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Fri11242017

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

The “breaking news” TV flash disrupted a peaceful Saturday afternoon at my home in Palm Springs. Three cops had been shot while responding to a domestic disturbance just a couple of miles away.

I started feeling uneasy and tense—like I used to feel in my hometown of Sarajevo.

I turned the TV off.

Within minutes, my editor called and left me a message, asking me if I was available to cover the shootings. I didn’t respond. I’ve done my share of violent breaking-news stories all around the globe. No more.

Later, my editor texted me, saying that two of the three officers—Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27—had died.

I’ve seen many senseless killings, as a war reporter in Romania and what was once Yugoslavia. When I lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, every morning would start with the gruesome front-page murder-scene photos of butchered bodies. Rio is a beautiful place, but there’s too much violence.

I chose to start a new life here in the desert after I was granted political asylum in the United States. I chose to live in Palm Springs because there were rarely shootouts, or gunfire, or police sirens, or dead bodies at night on the local evening news. For more than 20 years, I’ve been covering events in this peaceful oasis—until that serenity was shattered midday on Saturday, Oct. 8.

A homegrown idiot gang member allegedly decided to wipe out the cops who came to his door, just doing their jobs. (I’m not going to mention him by name.) The police officers—one a veteran officer within months of retirement; another a young woman who had just returned to work after having a child—had no chance the moment they walked up to the door. The Palm Springs Police Department should consider using this tragic event to change its 911 procedures when dealing with gang members. The red flags must go up before the dispatch. Always.

Remember the nonfiction book (and subsequent movie) The Onion Field? Its author, a former cop, Joe Wambaugh, actually lived here in the desert. After the infamous case—two police officers were kidnapped by criminals during a traffic stop, with one of the cops later killed—the LAPD changed its police tactics.

Little information has been released about the third police officer who was shot in Palm Springs. He is a material witness in this murder case, and is understandably being protected at this time. Sooner or later, he may testify and/or face the media inquiries. I spoke to a cop who survived a shootout with a gang member in Cabazon a few years back. He retired and became a plumber.

I’ve been shot at during the wars I covered, and you never forget it. I’ll always remember the hornet-like sound of the bullets that missed me by a mere chance. The sound of bullets hitting or piercing hard surfaces inches away stays with you—coming back to mind after hearing a sound with the slightest resemblance.

However, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that two cops were shot and killed in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m going to do just as those slain cops did on that fateful day: I’m going to do my job.

I’m going to write about and expose the gangs of Palm Springs. I hope that other media outlets will do the same. And I have a message for the members of the Varrio Las Palmas gang, to which the alleged cop killer reportedly belongs: This is Palm Springs, not a gangland.

Published in Community Voices

Many drivers loathe DUI checkpoints—especially drivers who have had a drink or two.

And that’s exactly the point: Drivers shouldn’t be behind the wheel when intoxicated. Arrests for driving under the influence can cost people more than $10,000 in fees and fines, plus jail time.

But that’s a small price to pay compared to the cost in lives due to DUI accidents. In 2014, nearly 10,000 people were killed by impaired drivers in the United States—with more than 800 of those deaths here in California.

On Friday, Aug. 12, I was allowed to tag along while the Palm Springs Police Department conducted a DUI checkpoint in the 2900 block of North Indian Canyon Drive. Sgt. Mike Villegas, the lead officer of the Traffic Division, was my host.

The night started with a 7 p.m. briefing at the police station. Villegas introduced me to his team of 11 detectives, officers, dispatchers and community officers.

“Be professional; be courteous; and be safe!” Villegas told his team before they embarked on what was, for most of them, their second shift that day. Funding for the checkpoints comes from a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Two hours later, the DUI checkpoint was completely set up, with a primary screening area, traffic cones, reflectors, generators, a DUI enforcement trailer, and a secondary screening area with tables, chairs, another trailer and several police cruisers.

