High Noon in Dulzura

A laid-back sheriff prowls laid-back Dulzura

Field call
  • Field call

Sheriff's Deputy Bill Smith pulls his black-and-white Chevy Tahoe in front of the Dulzura Café. He is stopping a man on a motorcycle who looks like a traffic cop, clad in a black security officer's uniform with shoulder patches and a badge. Smith suggests that it might not be the smartest idea to go riding around dressed like a police officer. As we get in the car, he talks as if he feels sorry for the man. "He's just a private security guard, and they don't have a lot of training, and they don't think like a police officer. When an officer is off duty, the last thing he wants to look like is a cop -- that's making yourself a target."

Bill Smith

Bill Smith

A National City policeman in the 1970s, Smith has been the resident deputy on the Dulzura beat since 1984. He is responsible for a 200-square-mile area with a population of 900 people, most of whom are white, middle and lower class, with a few upscale exceptions. "My western boundary is Honey Springs Road and Otay Lakes Road; Barrett Lake Road is my east boundary; the top of Barrett Lake is my northern boundary; and the Mexican border, about eight miles to the south, is my southern boundary." Smith works 11-hour shifts, four days a week, but he's on call 24 hours each of those four days.

If any word characterizes the population Smith serves, it's "private." "Most people out here enjoy their privacy. There's a lot of old families that have been here for many years. A lot of them are just retired folks or people who want some breathing room and don't want their neighbor's bathroom window ten feet from theirs. There's some nice houses here, and some people will buy a hilltop and build a nice home on top of it. Then there's a lot of people who live here just because they can afford to. A lot of places are really run-down and rickety, and the residents don't have money to put into their homes. There's an element that comes out here because they want to do things like grow drugs or cook drugs, and they don't want neighbors nearby either, but that's a pretty small element. I wouldn't say we have more criminals per capita than in town, but out here, we work so long on the same beat that we know everybody. If something happens, we generally have an idea who to look at. It's not as racially diverse as in town, but that's a matter of choice. There's just not a lot of ethnic minorities with a desire to move out here."

Smith says there are two major problems he has to deal with in Dulzura: disputes and traffic.

"Domestic disputes and boundary disputes are a big problem -- people not getting along. I would call them petty disputes. 'My neighbor's dogs are coming in my yard and tearing up my trash,' or 'My neighbor's fence is two feet on my side of the line.' That's law enforcement in general: refereeing. Law enforcement out here is pretty much the same as in town, except you don't get as many calls. I'd be doing the same thing even if I was still in National City. But anything that happens in town happens here -- murders, burglaries, spousal assaults, petty thefts, child abuse."

Like any city policeman, Smith does not like handling disputes, particularly domestic ones. "We'll get calls from a parent because ten-year-old Johnny doesn't want to go to school. That's not a law-enforcement problem! The parents can't control their ten-year-olds, and they want the sheriff to come out, show some discipline, and make Johnny do what Mom says. But my job is not to raise people's kids for them. Some people don't understand that. A lot of people figure that law enforcement is the last resort to any problem, whether it's little Johnny not wanting to go to school or the daughter not dressing the way they want or the neighbor's dog coming on their property and pooping. How do you know it's the neighbor's dog? Did you see him? Our problem is not petty crimes but petty disputes. We get a lot of calls, and we have to answer them all. We try not to alienate people by saying, 'Hey, this is a stupid problem and it's none of our business.' But we try to make them understand that in the future, they should try to solve [the problem] in another way; we try to give them some ideas about how to deal with it. But a lot of them will call again the next week. There's a lot of time wasted on things like that, and it will always be that way."

When it comes to disputes between neighbors, Smith is more understanding. "A lot of people don't want to go to their neighbor's door and say, 'Hey, I've got this problem with you.' They don't know if they're going to get beaten up or shot or have a dog set on them or what. People nowadays don't know their neighbors very well and are afraid to confront them.

"There's two ends to the spectrum on that," Smith continues. "Out here, there's a lot of people where everybody knows everybody. Then there are those people who are very private, and their neighbors don't know them at all. They may have lived next to them for years and years and never had any contact with them. And most places are not window-to-window; you have big chunks of properties. Up on Honey Springs, the lots are all about six acres, so you're not rubbing elbows with your neighbors. People don't introduce themselves to each other -- that's just people in general nowadays. They are less outgoing than they used to be -- not as neighborly. And some people come out here for peace and quiet, and they find out that their neighbor has four or five dogs that bark all night, or roosters or kids on a dirt bike who ride until dark after school every day -- and what can you do about it? If somebody wants to press the issue, you can write a case for disturbing the peace, but even if somebody's willing to sign a complaint about some of these issues, the district attorney doesn't want to deal with that case."

