Ride-along shows cops deal with the dark side of Danville
Rolling by a run-down house in a dark, woodsy part of Danville, Officer Mike Ireland sits up straight and gestures toward the small lot.
"You want to see a meth house?" he asks.
Just next door, houses are spacious and private, with meticulously kept lawns - residences that go for $1.5 million. Expensive cars are parked in the driveways and remnants of kids playing outside are scattered across the front yards.
The contrast is stark, even at first glance.
"Drugs are a problem everywhere and Danville is not exempt," Ireland says.
The sun has just gone down on a hot Friday night in July and Ireland is patrolling the streets, only hours after a drug-related burglary in the area.
"My problem is mainly with meth and coke because people who do those drugs live that lifestyle," Ireland says.
He's referring to the bigger crimes connected to methamphetamine and cocaine: theft, violence, burglary and prostitution. Now that night has fallen, he is heading to an area known for foul play, with the hope of learning more about recent burglaries.
'Watch how jittery she is'
Ten minutes later, near a meeting point for speed users in the area, he pulls over a middle-aged woman in a white truck. She's driving with an expired driver's license and failed to use her turn signal within 100 feet of an intersection.
He asks her for her license and registration, then tells her to step out of her truck. She fidgets a lot, looks wound up and is visibly nervous talking to Ireland on this back road.
Ireland knows this woman. He's had previous contact with her and recognizes her as the wife of a man known to the department as a speed user. The couple frequently has drug addicts over to their house from as far away as Lafayette and Martinez.
On a quick trip back to the police car to get a 7 DAR drug test, Ireland says, "Watch how jittery she is. Watch her body movement. She's under the influence right now."
After giving her a series of tests, including a pulse and eye examination, he determines she is in fact high on speed. He searches her, handcuffs her and cites her for possession of narcotics and driving under the influence.
'It happens that quickly'
Once she is taken away by a reserve officer, Donna, the department's police K-9, searches for drugs in the truck, but finds none. Ireland then checks the vehicle for possible stolen goods and meets the woman back at the Police Department.
According to Safestate.org, a nonprofit group dedicated to preventing crime and violence, more meth is produced in California than any other state. And unlike like heroin and crack users, who are usually concentrated in urban areas, speed is just as popular in rural and suburban areas of the West as it is in the cities.
Suburban speed users have been known to lead functional, productive lives while dependent on the drug. For instance, the Danville woman Ireland has cited for possession and a DUI has raised children and maintained jobs while addicted to the drug.
Effects of speed include increased wakefulness and physical activity, increased heart rate and decreased appetite. Addicts are sometimes able to live outwardly "normal" lives because, to outsiders, a person who has ingested a moderate amount can come off as simply energetic.
'It's gonna catch up to you'
Back at the station, Ireland encourages the woman to seek help at a rehab facility. She will likely get a court mandated rehab treatment, as most first-time offenders do, he says. During the conversation, the woman admits that she has been using the drug for more than 20 years, but not that she has a drug problem.
"You've wasted the best years of your life ... It's gonna catch up to you," Ireland says with concern.
Treatment admissions for amphetamine and methamphetamines has increased 500 percent since 1992, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control, and the problem is only growing. The drug, which originally became popular in working class areas of the West, is spreading through the country and into middle and upper class suburban households.
After taking the woman's blood for evidence and talking more with her, Ireland decides to site release her - to let her go home as opposed to bringing her in to County Jail. Taking her to jail would take hours of his time, limiting manpower in Danville at a peak time for crime.
"A lot of (the decision) is based on prior contact with the offender and the severity of the crime," he says.
This all seems routine for Ireland, who has been on the Danville police force for four years and says he has dealt with hundreds of hard-drug-related crimes.
This is surprising, considering a common misconception that Ireland points out. He says he knows some people think Danville police have nothing better to do than drive around, pick on teenagers, and bust people for minor traffic violations.
"You have a lot of people making comments in a condescending way about how there is no crime in Danville," he says.
The area does not have an excessive problem with drugs, in Ireland's opinion, but citations do happen frequently.