By 9 p.m., Officer Art Enderle, Officer Barron Lane and Det. Miguel Torres had spread out at the path created by the traffic cones. The cops would introduce themselves, ask for the proper documents, and check to see if drivers were drinking that night.

It took only about 15 to 20 seconds to screen a car and its driver, so the line moved fast. Some of the drivers already had their licenses in hand before they were stopped at the checkpoint. 

Villegas came over and half-jokingly blamed Facebook for a quiet night so far. “Right now, friends tells friends on social media where our checkpoint is and how to avoid it,” he said.

At 9:26 p.m., Enderle, after checking the documents of a driver, yelled out: “Runner!” “Runner,” in the jargon, means a driver who’s going to the secondary screening area.

The protocol requires a community officer to drive the car there while the driver is escorted on foot. However, this does not necessarily mean the driver is suspected of driving under the influence; in this case, the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license. 

Enderle issued him a citation, while Torres called the man’s relatives to come and pick up him and his car. Torres spoke in Spanish to the driver, who quietly sat a chair, seemingly remorseful. Torres is bilingual; his parents came from Mexico.

“My papa was working as a gardener; my mom was cleaning houses, and I always wanted to be a cop,” Torres said. He’s on his second shift for the day, working the DUI checkpoint as overtime—eventually working 17 hours that day.

At 10:45 p.m., Enderle stopped another driver without a valid driver’s license. This time, the screening approach was more rigorous—because the driver had a prior DUI.

Enderle gave him a blood-alcohol breath test. “Blow, and blow again,” Enderle said as the driver sat in a chair. The driver took the test without complaint and passed.

Standing by is Jamie Webber, of American Forensic Nurses, Inc. She’s a phlebotomist who has worked for 26 years with law enforcement, doing everything from blood draws to Taser-dart removals to DNA collections.

“Some time ago, we were on Tahquitz (Canyon Way), and a drunk driver actually crashed into a car in front of him at the DUI checkpoint,” she said. “He was so drunk and didn’t even see the checkpoint. After we pulled him out of the car he asked, ‘What happened?!’”

Back on Indian Canyon, well past midnight on what had become Saturday, Aug. 13, a driver of a luxurious Porsche Panamera nearly drove through the checkpoint.

“Stop! Stop!” officer Lane yelled. When the car finally stopped, Lane determined that the car reeked of marijuana. Both the driver, a woman, and the passenger, her son, were escorted to the secondary screening area on foot and then separated.

PSPD veterans Lane and Enderle conducted a DUI screening on the woman. Lane moved his point finger left and right in front of her face, asking her to follow his finger with her eyes. Lane then asked the woman to walk along a straight line, while Enderle stood behind her. The woman was unstable—but it appeared that the instability was because of a physical disability rather than intoxication. The woman was not arrested.

Villegas said the male passenger, a juvenile, admitted having a small amount of marijuana in the car. The minimal amount of marijuana was located during a search, and the young man was issued a citation for marijuana possession.

I briefly talked to the driver of the car. “I was so embarrassed by it,” she said about her son’s citation.

Around 1 a.m., Villegas and his team began to close down the checkpoint before gathering everyone and reciting the night’s data: “All 527 vehicles that passed through the checkpoint were screened. Eight cars were sent to secondary screening for further investigation. There were four citations issued, but no DUIs.”

Villegas said it’s a good sign that there were no DUI arrests that night: It means drivers were obeying the law.

But obviously, not everybody obeys. Villegas later tells me that from January through June of this year, Palm Springs police had arrested 132 drivers for driving under the influence, and there had been 46 DUI-related traffic collisions.

In those collisions, two people lost their lives.

Published in Features

This one may just be eligible for Guinness World Records: Palm Springs resident Tracy McKain has been a victim of vehicle-related thefts four times in the 3 1/2 years she has lived at her current residence.

In fact, her latest vehicle, a 1999 Honda Civic, has been swiped three times since last October. During the most recent theft, in May, the car was taken even though half of the steering wheel had been cut off during the previous theft.

