting come in to 911, the call gets special response. Officers from throughout the city will leave their sectors to back up the lone officer assigned to that sector and who is likely to arrive first on a potentially violent scene.

On this night that meant three police cars and the supervising lieutenant arrive to a now-empty driveway as the officers scan the neighborhood to make certain the potential combatants had left.

All is quiet, but again, for these twenty minutes or so, virtually the entire night shift is in one sector, leaving the rest of the city more than a few minutes away from an immediate response to a robbery.

Moss leaves this scene and begins heading back to the northwest sector. He hopes to search a bit for Armando and drive through a Lake Murray Boulevard area that has been a favorite target of robbers coming in off Interstate 8. But before he can get there, he hears one of his officers reporting that he has stopped three drunk young women as they created a disturbance along a city street just north of El Cajon Boulevard.

The women were obnoxious, loud and probably deserved a few hours in a holding cell for having open containers, but officers have to gauge the use of their time carefully. Even a routine arrest can mean hours of paperwork and then transporting the suspect to the county jail. During that time, sectors are uncovered and there are fewer officers to back each other up if something truly significant happens.

So the drunk women were ordered to empty their cups and were escorted back to their nearby homes.

Within minutes, and before he could return to look for Armando, Moss was summoned to a hotel on El Cajon Boulevard where a mother of a 15-year-old runaway daughter was about to confront the 25-year-old former meth-addict she believed was leading her girl astray. Again, not a situation where an officer wants to be alone.

Moss arrives at the hotel before any confrontation can take place and awaits back up. Two other officers arrive. One goes to the back of the motel to stop escape while Moss and a young officer in training approach room 116 with a key retrieved from the hotel clerk.

Who knows what the next few minutes will bring?

Turns out the daughter wasn’t there. The man was watching TV and eating potato chips. The mother races off into the night chasing another rumor of her daughter’s location in El Cajon and the La Mesa police log the call on their computers and head back into the night.

And so it goes throughout what the officers described as a pretty typical evening. Responding to one after another of the thousands of calls 911 dispatchers log each year while throwing in an occasional traffic stop.

On this night there was one for no brake lights. Another for unregistered vehicle. Speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, a possible Driving Under the Influence. The latter turns out to be a sober parolee whose car is searched as a matter of routine. That takes 40 minutes. As does a conversation with an angry landlord who wants to evict a noisy tenant.

The easy call is to say there are simply not enough officers on the street to handle the calls for service while also maintaining a reasonable guard for quick response to crimes like robberies or rapes. Couldn’t the police have more civilian staffers available at night to handle the calls that don’t require an armed officer while freeing them up for what civilians might consider “real crimes’’ like robbery, burglary, rape?

Yet Aceves and his management staff have to apply the resources they have against the jobs that need doing.

Police work in the last few decades has clearly emphasized “community policing,’’ working with citizen groups and neighborhood watch to be a force multiplier for the department. While the La Mesa Department has grown from 34 to 68 sworn officers since 1965, it has also added 26 civilian employees in the same time to improve crime analysis, dispatching operations and community service workers that are intended to take the routine loads off the sworn officers.

In addition to patrol, Aceves has to staff a detective unit that helps solve the crimes once they’ve been committed. While the recent spate of robberies got a lot of attention in the media, the fact that the department has made nine robbery arrests is less well-known and often the work of the detective bureau.

Three La Mesa detectives are also assigned to three joint local/state/federal task forces that work across jurisdictions to combat gang, drug and auto theft problems.

“I don’t know that the average citizen understands the range of things we have to deal with,’’ Aceves says.

In recent years, La Mesa has joined forces with El Cajon and Lemon Grove to move toward a combined fire-fighting operation known today as Heartland Fire. Aceves believes there is already very good cooperation between police agencies, but he acknowledges much of that cooperation is limited to reactions to “crisis’’ events like a police shooting or major crime. On things like the day-to-day patrol coverage of city quadrants during the hours robberies are likely to be committed, La Mesa is on its own.

Robberies in 2011 were up significantly in La Mesa. There were 93 robberies compared to 68 in 2010. Most of that increase came in an increase in commercial robberies and thefts from people just walking the streets. That kind of increase at a time when virtually all other crime is down, gets noticed.

 Chief Aceves can point to crime rates that, overall, have been trending down and are near all-time lows. He can look back to the high crime rates of the 1980s when he was a young officer and things were bad enough to inspire then President Bill Clinton to fund 100,000 extra local police officers from federal money.

Yet the Internet has made tracking crime easier and made it much easier for citizens to know, almost in real time, of virtually everything that happens on a given night.

“We are always balancing, analyzing, looking for ways to keep our officers in touch with the community, being pro-active in spotting suspicious activity and doing what they can to check it out,’’ Aceves said. “We look at the analytics. The number of stops. The number of arrests each officer makes. I believe we are doing well with the resources we have.’’

Aceves would like to see 200 neighborhood watches established throughout La Mesa instead of the fewer than 100 now in place, but that is up to citizens realizing they can contribute substantially to making the city safer. The number of calls will always exceed resources at times, Aceves said, and one answer is having a citizenry fully engaged in the effort too.

Sometimes there are good outcomes.

On this Monday night in January, amid traffic stops and backup duty, calls from angry mothers, paperwork and irate landlords, Officer Moss gets a text from dispatch just before midnight. Armando had come home.

Click here to read Part 1 of this two-part report.

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Tags: Crime, Ed Aceves, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, robberies


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Comment by David B. Givens on January 25, 2012 at 2:41pm

Very nice story--thanks for sharing!

Comment by chris shea on January 25, 2012 at 11:30am

Excellent reporting, Chris.  All I can say is that I pray for all the brave men and women in our police force.  What an excruciatingly difficult job, both physically as well as emotionally.  When a motorcycle officer was parked near my office watching for speeders, who are quite frequent on the street that runs in front of my office, it was all I could do to stay inside and not run out and tell the young man to be careful.  All of these officers are someone's husband or wife, son or daughter.  Thank you for the glimpse into a night in the life of those whom we trust because they are worthy of our trust.

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