'My neighbor used my hose'
While there are a fair share of what Ireland calls "my-neighbor-used-my-hose-calls" - that is, silly complaints - on this particular Friday, serious reports are flooding in through the radio. Vandalism, burglary, suicide threats, and drunken driving all come in via the scanner. And this is pretty standard, he says.
As much as it wastes an officer's time and energy to respond to grievances that neighbors could resolve themselves, the Danville Police Department is required to show up and make reports on such calls. Teenage noise violations, swimming after pool hours, and tension between neighbors are examples of recent reports he admits to finding frustrating.
"People are afraid of conflict, so instead of dealing with each other they go through us," he says.
This is not to say serious crimes can't can grow from loud teenage parties or fights between neighbors. Larger crimes are sometimes rooted in calls that seem less significant at first, he points out.
"Some people think we have nothing better to do than pick on kids, but we only show up because people call," he says.
'Kids are lame criminals'
Around 11 p.m. Ireland gets word that teenage males in a white Volvo are on a vandalism spree in a nearby neighborhood. The teens are reportedly going from house to house, smashing mailboxes and light fixtures, and owners of residences have called the station about the damage.
"Kids are lame criminals," Ireland says, explaining that they usually act on a whim and forget to cover their tracks.
This time of the year, during the summer months when it warms up, crimes like these begin to increase in Danville. It has a lot to do with people being out and about more, Ireland says.
"Circumstantial crimes go up. Like a bunch of kids might be walking down the street, see a car, and steal the change out of its ashtray," he says.
After cruising the area for 15 minutes or so, Ireland gets word that the Volvo came from the Tassajara McDonald's, a known teenage hangout spot that has been the epicenter for late-night trouble in the past.
Drinking and fighting is known to occur at this location, and Ireland often does a drive-by to scope out the scene. Teenage rowdiness usually dies down around midnight and that's when the drunk drivers come out, he says.
'Nothing shocks me anymore'
Ireland has seen a lot in the four years he's worked on the Danville force. He said he's heard people of every age use creative excuses to get out of anything from driving under the influence to property theft.
"Nothing shocks me anymore," he says, launching into a story about a man he once pulled over on the freeway.
The driver had a warrant out for his arrest and was going over 100 miles an hour. When he pulled the man over he pleaded with Ireland, telling him that his wife was giving birth and that he was rushing to get to the hospital.
After calling hospitals in the area to check on the man's wife, it became clear to Ireland he had been lied to. There was no woman at nearby hospitals under his wife's name, and Ireland took the man straight to jail.
"If she really was having a baby I would have done everything I could to try to help him," Ireland says.
'Cops have two mentalities when they approach your car'
Lying to the police in a situation like this isn't a smart move, he says. Being honest, respectful and receptive to verbal warnings are the best ways to decrease your chances of getting a ticket.
For example, he has caught cars by radar (located in the front and back of his police vehicle) going 50 miles per hour and, upon pulling the car over, drivers have tried to argue that they were only going 25 miles per hour. At this point, it's their word vs. the radar machine.
"Cops have two mentalities when they approach your car. Either you are going to get a ticket, or you might get a ticket," he said.
In reflecting on his job, Ireland points out that he has experienced both highly rewarding and extremely difficult situations as an officer. He's helped people in bad situations and influenced lives in positive, powerful ways. And in turn, he has seen horrifying things and dealt with desperate, dangerous people.
"You share with people the worst night of their life," he says.
But these awful nights are often the catalyst for positive change in people's lives - a wake up call. Looking back on the night, Ireland says he hopes something good comes out of the methamphetamine citations.
"If anything comes of this, she'll get a court-mandated rehab," he says. "She may think again before she drives on meth."
Spending a shift with Ireland is proof there is more to patrolling in Danville than just writing traffic tickets and breaking up teenage parties.
In the big picture, it's busts like these that help chip away at our country's suburban meth epidemic, the crime-laden lifestyles users lead, and the negative impact those crimes have on small communities like Danville.