The police report reveals that the car didn’t even have license plates.

“And no gas, nor lights, either!” McKain said. Yet her Honda was again stolen at night, and somehow driven to Desert Hot Springs, where police found it abandoned.

For 3 1/2 years, McKain has rented a studio in a small Stevens Road condo complex not far from downtown Palm Springs. Her front window is about 50 feet away from her designated parking spot. She used to drive a Ford truck, until its wheels where stolen in the middle of the night in that same spot.

After that, she was only able to afford a used late-model Honda. (It’s worth noting that the Honda Civic is the second-most-stolen car in the country, right behind the Honda Accord, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.)

“I’m on state disabilities due to a work injury,” she said. “I’m not working at this time.”

The police reports indicate McKain’s Honda was first stolen from the parking lot at her Stevens Road residence last October. She remembered walking out of her home—and realizing her car was gone.

“I was standing in my empty parking spot, and I just burst into tears,” she recalls.

Eighteen hours later, the police found the car in an empty field in Desert Hot Springs. To protect her car, McKain got “The Club” anti-theft device and placed it on the steering wheel. Nonetheless, six months later, the Honda was stolen again.

“I was sad and wondering: How did they take ‘The Club’ off?” she said.

She got her question answered when the car was found—still running—seven hours later. It was missing half of its steering wheel, as well as the stereo and part of the dashboard.

Less than a month later, the same Honda—despite the crippled steering wheel and the missing stereo—was stolen yet again.

Sgt. William Hutchinson, spokesman for Palm Springs Police Department, confirmed these vehicle-theft reports, and explained what happens after a stolen-vehicle report is filed.

“We take a report and enter that information into a statewide database,” he said. “… Property detectives may potentially receive the case, or the Riverside County auto-theft task force may take the case.”

Hutchinson said no suspects have been identified regarding the thefts of McKain’s car. He added that it would be helpful for the condo complex to install security cameras.

Cindy Anderson, the property manager for the condo complex where the thefts took place, did not respond to an interview request regarding camera placement. Instead, she forwarded it to the homeowners association board.

Lee Bothe manages Community Association Financial Services, a company which works with the property. She agreed that cameras are an inexpensive way to safeguard cars and HOAs.

“With all the affordable technology of today, all that’s needed are cameras and a DVR in a box locked up at the HOA,” Bothe said.

As for McKain, she has bought yet another car, her third since moving to the condo complex. She is keeping her fingers crossed that the HOA will install cameras and motion-detecting lights.

Published in Local Issues

San Bernardino police recently made national news thanks to a creative operation.

Cops, dressed in plain clothes or as homeless people, walked up to cars stopped at an intersection. The officers held signs, but instead of saying something to the effect of “need food,” the signs said something to the effect of “S.B. Police. I am not homeless. Looking for seatbelt and cell phone violations.”

Of course, many drivers didn’t pay attention—they were busy texting, talking on a phone or even eating.

Those drivers received citations.

The Palm Springs Police Department also recently conducted a creative operation, of sorts, to combat a common Palm Springs crime: bike theft.

In broad daylight, a marked police department bike was placed as bait, in Sunrise Park and in other areas of the city frequented by homeless people and the less fortunate. Of course, plain-clothes cops were on the watch.

During the operation, three people, all Palm Springs residents, were arrested for grand theft: Gilbert Langford, 43; Marcos Gonzalez, 29; and Charles Wunderlich, 30. Langford was also cited for violating parole; Gonzalez was on probation at the time of his arrest; and Wunderlich allegedly had drugs on him.

Bike theft is a growing problem in Palm Springs, according to the police.

“In 2014, 303 bicycles were stolen in the city,” Sgt. Harvey Reed said. “From Jan. 1, 2015, to July 31, 2015, 191 bicycles were stolen in Palm Springs.”

