ATASCADERO — Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley, who became the head of the force in 2011 after serving as a lieutenant at the Santa Maria Police Department, said the city is relatively safe, but still continues to face ongoing issues of homelessness, residential burglaries and petty crimes, with drug use and mental illness intertwined in the more difficult cases.
But Haley is tremendously confident that his force can not only handle the recent changes in law, such as moves toward the decriminalization of drugs like heroin and methamphetamines and making legal the personal use of marijuana, but his team, he said, relies on innovative methods to curb and fight crime. Haley’s go-to phrase with his staff is: “That sounds like a really good idea,” — and he means it.
The Atascadero Police Department, consisting of 29 sworn and 11 civilian employees, serves a population of approximately 29,000 residents in an area that covers about 27 square miles. In the past year a Community Service Officer has been added as well as a School Resource Officer and new, department-trained recruits. A couple officers work as street detectives specifically targeting drug-related crimes. In a typical day, the small police department must work like a large one, taking on a wide variety of tasks and code enforcement — expediting arrests for DUIs (Driving Under the Influence), illegal camping, domestic abuse, residential burglaries and package thefts.
Recently, Haley found out about an enormous marijuana cookie found at one of the local junior high schools. Drug use among locals is up, with the age of starting getting lower. He also informed us that the city has faced a rise in DUIs.
Haley has been around the block, working for gang-ridden districts in Santa Maria and Santa Cruz before this appointment, but Atascadero has its own issues and the chief had some specific safety tips to offer to the community for the upcoming year. He wants the community to continue to speak up when they see crime, to refrain from driving drunk and to be what he calls “target hardened” to avoid becoming victims.
Atascadero News asked Haley what needs to improve (crime-wise) in 2018. Haley smiled and said he hopes crime doesn’t improve at all. Drugs and homelessness are always a concern and focus for his department, however. He talked about how California laws in the past couple years have changed. The sentencing structure for drug possession (depending on the type of drug) went from felony to a misdemeanor after voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014. Two years after that, voters decriminalized recreational marijuana under Proposition 64. For Atascadero PD, this means more crime on the streets.
Haley explained, “It takes money to support a drug habit. Typically, somebody who is addicted to drugs is unable to get money through gainful employment and they resort to criminal activity. So somebody who is addicted to drugs is out committing crimes… and we’ll notice that we’ll have a string of burglaries occuring… and one day those will disappear… and we never caught the burglar... we never caught the thief. They just stopped all of a sudden.”
“In the past, the heroin addict or methamphetamine addict would have been arrested for a felony criminal offense and would have been sent to state prison and when they are in jail, all those crimes stop.” Now, he said, because of the decriminalization of some of those offenses, or at least the great reduction, instead of going to jail, the drug offender gets a ticket.
“That’s all we are allowed to do by law,” Haley said. “But what happens to these crimes over here? If you get a ticket and are still out and about, all those crimes continue. So throughout the county, we’ve seen that, what we call Part II crimes have increased, in some cases, by double digit numbers.”
“A lot of it is related to the fact that we, in our desire to be compassionate as a society — because, boy, we feel bad for these people who are addicted to drugs — we don’t necessarily just throw them in jail, and I get that. But the unintended consequence of our compassionate hearts is that now we are all being compromised and preyed upon by people who are continuing in their drug use, continuing in their addictions, and have no compunction to stop.”
Haley said his department is definitely concerned about the recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use, that has just gone into effect this year. He expects California’s situation will mirror the state of Colorado, with increases in the transient population, an associated “bi-product” of various crimes.
“There’s an increase in the number of people, especially juveniles, being admitted to emergency rooms for symptoms and effects of marijuana,” Haley said. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of people driving while intoxicated, while under the influence of marijuana.”
“We already have a concern in Atascadero with our transient population, with people who are involved in crimes — primarily at businesses where they’re camping out overnight behind the business and they’re defecating and urinating and littering and starting fires and starting fights and any number of types of criminal conduct that they are engaged in,” he said. “So we’re certainly concerned in the coming year about what impact this is going to have on that side of things.”
In recent years, the City of Atascadero passed an ordinance to address illegal camping in the city. Haley clarified the City Council did not design the ordinance to put the homeless population behind bars and out of the way, but to get people into the services they need so they would not be homeless at all. Part of the process, he said, was getting the ECHO Shelter on board, secured in its location and running smoothly, so that the transient population could get the services they needed to become productive members of society. The Council ensured the police that with passage of the no camping ordinance they would always give warnings first. Resource information would also be provided.
“You don’t just happen to show up in Atascadero, accidently camp out overnight, and boom, all of a sudden you’re arrested,” Haley explained. “We have found that there are a number of people who really refuse to use those services and their behaviors have been such that it infringes on other people’s rights to peacefully go about their business,” and for those habitually engaged in this activity, the police certainly issues citations.
“In rare instances, when none of those things work, yeah, sometimes people finally get warrants for their arrest and it turns out camping is the violation they’re arrested for, but arrest was never the intent for the ordinance, and that’s not how it’s been carried out.”
Most of the time, however, Haley said people get help at the shelter and after a few months, get back on their feet.
“It’s a win/win for everybody really,” said Haley.
So far he reports the department’s strategy the past few years to devote a two-person team to prevent drug sales has worked well. Atascadero Police partners closely with San Luis Obispo, Templeton and Paso Robles police departments.
