A Night on the Beat:
By Simon Kinsella, September 13, 2002 02:43 PM
Cop Finds Culture Shock, Baptism of Fire
In a City Desperate for Translators
MEMO from RICHMOND -- It was 20 minutes past five on Friday evening when Officer Dan Wellhausen drove his squad car in front of the visitor's entrance of the Richmond Police Station, where I sat rewinding tape and anticipating his arrival.
While we had arranged to meet at 4:45 p.m., the 33-year old veteran cop had been dispatched to patrol North Richmond, where he searched without luck for a man suspected of kidnapping his girlfriend. Now, he was bringing his cruiser to a grinding halt, peering through black wraparound shades and beckoning for me to join him.
The cop emerged from his car and shook my hand firmly. He stood just under six feet tall, with a thick build accentuated by a bullet-proof vest fitted beneath his uniform. He had dark, closely cropped hair and a well-trimmed moustache. We exchanged pleasantries as he cleared a space for me in the passenger seat of his cruiser, depositing some odd clutter into the trunk.
I had never been in the front seat of a squad car before and took note of the array of amenities and equipment: A sophisticated touch-screen computer system, an assortment of communication devices, several weapons, and a pack of Marlboro menthol cigarettes.
Wellhausen took me on a quick driving tour of Richmond in an effort to explain its logistics. The fifty-six square mile city sits about 16 miles northeast of San Francisco on a peninsula separating San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. Bordered by the cities of El Cerrito and San Pablo, Richmond comprises thirty-six districts spanning about 32 miles of shoreline.
Wellhausen shared a bit of his personal background as we explored the city. A native of Solano County, where he still lives, Wellhausen grew up in Fairfield, which he described as a "military town." He studied aerospace engineering in college, but soon found his calling in law enforcement. When he graduated at 21, he immediately sought work as a cop -- by chance, in nearby Richmond.
"When I first came to Richmond, it was like culture shock," Wellhausen remembered. In stark contrast to his hometown, Richmond's population of nearly 100,000 is ethnically diverse, as evidenced by the city's streets this night, which brimmed with middle and lower-income families of seemingly every denomination.
In Richmond, blacks comprise the largest segment of the population at about 36 percent, with whites ranking a close second. Some 26,000 Hispanics also live in Richmond, the majority of whom are of Mexican descent. Not surprisingly, Spanish is widely-spoken; a census report from 2000 found more than 21,000 residents spoke Spanish, and of those, about 12,000 spoke English "less than very well." Later, I would find Richmond police officers often encounter communication barriers owing to the English/Spanish discrepancy.
As a 22 year-old rookie cop, Wellhausen's baptism literally came by fire -- gunfire.
In 1991, he had been on the force scarcely one year when he pulled over a car for a routine traffic stop. He approached the vehicle, and within seconds a bullet grazed his temple and lodged its way into his jaw. Stunned and bleeding profusely, Wellhausen managed to shoot two of the car's three men before collapsing from the pain of his wound.
As he lay on the ground, the assailant stood over Wellhausen and unloaded three more shots into the officer's chest. Had he not been wearing a bulletproof vest, Wellhausen said he would certainly have perished. Even so, the force of the shots left scars on his chest and stomach, and kept the beleaguered officer holed up in recovery for six months. The incident left Wellhausen with a metal jaw, and prompted "America's Most Wanted" to come to Richmond and produce a segment based on the shooting. Authorities eventually located the shooter hiding out in Atlanta.
"He did eight years, and after that they let him out on parole," Wellhausen said, with no shortage of incredulity.
This Friday night Wellhausen's "beat" -- the area which he has been assigned to patrol -- was larger than usual. A fellow officer was on sick leave, and Wellhausen bore the brunt of patrolling the adjacent beats until officers from the night, or "graveyard" shift, arrived for duty at 8:30 p.m. Wellhausen checked his cruiser's computer screen often as we navigated the area. The officer's fingers flittered effortlessly through various windows that delineated pending calls. Each call contained coded information explaining its time of origin, the nature of the complaint or offense, as well as a brief written description of what was going on at the scene.
At one point we hurried to assist a female K-9 unit who needed a male officer to search a large male suspect for drugs. Wellhausen did not perform this duty himself. Instead, Officer Lee Hendricson, who won Officer of the Year in Richmond last year, arrived on the scene, bringing with him a fresh-faced rookie in training. As the grimacing newbie explored the suspect's crevices, Wellhausen lit a cigarette. "We try to leave this kind of work for the rookies," he said. "I don't even have a pair of gloves."
I was eager to see what, if any, drugs might be located on this suspect, a tall, stout black man in his early 20s, and where he might have stashed them. But before Officer Hendricson and his companion turned up anything, Wellhausen received a call on his radio, which was clipped to his uniform's lapel. On nearby 20th and Ohio Streets, it appeared there had been an assault and a potential theft. Wellhausen and I hopped into the cruiser and made for the scene. As we sped away, the rookie's hand was still down the suspect's pants.
" ¡Dios mío!" cried a heavyset Mexican woman as we arrived at her home at 1812 Chansler Street. "¿Que pasó?" What seemed like an army of children came fleeting on bicycles, their eyes wide, their words frantic. An older gentleman, presumably the woman's husband, trudged along behind them. His forearms were bloody and scraped, and he held a piece of cloth over his left eye. It was obvious he had been beaten, although he retained his composure as he conferred with Wellhausen and Officer Danny Harris, a tall, black officer already at the scene. The victim spoke no English, nor did most of the family of about 12 or 13, most of them children.