Lt. Mike Kovaleff declined to discuss details of the Bait Bike operation, because “it would jeopardize future details.” So I headed to Sunrise Park, where there are always plenty of folks who use bikes as their only means of transportation. Everyone I spoke to told me they’d heard of the Bait Bike operation. Kenny, a young fellow with a nice bike (who only wanted to use his first name), said he even served time due to Bait Bike.

“Yep, the cops nabbed me at the Circle K, midday, about eight months ago,” he said. “Got six months for a felony, had priors, served about a month and a half.”

Kenny recalls how it went down. “The bike (had) a carbon fiber frame, cost about $1,300. The cops were in a van, watching it all. They got me on the bike.”

Kenny stopped, scratched his head and reluctantly continued. “I was duped! A lady asked me if I wanna buy the bike. I fell for it. It was entrapment!”

Evidently, the judge didn’t buy Kenny’s explanation. As far as entrapment claims regarding Bait Bike, John Hall, the information specialist for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, was not able to comment.

Jose, another young fellow with a cool bike, explained what usually happens to stolen bikes.

“They go on bricks, man! No fool’s selling them to pawn shops; the owners work with cops,” he said. “A ‘hot’ bike is taken apart, and those parts are used to repair other bikes. Bikes are all we got, man!”

Sgt. Reed offered some useful tips on how to protect a bicycle from being stolen. Beyond having a photo of and the serial number for your bike, always lock the rear and front wheels to the frame—as well as the seat.

Most importantly, Sgt. Reed warned: “Never leave your bike unattended or unlocked, even if it's just for a minute.”

Published in Local Issues

Two days before the highly publicized recent New York prison break, a local K-9 apprehended a suspect who was wanted for questioning regarding a robbery in Palm Springs.

There were no cameras present. There were no reporters on the scene. There was not an army of police officers, nor were there numerous K-9’s tracking the escapes.

There was just one police dog and one officer patrolling Indian Canyon Drive after 9 p.m. Kane, the 5-year old Belgian Malinois, who has been with the Palm Springs Police K-9 unit since 2011, simply did his job: As the suspect ran from the scene, Kane was released by his handler, officer Luciano Colantuono, and Kane caught the suspect a short distance away.

I briefly met officer Colantuono while he was patrolling with Kane. As I spoke to Colantuono, Kane was inside the SUV barking—and the sheer force of his movement was shaking the whole SUV. Yes, the power of a trained Malinois K-9 is formidable.

Israeli Special Forces have used these dogs for years now to fight terrorism, and the U.S. Secret Service combs the White House grounds with these exceptional dogs as well. They look like German Shepherds, but are a bit smaller—though their abilities are legendary: A Malinois is capable of jumping a 10-foot wall.

“The Palm Springs Police department has been utilizing apprehension K-9s since 1980,” said Lt. Gustavo Araiza, the lead officer of the K-9 program. “In 2003, we started utilizing bomb-detection K-9s at the Palm Springs International Airport.”

Kane is one of two Malinois currently on the force. Once upon a time, there were four K-9s with the department. Kane has never been injured during a patrol related incident, nor has he taken fire.

However, Kane has been fortunate.

“Kane replaced K-9 Ike, who was killed in the line of duty in 2011,” recalls Lt. Araiza. “Ike was shot by a suspect.”

Ike is the only Palm Springs police K-9 ever to be killed in the line of fire. Officer Colantuono, who was also Ike’s handler, was wounded in the incident. The officer is media-shy, does not seek publicity and is a man of a few words.

When off-duty, Kane lives with Officer Colantuono, a 10-year PSPD veteran.

“I’ve been with Kane since day one when he came to the department,” Colantuono said.

The bond between Kane and his handler is unbreakable. The officer is the only person who feeds his K-9. They work four days a week, and they often train together—and they train hard, as you can see in the photo. 

Kane is not a simple family pet. A police service dog is extremely active and requires a diet formulated to meet its increased energy and nutrient demands. Simply put, it takes a lot to take care of a K-9.

“The cost of a dog with handler training runs approximately from $15,000 to $18,000, and the fee for the K-9 is generally paid through donations,” said Lt. Araiza, a 15-year department veteran.

