Police chief addresses ongoing safety concerns

Weeks after a violent shooting rampage that left two dead and three hospitalized, citizens continue to vocalize concerns about the vulnerability of public safety.

At last week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council meeting, Chris Nicholson shared his first-hand account of the events that began in the early morning hours of Oct. 25 on Atkins Street and that eventually led to a high-speed chase and officer-involved shooting of suspect Sergio Munoz.

“I live across the street from the apartment complex where the incident occurred,” said Nicholson. “I heard Shot 1, Shot 2, heard muzzle flash, heard a woman scream,” he said, saying he assumed it was the voice of victim Brittany Metheny. He reported hearing several more shots fired, before finally hearing a car depart from the residence.

“I couldn’t see it because it was too dark on the street. Two or three minutes later Ridgecrest Police Department arrived on the scene. They had a very strong show of force and secured that area basically in pitch blackness, not knowing what was going on.

“I watched all this occur. I just want to publicly acknowledge Ridgecrest Police Department for standing up and doing their job in incredibly stressful situations. I noticed them deploy and secure the area in mere minutes. Then they had to endure the next three hours of lunacy that unfolded throughout our community,” said Nicholson.

“So I have three burning questions that come to my mind.” He then went on to question the prioritization of city funding, the burgeoning criminal element in town and apparent migration of outside felons to the area, and the safeguards in place (or not) to protect citizens. “Or are we going to just ascend into the seventh level of hell like we did on that morning?”

City officials addressed some of those concerns, defending funding for parks and recreation — which has been scaled back this budget cycle, and which RPD Chief Ron Strand said works in concert with the mission of public safety — and countering the concerns that this incident was the result of a “new” criminal population — as the individuals involved were considered to be long-established residents of the area.

“We have seen an increase in violent crime in the last year,” acknowledged Strand. “But I believe what happened that day was an anomaly.

“Crime is somewhat cyclical — there are ebbs and flows. When you see those increasing trends, it gives you something to target. That’s where we are now.”

There are a multitude of factors that have an impact, said Strand — adding that speculation on many of the causes — and cures — can be very political.

“Right now, the challenge of RPD is that so many of the things that influence crime in our area are coming from outside of our control.”

Chief among those are AB 109 — an act by the California legislature to reduce the cost of housing prisoners by closing state institutions, resulting in an overcrowding of county prisons.

Strand pointed out that counties not only released thousands of convicts to accommodate the state prisoners, but also reduced the capacity for incarceration and resulted in far less aggressive sentencing guidelines. Many arrested for crimes relating to drugs are now back on the street in a matter of days.

Munoz is among those who had drug-related charges against him dropped in May. At the time of the shooting, he was also out on bail for an arrest on Oct. 20.

“We had another case where a guy tried to break into the house of an ex-girlfriend. He fled the scene in a car, where he flipped over on the side of the rode. By the time our officers caught up to him, he was still sitting in the car, trying to start it while it was upside down,” said Strand.

That suspect exited the vehicle and attempted to flee the scene, but was arrested and transported to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. “When he got there, he started slamming his head into the wall so hard he made a hole. This is the kind of violent, out-of-control behavior that is becoming more prevalent.”

That means that violent confrontations between officers and suspects are on the rise. In addition to two positions on his force that were defunded in the most recent budget cycle, Strand said, some officers also have to take medical leave after being injured in these altercations.

While many have pointed to beefing up the numbers on the local police force, Strand said he does not know if that is enough to solve the local challenge.

“We can get people off the street and lock them up temporarily, but in many cases we can’t keep them there. And the system really isn’t robust enough to offer treatment to the number of cases involving drug abuse, “said Strand.

“The other problem is that by taking away the consequences [by removing the threat of incarceration], users are not incentivized to get the help they need. So whether this latest trend is going to be a short- or long-term problem, we have no idea.”

Strand said he still believes that among the most practical tools for public safety are the kinds of partnerships that increase public awareness and involvement. “We try to tell citizens to secure their property, to be good witnesses, report suspicious activity. There is no way that our officers are going to be on hand to witness every crime in progress, but many of them happen in the public eye, and we rely on those witnesses to help us solve cases.”

He said that another boon to the department are groups like Police and Citizens Together and the Community Emergency Response Team — two groups that volunteer thousands of hours each year to help RPD maintain safety.

Another tool he expects to bring on line soon is a new school resource officer, who will help work with at-risk youth and work toward keeping those students engaged in school and extracurricular activities as well as crime free.

“We need to have enough officers to handle calls for service, but you also want to have enough staff to be proactive as well. I think we are still at a point where we are able to do that.”

In the long term, Strand said, it will take time to adjust to the effects of AB 109. “Part of the idea behind closing prisons was to focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. The problem is we didn’t have those programs in place when AB 109 was executed. It will take time to get those services in place, and it will take our community as a whole to work together to protect public safety in the meantime.”

Story First Published: 2013-11-13