Some residents are neighborly. An alliance devoted to looking out for community interests was created called the Highway 94 Club. "Basically," says Smith, "anybody who lives in the Highway 94 corridor can be a member. Their premise is to work as a citizens' voice on issues that affect anything in this corridor. Here at the Barrett Café is where they have their meetings. It's not a radical group, just people who are interested in traffic, border, and immigration issues -- when that was a problem -- but now it's as much a social club as anything."

The upper and middle classes present few problems for Smith, but the lower classes and drug users are another story. "Many of them don't work or they live off the system, be it welfare, disability, their own family members, or something like that. They are our biggest problem as far as crimes. Mostly theft. They'll steal a car or break in someone's house to steal stuff. They'll steal from each other! There's a criminal element that is more inclined to commit crimes than other people. That's true anywhere, but out here, we know who they are: People who have an incentive to commit crimes to create income. Dopers need money for dope or gas. They'll steal, and a lot of it's opportunistic. If they see a chance to steal something, they will. If they know somebody's gone on vacation, they'll break in their house. We don't have a lot of it, percentage-wise, but we do have it. Your basic family out here is almost never any problem except for the domestic stuff. There are places out here I've never been to because there's never been a need for law enforcement at their house. I may know them socially in the community, but maybe not.

"The thing that works against us out here is distance. People are more clustered in cities, and you mainly have two officers per thousand people. But they don't have a lot of ground to cover, and if you have a problem, that officer won't be far away. But out here, we actually have a higher ratio of officers per capita than in town, but if we had the same ratio, there might only be 3 of us out here instead of 25 [rural deputies]. If you took all the officers on all the city police departments in the county, they cover 40 percent of the land area of the county, and out here in sheriff's rural, there's 25 of us, and we cover 60 percent of the land in the county -- but we also only cover maybe 2 percent of the population."

In his 18 years in Dulzura, the biggest change Smith has noticed came with Operation Gatekeeper, which reduced the flow of human smuggling. "We used to have a lot of illegal-alien traffic through here. The checkpoints really cut the traffic down. I don't do much to help the Border Patrol find aliens, but if I run across a group, I will call them and tell them. If an alien is robbed or beaten, that's my jurisdiction. When there was a lot of traffic, we'd get a lot of aliens being robbed or an occasional rape. Most of the time, there's not much you can do, because they can't identify the suspect, and the suspect is gone anyway. It might be days after the event before you have contact with the victim, because they won't report a crime unless the Border Patrol catches them. If they are not caught, they just keep going and absorb their loss. They don't trust law enforcement anyway, because in Mexico, there's so much corruption; plus, they know that they're here illegally. They don't generally seek us out."

Smith's other big issue, traffic, is driven by Dulzura's proximity to the Tecate border. "There's a lot of traffic between town [San Diego] and Tecate. There aren't any more roads than there used to be, but 94 has become an incredible problem. It's a two-lane road that hasn't been improved in many, many years. They've put more turnouts here and there and widened a few sections and taken out a few curves. All that does is make the traffic faster. The problem is, with Tecate and the maquiladoras, the population of Tecate has mushroomed. A lot of Tecate residents work on this side of the border. The truck traffic from the maquiladoras -- they don't drive from Tecate to San Diego via Tijuana; they want to drive on the north side of the border on 94, because the road is much better. But it's a two-lane road, and they're holding up traffic and making people pass where they shouldn't. They're spilling loads, because there's still a lot of curves in the road. The trucks hold up people in cars, they cause accidents, and they crash every once in a while. The majority of the trucks are Mexican trucks, and they're not as safe as American trucks. The Highway Patrol inspects a lot of trucks at the Tecate crossing, but they can't do them all. We've had a lot of people killed in traffic. And in the morning rush hours, the traffic heading west from Tecate is so heavy, it's almost like a two-lane freeway, the way people pass each other. If you are driving eastbound during those hours, you're taking your life in your own hands."

In spite of his concerns, Smith finds an easygoing manner with traffic violators more effective than being hard on them. "I have no incentive to arrest more people or write more tickets. Nobody's keeping track of that or cares. My assignment is to take care of my beat and keep my beat quiet. If someone is driving too slow and uses the turnouts to allow people to pass them, I won't write a ticket, but if they keep bypassing the turnouts and holding traffic up, I will write a ticket. That's almost as dangerous as passing illegally, because it frustrates people, and they end up passing when they shouldn't."