"Let me see your eye," Wellhausen said to no effect. "Tus ojos," a young boy finally said, and the man removed the cloth, revealing an eye that had been swollen shut.
Officer Harris recorded a modicum of information using the young boy as a translator. Apparently, a few of the Latino boys had been riding around on a bicycle, when a group of black youths ranging in age from 13 to 16 converged on one boy, attempting to take his bicycle. While this was going on, the boy's father had been nearby, and his children alerted him. He rushed to the scene, only to be pummeled en masse by the youths. Still, he recovered the bike, and returned home worse for the wear as the offenders fled the scene. Officer Harris filed an incident report, but was constrained from further action: The man didn't want to press charges, and since he spoke no English, the police could do little to persuade him.
Wellhausen later answered a report of a missing 13 year-old girl named Mariah. The girl lived with her grandparents, and Wellhausen had dealt with them before, because they knew him by name. Wellhausen lit a cigarette as the girl's grandfather explained the situation: During recent months, the girl had become increasingly mouthy, disrespecting her grandparents and spending more time alone with neighborhood girls. She had no record of being a runaway, or of getting in trouble with the police.
Hours earlier, the girl had gone out with a friend, and nobody seemed to know where they had gone. A neighbor remarked that the pair rarely strayed far from the neighborhood, and would most likely return soon. Nonetheless, the girl's grandfather wanted to file a missing person's report, a request with which Wellhausen complied without appearing begrudging.
Later, he confessed his true feelings: "She'll probably turn up in an hour or two," he sighed. "But it's better to cover your ass and fill out the paperwork." I thought a person had to be missing for 48 hours before the police would fill out a missing person's report. Not so, said Wellhausen. California law makes no mention of a minimum period a person must be absent before police may consider them missing. If anything were to happen to the girl, the police would bear responsibility if it became known they had refused to fill out a missing persons report. We returned to the station, where Wellhausen wrote what seemed like volumes about his discussion with the girl's grandfather.
Later, we answered a call of a reported 211 -- California police code for robbery.
Officer Wellhausen and I arrived at a house on Esmond Avenue, where a fatigugued yet cheerful woman greeted us at her front door. The 62 year-old physical therapist had been at her job at Summit Medical Center in Oakland from seven a.m. until seven p.m. When she returned home, she found her house ransacked. Her television, VCR and stereo were missing. Someone had strewn the contents of her drawers about the bedroom floor. Thankfully, the thieves missed out on some expensive jewelry, as well as an assemblage of old checks and credit cards. The robbery was obviously the work of amateurs. The silver-haired woman donned a grin and said, "They missed out on these!" she said, holding up a pair of remote controls.
Officer Wellhausen surveyed the scene, making notes of forcible entry, property damage and what was stolen, all of which he jotted into a small notebook. "We should wait here until an evidence technician arrives," he told me.
I asked him what an evidence technician was. "They're the people who come onto the scene and investigate the crime," Wellhausen said. An evidence technician named Mike would soon arrive, Wellhausen said, with cameras and fingerprint kits. In the meantime, Wellhausen dictated his account of the crime into what looked like a cellular phone, but was actually a Dictaphone hooked up to command central.
"We have a team of reporters who listen to these reports and enter them into the system," Wellhausen explained. "It's really useful." He read the report while we waited for Mike to arrive. Midway through, Wellhausen stopped and groaned. He pointed to his computer screen, which read, "THIRTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL MARIAH REPORTED MISSING, RETURNED HOME TO GRANDPARENTS."
The remainder of the night was fairly uneventful. We drove around Richmond's Iron Triangle, an urban blight known for its prostitutes and open-air drug market. We stopped and talked to a few of the neighborhood's prostitutes.
"How's business tonight?" Wellhausen asked one woman. Though the night was cold, she wore a white button-up shirt arranged to show her cleavage and midriff, a black imitation leather skirt, black stockings and high-heel pumps. "I ain't out hustling," the woman said. "I got in a fight with my boyfriend, and I'm out taking a walk."
Wellhausen nodded, and drove down the street. A man and woman stood on the street corner. When they saw the police cruiser, they turned and walked away. "Some of these people work these corners every night," Wellhausen said. "They do their dope, or sell their bodies. They'll walk off when they see a cop, but it's only a matter of time before they're back in action."
We drove around the block, and sure enough, the two had returned to their street corner perch.
At the end of the night, I thanked Wellhausen for allowing me to ride along with him. He asked me where I lived, and how I was getting home. "I live in Berkeley," I told him. "I'm going to take BART."
"Do you want me to drop you off at the El Cerrito del Norte station?" he asked.
"You can just drop me off at the police station," I said. "There's a BART stop about six blocks away."
Wellhausen looked appalled. "You're going to walk that stretch?" he asked. "No friggin' way! You'll never make it!"
"But it's only six blocks!" I protested. "And it's right by the police station. How dangerous can it be?"
"Trust me on this one," he said.
He pressed his foot on the accelerator, and whisked me away from his beat to the safety of neighboring El Cerrito.