Louis Martin
cns news & features

COME SUMMER, once upon a time, and life became easier. Maybe that was in Mississippi when the crops were planted and you just sat back and waited for them to grow.

Come Summer on the North Coast of California, and the fog moves in. And this year the wind too. And the rain. One "freak" rain in June, followed by another "freak" rain a week later. Is mother nature missing her period? Is she obeying some new law? Is she angry at one of her creatures for disobeying her laws?

Whatever, as the indifferent say in a sleepy kind of Summer way.

Come Summer in Mendocino, and tragedy strikes. A teenage girl walking in the middle of the road at night is struck by a car driven by a young man who, if not drunk, has been drinking. He is headed for another bar. One life is snuffed out, and others begin to die inside for grief. A young man who knew her well says, "Life sucks." A graphic phrase but totally inadequate. The universe withdraws back into itself says it better but is too formal. A loss too big for words.

Come Summer and the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office is still looking for "Bear" Lincoln who in Spring, it's alleged, snuffed out the life of deputy Bob Davis following a feud between two native American families on the Round Valley Reservation that left two family members dead. By Summer some "advanced" thinkers, who lean to the left no matter what, have decided that the sheriff's office is responsible for the whole thing.

Come Summer to the North Coast of California, is there anything you can still rely on? Yes, say officials: an increase in crime.

CRIME ON THE COAST is less than inland, but during the Summer it increases. Bob Doyle, Undersheriff of Marin county, says it's due to the increase of visitors to the coast. In the Summer the number of vehicle thefts goes up, and there are fights on the beach, says Doyle.

But in general he says that crime is light on the Marin coast. "I can't remember the last murder," says Doyle.

The largest number of crimes in any area are burglaries and assaults. In 1994 in West Marin there were 70 burglaries and 67 assaults. The total number of reported crimes in the same area was 316.

Sonoma county, with a population of 432,222, has more crime than Marin (population 230,096). Total crimes reported on the Sonoma coast in 1994 were 1044, with 302 burglaries, 232 assaults, and 2 murders.

As in Marin county, there are no incorporated towns on the Sonoma coast, and the Sheriff's office handles all law enforcement problems. There are 3 resident deputies on the Sonoma coast; one at Timber Cove, one at Bodega Bay, and one at Sea Ranch.

According to Sgt. Nagle of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, it is rescues and parking problems that increase the Summer work load on the coast. Historically, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has been more involved in rescue operations than other county sheriff's offices. They boast their own helicopter. By contrast, in Mendocino most rescues are carried out by volunteer fire departments or by State Parks rangers.

Mendocino is the largest of the three counties but has the smallest population: 86,231 according to a 1995 estimate by the Mendocino County Planning Department. While it has lots of space and fewer people, it has the smallest tax base to support its sheriff's department.

Says Captain Berle Murray of the Mendocino County Sheriff's office, "Everyone else pays more." While there is funding for 44 law enforcement jobs in the county, only 42 are filled. One of the reasons, says Murray, is the pay. Another is that it's a demanding job requiring initiative and over-time. "We put a lot of store on officer-initiated contacts," says Murray.

A rookie deputy in Mendocino county makes $452 per week; in Marin a rookie makes $692.

Almost everyone in Mendocino county takes a hit on pay; logger, innkeeper, doctor, dishwasher, bookkeeper. And for almost everyone the environment compensates. It is no different for county sheriffs, says Murray; they appreciate the environment too.

Unfortunately, he says, a lot of city problems are creeping up into the county, and even over to the coast. Ukiah, for instance, now has gangs; and there have been drive-by shootings and attempted murders. There are also gangs in Booneville, Covelo, Ft. Bragg, and Pt. Arena. But the coast, he says, has been more immune to these problems.

In the town of Mendocino, tourists and transients do not mix well. Complaints that transients are blocking tourists in Mendocino is a "chronic" one, according to the sheriff's office.

Other than Fort Bragg, Pt. Arena is the only incorporated town on the coast between San Francisco and Eureka. Pt. Arena does not have its own police department; instead, it contracts with the county sheriff's department. The problems in Pt. Arena, according to the sheriff's office, are similar to the problems in Fort Bragg, though possibly fewer.

Fifteen officers are assigned to the coast, 3 in Pt. Arena.

The city of Fort Bragg has its own police department. Outside of town the sheriff's office handles problems, which Murray describes as general law enforcement problems with a lot of trespasses.