Public donations for the K-9 program are accepted at the Palm Springs Police K-9 Unit, P.O. Box 1830, Palm Springs, CA 92263-1830.

For more information, visit the Palm Springs Police K-9 Unit Webpage.

Published in Features

We’re living in a video world. Cameras are everywhere: on streets, tablets, smart phones and satellites.

Cameras can also help protect the public and law enforcement alike when placed in key public areas and—increasingly—on police officers themselves.

However, you won’t find very many law-enforcement cameras in the Coachella Valley. For instance, Palm Springs Police Department officers do not wear body cams, nor do their police vehicles have dashboard cams. The same goes for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces law and order in Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and elsewhere.

An early February request to talk about cameras with Alberto Franz, the Palm Springs chief of police, was answered by an assistant who stated that the chief was busy until the end of month. On the contrary, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman was happy to talk, both one-on-one and via email.

“I am a huge proponent and completely support the use of body-worn cameras on our police officers,” Zimmerman said. “We have 600 officers wearing cameras. By the year’s end, all of our officers working in a uniform patrol assignment (about 1,000) will be wearing them. Having officers wearing body-worn cameras is a win-win for both the officer and the community.”

Meanwhile, here in Riverside County, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union that represents deputies, is going to court in an attempt to stop the county from issuing body cams to on-duty deputies. Deputy Armando Munoz, the public information officer at the sheriff’s Palm Desert station, stated that “nobody … will talk about the body cameras at this point since the whole issue is still in court proceedings.”

While Chief Franz declined to talk about possible body cameras, Sgt. Harvey Reed, the Palm Springs Police Department spokesperson, did talk. He said management has started looking at different makes and models of cameras. Of particular interest is a clip-on camera that attaches to an officer’s shirt below the collar. It shows the area directly in front of the officer, as well as slightly to the left and right, and records in color with sound.

“When policies and procedures are developed, privacy expectations will be taken into consideration,” he said.

Certainly, when it comes to cameras, privacy issues are important. In fact, former police dispatcher Laura Crawford, now enjoying retirement in Rancho Mirage, remembers when officers’ unions even didn’t want global-positioning systems activated in police cruisers.

“It was vital to me as a dispatcher to know where an officer was if all hell broke loose,” Crawford said. “Body cameras have the same issues, as officers feel everything they do is under scrutiny.”

San Diego’s Chief Zimmerman, however, believes the positives of body cameras far outweigh negatives.

“A body worn-camera can be a very valuable training tool for the officer,” Zimmerman said. “Currently, at my department, we are hiring many police officers, and having the ability to see the video will only enhance the training of our officers.”

Surveillance cameras and traffic cameras can also be useful in combating crimes. Yet desert cities are lagging behind when it comes to adopting this technology as well.

David Hermann, the public information officer at the city of Palm Desert, confirmed there are no monitored traffic cameras on public streets in Palm Desert.

Mark Greenwood, Palm Desert’s director of public works, said the city does have a few traffic signals equipped with cameras that allow the signal to change more quickly based on the presence of vehicles. However, these low-resolution cameras do not record, and are not monitored. Palm Desert also has five portable, motion-detecting cameras that are meant to discourage vandalism and graffiti; they take still photos when they detect motion. However, when I spoke to Hermann in February, he said none of the cameras were deployed.

Palm Springs police dispatchers have the ability to monitor 11 cameras, mostly in the downtown area. The video from these cameras, according to Sgt. Reed, is recorded and retained for a period of one year. Palm Springs has 80 intersections with signals.

In the near future, Palm Springs will proceed with the construction of a new Traffic Management Center and Citywide Traffic Signal Interconnect Project. According to Marcus Fuller, an assistant city manager and city engineer, the federally funded, $2 million-plus project will include numerous new traffic cameras, although it has not yet been determined if and how data will be stored.

Stay tuned.

Published in Local Issues