“What happens here happens in Paso,” he said. “There’s no bubble that we live in and so we work together. I think we have a larger impact, especially in this North County area, than we would if we were just on our own.”
Haley said, by far, Atascadero is the most supportive community he’s ever worked in. He added that the some of the best cases his team has worked on have been when members of the community called them and told them about a crime going on.
“So we need the community to be our eyes and ears, but we also need them to be a voice… Don’t just see something and not say anything,” he said. “We encourage people to call our department and make us aware of criminal conduct that’s occurring... We want the squeaky wheel because we know that’s where to put the grease... report crimes.”
Haley said it’s easy to get used to some unsafe habits living in a safe town.
“It almost seems silly to say these things sometimes, but be safe,” he said.
His department is constantly reminding the community to avoid being victims: lock your doors, hold on to your purse in the store rather than setting it in the cart, beware of phone and internet scams, and maybe even invest in one of those little video doorbells to nab package thieves, he said, because they work. His department has received great video evidence to arrest package bandits recently.
“We want to be what is called ‘target-hardened,’ where people can’t easily prey on us as a community,” he said. “And that will keep people away — whether they’re from our own community or whether it’s criminals from outside of our area.”
Haley does not underestimate the compassionate drug laws.
“We are also concerned about what impact it’s going to have on our juveniles — in our schools.”
Haley said it was the Police Corporal Michele Schamber, who has been the School Resource Officer for all Atascadero schools for about a year-and-a-half now, who brought him the huge marijuana cookie discovered at the junior high school. It’s Schamber’s job to be a resource on campus, interacting with students and parents, and providing a trusted youth crime preventer. Schamber recently instituted a new ‘diversion program’ that allows students who break the law to enter into probational program “in house” and in conjunction with the school, rather than with the Juvenile Probation Department or the District Attorney’s Office.
“We don’t want to be seen as the just the heavyweight on campus — the big, bad police officer who is gonna come in, scoop you up and drag you off to jail,” said Haley, who encourages parents to utilize the resource police provide as an alternative to going straight to the administrator. “There are a lot of kids out there that will commit a crime or engage in criminal conduct on that first occasion and it’s kind of one of those mistakes. These aren’t bad kids — they’re good kids, but because they’re kids, they make mistakes.”
“We really have a pretty good scenario here where our kids, I think, more than any place I’ve worked before, just go to school and behave themselves and are fine. There’s not a lot of gang presence here in Atascadero. We don’t see a lot of overt drug sales and things like that,” Haley said, but he did want to warn students that what they do on their phones and electronic devices is never done in a vacuum, especially making threats on Facebook and sharing information and photographs online, however humorous they may think their post is, especially if what they’re choosing to post is illegal. “Somebody is going to see it. Somebody is going to find out. Somebody is going to spread it to somebody else and eventually that’s going to come back to haunt you,” he said.
“The other thing is, we want to be careful about what drugs are going to come on campus now that we have decriminalized the personal use of marijuana,” Haley said, adding that older siblings who now have legal access to the drug may be sharing it with younger siblings. He wanted to be clear that “there’s increased and enhanced penalties for bringing drugs onto a school campus or within a certain number of feet at school. We want our kids to be aware of that. It’s part of what our school resource officer is doing this year.”
It’s part of the department’s goal, under Chief Haley to be accessible to the public. Sergeant Caleb Davis is a member of the local Rotary Club. Haley, himself, makes appearances at the local events and parades and happily sets aside time for media questions. The department has a page on Facebook open for public comments. And in addition to the School Resource Officer, Atascadero PD has adopted the Community Service Officer position, adding Lauren-Ashley Purify to the department. Part of Purify’s job is to handle non-priority calls, providing direct service to residents, thus freeing up gun carrying officers to focus on more specific law enforcement duties. Haley said this form of officer is the wave of the future.
“We didn’t know how well it was going to be received,” said Haley, but he feels Purify has been “amazing” at the job, setting a clear path for the coming years, and has been so successful, the Chief plans to hire more community service personnel.
He also mentioned the high-quality of new recruits, including Officer Craig Martineau and Officer Dustin Virgil, saying they are “tremendously qualified and talented.” Normally the force hires through the police academy or those who have been with other departments. But this is the first time after about a decade that Atascadero PD has decided to go a different direction, allowing recruits with no prior experience to go through an in-house training program, therefore shaping new officers into outstanding employees. Haley sees his current staff as “truly ethical, good- hearted people, “the hardest workers you can find.” He said his department may be hiring some new recruits.
“I’m looking forward to what the next generation of people is going to do,” he said. “Because we have some innovative thinkers — out of the box thinkers — able to see things in a way that I’m not able to.”
"Because guys bring me ideas all the time and I say, ‘Go do it,’ and sure enough, those are the best ideas in our department… We have truly remarkable individuals working here. I would put this troop up against anybody that I worked with in either of my other two departments. And part of it is because we have smaller numbers. Our people are doing more work here. Our hands are on more pieces of the pie. So they get a more well-rounded experience here. They’re not just police officers, they’re investigators, they are community helpers. I’m very proud of these people.”
You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.
Photos courtesy of the Atascadero Police Department
Several APD officers attended the graduation ceremony of Officer Dustin Virgil and Officer Craig Martineau last June.
APD’s newest recruits: Officer Dustin Virgil (left) and Officer Craig Martineau at their swearing in ceremony last June.