One seasonal problem that the Mendocino sheriff's office deals with on the coast is car burglary; in particular, theft of ice boxes. Are some coast residents hungry? Possibly. Many live at the poverty level.

A lot of the ice chest burglaries are now handled by State Parks. More common items targeted by car burglars are cameras and suit cases full of clothes. Car burglaries leave "a bad taste in the mouth" of visitors, says Murray.

IN FORT BRAGG it is a gray, overcast day. It's a little muggy but not unpleasantly hot. On Noyo bridge over the harbor there is traffic, but it is not jammed up in the early afternoon.

Fort Bragg has the second largest saw mill in the world but not enough logs to keep it busy, according to Georgia-Pacific Corporation that owns the mill. Unemployment runs high in Fort Bragg.

The Fort Bragg Police Department is housed in a low, cement-block building on Main Street that you could easily drive by without noticing, except that next door is the Fort Bragg Fire Department, and often there are polished green fire engines parked out front.

But at FBPD there is no show. It was built in 1908 for practical purposes and has the worn look of a shop that fixes broken machinery.

Down a long corridor and to the left is the chief's office. It is surprisingly light inside. Big wood desk. Old, straight-back wood chairs line the opposite wall. It is clearly a place for meetings, for straight talk about what ails Fort Bragg and how to deal with it. The plain- clothes chief with short brown hair, slightly heavy set, wears his badge on his hip.

"This town," says Chief Tom Bickell, his voice a little scratchy, "has 12 or 13 bars." Other towns with a similar size population, like Willits and Fortuna, have only 3 or 4 bars; and that makes a difference, says the chief. The population of Fort Bragg is about 6500, and the Fort Bragg Police Department gets 5 times as many calls as the Sheriff does for the whole Mendocino coast. "It's a basic reality," says the chief, a soft-spoken, sober-looking man, "that the more concentration of people you have closer together, the more order you have to have."

The majority of problems in Fort Bragg are domestic violence, petty theft, and trespassing, he says, and about 75% of those jailed are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Domestic violence nearly doubled from 1993 to 1994, he says.

The majority of those arrested are from Fort Bragg or the Fort Bragg area (75% in 1993). Only a small number (6% in 1993) are from outside of Mendocino county.

Unlike the Sheriff's Office, Bickell sees very little seasonal change in the crime rate in the city. "We have very little impact on crime from the tourists," says Bickell. It could be that the crime rate in Fort Bragg is high enough that tourist crime adds negligibly to it.

He is worried by new developments, however: gangs and a recently formed militia.

Gang violence is moving "closer and closer," says Bickell. There are gangs now in Fort Bragg, he says, but they have been quiet. "We see gang tagging on buildings and on the bridges, but we try to paint it out as soon as possible and down-play it." So far there has been no gang violence, only narcotics trafficking.

And so far the Fort Bragg militia has done nothing overtly illegal, says the chief, "but they espouse the same things these radical militias do." All members are local, and some have records, he says, though none for violent crimes.

While crime has increased, the chief laments that his department has been scaled back in various ways: In 1992 they lost their own radio dispatch center. This year the jail was closed, so that prisoners must be transported some 60 miles over to Ukiah. And two positions were lost, reducing the number of officers from 19 to 17.

A contract has just been awarded for a new police department building, but it will not include a jail; that was deemed too expensive.

While some city council members have argued that the Fort Bragg Police Department is over staffed, Bickell claims that a fixed ratio of police to population isn't applicable. It's a matter of the amount of trouble you're dealing with. And the number of arrests in Fort Bragg far exceeds the combined number of arrests on the Marin and Sonoma coast. There were at least 1.4 times as many in 1994.

Bickell describes his job as "challenging" but not really tough. "There are hard things to do," says the chief, "but if you put your mind to it and you think there's a solution, the job is working it out." Given the figures, others in his boots might call the job tough.

Still, Fort Bragg, for all its trouble, is a nice little town. Take a drive up Oak Street from the Georgia- Pacific Mill. You will first pass the Old Coast Hotel (bar), the Ship's Wheel (bar), and Milano's (bar). Then you will drive by two mom & pop markets; B&C's, whose hours are a mystery even to local residents, and Colombi's. A few more streets and you will drive by a grove of tall, slender pines, tufted at the top; the air is cooler. A little bit farther and you are out in the country where your noise won't bother your neighbor; and if your neighbor drinks, you may never know it. Where, just maybe, the living is easier.

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