MLPD ride-along proves en-lightning
On Saturday night, Aug. 4, I drove down to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department (MLPD), exited my vehicle, and climbed into the passenger seat of an MLPD squad car/SUV. I had accepted an offer to ride along with Officer Jesse Gorham, a 15-year veteran of the MLPD, in part to hear his opinion on the Town Council’s decision to reduce Police Department salaries, and in part out of curiosity about what the police do, and how their jobs may be affected by the budget of the coming fiscal year.
In May the Town of Mammoth Lakes revealed its reduction plan to cover the projected $2.8 million shortfall for next year’s budget. To avoid layoffs to all town departments and personnel the plan instead proposed, among other actions, a reduction to salaries. Employees are being asked to pay concessions that amount to more than $1 million in cuts: 10% from civilians, and another 16% from police.
MLPD Chief Dan Watson explained that these cuts aren’t taken directly from police salaries, but that the town is lowering the amount it contributes to MLPD benefits, requiring employees to pay out of their own pockets instead. For instance, employees will now pay the entire contribution (9%) to their PERS pension plan, part of which used to be covered by the town. Altogether the town will be saving itself 16% on the cost of each employee through these cuts, but “salary, or take home, goes down as a result,” Watson said.
Little public outcry has been raised since the Town Council made its decision, something Officer Gorham, my ride-along escort on Saturday evening, found astonishing. “I guess the feeling of the Council is the police make too much money,” he said. “But the issue is that police officers work 24/7, we have to lay our life on the line, and we retire at 50 or 55 because of the stress of the job. I don’t think we make too much money for that.”
This year’s budget isn’t the first to limit the MLPD. The MLPD has been reducing its spending and staff since its peak in 2006-2008, when the department had the greatest number of employees, 28 (23 sworn positions and 5 civilians). This year the MLPD was spared laying any officers off when one officer transferred and his position was eliminated. But that brings the MLPD back to 20 employees (17 sworn positions and 3 civilians), almost the same number as when the MLPD was created in 1986.
Since 1986, not only the population of Mammoth Lakes, but also the number of town events has grown. “Events increase our workload,” Chief Watson said.
Not to mention, of those 17 sworn officers, 1 is Chief, 1 is an officer working as Detective, 1 is assigned to MONET (Mono County Narcotic Enforcement Team), and 1 to SRO (School Resource Officer). This leaves only 12 officers to cover a 24/7 town patrol.
According to Chief Watson, the MLPD has a minimum of 2 officers working at all times, and 4 officers between 9 p.m.-2 a.m. On the Saturday of Bluesapalooza there were 5 officers because of an overlap between the 2 on swing shift and 3 on graveyard shift.
“We work 4/10 [days/hours] shifts,” Officer Gorham explained. “We have a lot of overtime, which we try to control, but we’re down to 17 officers, and we’re cut so thin we can barely cover shifts. When it’s a really busy weekend like this, with all the alcohol flowing, it’d take nothing for us to get totally overwhelmed.”
I may have seen MLPD overwhelmed on Saturday, if a lightning storm hadn’t intervened. I had chosen the booziest night of the blues festival hoping to catch the most action, and any other year I might have witnessed droves of departing concert-goers flooding the Village, crowding into Whiskey Creek and Lakanuki, where inevitable fights break out between the prime hours of 11 p.m.-2 a.m. Instead I saw 3 squad cars answer a single call from Whiskey Creek, descending “like a SWAT team,” as Officer Gorham observed, upon an intoxicated out-of-town girlfriend and her parolee boyfriend.
The situation was quickly diffused; MLPD escorted the couple home. But all evidence pointed to a slow night for the MLPD, a disappointment only to this journalist.
Even without any fights or DUIs, Officer Gorham was busy for the entire 4 hours we rode together between 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. In the course of my ride-along he helped direct departing pedestrian traffic from Bluesapalooza to allow vehicular traffic down Minaret Road, answered the aforementioned call from Whiskey Creek, pulled over a suspected DUI, led a lost motorist to the Westin, circled the Village and checked in at Lakanuki, answered another call from a woman stuck at Manzanita and Dorrance with a bear between her car and her apartment, and gave a ride to a lone, late-night pedestrian on Main Street. Between these stops he covered town from the junction of Hwy 203 and U.S. 395 to the top of Lake Mary Road, and from the Knolls to Snowcreek, looking for any signs of suspicious activity.
The calls Officer Gorham answered never amounted to arrests or high speed chases — even the bear at Manzanita and Dorrance was MIA when we arrived at the scene — but Gorham noted that no matter how quiet the night, an officer can never let his guard down. “It’s an easy trap to fall into,” he said, “but you can’t get complacent.” In fact, as I learned from Chief Watson several days later, on Saturday night after 12:30 a.m., MLPD arrested a man outside of Lakanuki for intoxication and battery, and answered a domestic violence call (incidents of domestic violence rise on busy weekend nights, Officer Gorham noted).
These events were par for the weekend course, however. “We saw no real increase in activity in the Village,” Chief Watson said. “The rain chased all the non-residents home. It was unusual for a Bluesapalooza night.”
As my own night came to a close, I began to understand that even a typical weekend could take its toll on a police officer. Officer Gorham, who had been up since 7 a.m., would continue on until 2 a.m., circling the town in search of inebriated locals. “It gets depressing,” he said, “how much people drink.”
Yet although I abandoned him to the late-night drinkers, Gorham thanked me for coming along for the ride. His only complaint: that so few others had accepted MLPD’s offer of a ride-along. “We have invited all the Councilmembers on ride-alongs,” he said. “Only Skip Harvey and Matt Lehman accepted. How can you make an informed decision about how to fund the Police Department if you don’t know what we do?”
When asked about the Council’s budget cuts, Mayor Matt Lehman said, “At this point it’s something we have to do. We’re not just dealing with the budget shortfall, but with paying our creditor. We’re trying to cut everywhere possible.” I asked him if there was any possibility of dissolving the MLPD altogether and outsourcing to the county, as bankrupt city San Bernardino is considering doing. “We’re not actively talking about that,” he said, “but honestly, nothing is off the table.”
Chief Watson’s feeling: “The Town of Mammoth Lakes could pay the county for police services. But there have been no efforts to study the cost and savings. I don’t sense any serious interest from the Council or community in doing it.”
Which means MLPD is safe for now, although we may see the effects of these budget and employee cuts to response times, and our overall sense of security.
Returning to the safety and comfort of my home, I kept thinking about something Officer Gorham had said as we headed down from the Lakes Basin toward town. We were watching the lightning flash above the far mountains, in the heavy banks of storm clouds, and he asked me how it felt to ride in the squad car. I told him it was strange. I felt removed from the dangers of town, but also somehow exposed to them.
“It was a strange feeling for me, the first time I got in a cop car,” he agreed. “You feel power, but also vulnerability.”