Daley Flats, Jamul

Daley Flats, Jamul

Illegal passing on 94 became a bigger problem when CalTrans wrote new regulations that took away passing areas, which were repainted with double yellow lines. One such area is Daley Flats, a one-mile stretch of straight road on 94, bordered by open meadows on each side, that runs between Rancho Jamul and the town of Jamul. "A lot of people see a straight area where they have room to pass and see it as an opportunity, but it's not legal anymore. If I see someone do something stupid and dangerous that is illegal, I write them a ticket. If they do something illegal, but it's not stupid or dangerous, I leave them alone. And there's a lot of in between where I will see something borderline, and I'll stop them and tell them why and warn them. I write a ticket for probably every seven people I stop. In my opinion, stopping someone and giving them a warning is often more productive than giving them a ticket. You give them a ticket and you've pissed them off, and they're one notch closer to hating all law enforcement. But if you give them a warning, they'll appreciate it. They'll know that they got caught and they got reprimanded, but they're appreciative that they didn't get stuck with a fine. It's a win for them and for me."

As he drives through the hill-covered area, Smith says he can go for days without a call. "I drive around a lot. I'm looking for anything out of the ordinary. We're showing the flag so people know we're around. That makes them feel better. The other thing it does is keep me up to date. If I go down the road at least once a week, I know what belongs there, and I know what's normal. So if I go down later and something's out of place, I'll recognize that. If a car doesn't belong here, it may have been left by a smuggler for aliens, or it may be stolen and abandoned. People see you and wave or talk to you. They may tell you about something to watch that they might not have called in."

Although the area is relatively stable, trouble heats up in summer. "When the weather's warmer, people drink more. There's an increase in domestic problems -- not an outrageous increase, but noticeable. In the winter, people stay indoors more and keep to themselves more. When people are out interacting, they tend to drink more and get into more trouble."

Dulzura

Dulzura

Some neighbors' familiarity can also create headaches. "There's a lady in Dulzura who calls us once a week, maybe a couple times a day, and she always has some kind of bizarre story. One time she said she had been poisoned by canned refried beans from Mexico. Another time there was a blinking light on the hill up from her house that was aliens. One time she said there was electricity coming up through the floor. She's big on conspiracies from government agencies. She calls us, and legally, we have to call on her every time she does. We know she's just an organically mentally disturbed person who is no danger to anyone or herself, so there's no reason to take her into custody. She's had stories about a buzzing in her ear that was an implant from somebody who was controlling her brain and reading her thoughts. Her phone was bugged. Customs was out to get her. So many bizarre things. Every time she calls us, it's more bizarre than the last time, and she's very regular."

A radio call from dispatch informs Smith that one of his regulars wants to see him. Smith groans as soon as he hears the man's name. "He thinks he's a real close friend of mine -- which I don't exactly discourage, because you want people to be friendly with you. But he's an alcoholic, his wife's an alcoholic, and they live on his disability. His back's all messed up. If he's been drinking -- and it's noon, so he probably has been -- then he's always got a problem with some neighbor. This call said he had a neighbor trespassing on his property. We're basically going out there to pacify him."

After driving slowly for two hours, Smith picks up the pace to answer the call. Soon we are winding south on Honey Springs Road at 80 miles per hour. He tells about the caller. "Once we got a call -- a medical call -- and the fire department wants us to cover them when they don't want to be alone with people. They were called to his place for a burn. He and his wife were both drinking, and she fell in the fireplace, butt first. The medics were there, trying to treat her, and they had to uncover her butt, and he's drunk and getting pissed off because they're looking at her butt. He was causing problems with them, and we had to have him arrested so they could do their job. They don't care what her butt looks like!"

We drive into a residential area marked by barren land, a few trees, dilapidated fences, and trash strewn around. We pull up to a tin garage. Inside, a grizzled-looking man with long white hair framing his bald skull is listening to a rock station with another male friend, who's sitting in a chair. A yellow hot-rod truck is on blocks, looking years away from completion. The older man calls out to Smith, using his first name. When Smith asks what's wrong, he says, "They left the goddamn gate open again! This is private property! I want the sonofabitch shut!" He hands a list of names to the sheriff. "These are the people I want you to talk to." The discussion turns to the neighbors, all of whom Smith knows by first name. While the man is plainly angry, he is friendly with Smith and seems to trust him to take care of the problem. He and his friend explain that the gate-crashers are dealing and using drugs; they want to help the sheriff put a stop to it. Neither man appears drunk. After 20 minutes of conversation, Smith thanks them and leaves, promising to look into the problem.

When we get back in the car, Smith is pleasantly surprised. "When he's drinking, he just can't talk reasonably, but he's okay now. There's trespassing, but the drug thing may yield something."

We follow up by driving through a nearby gate with a sign that reads "Road Closed. No Trespassing." Smith explains that it's an access road for the water department and a flume runs through it. We approach a tin shack strewn with trash and old tires. A hollowed-out blue jeep is parked in front along with a sedan. A stout red-haired man covered in grease and a skinny woman in a tank top greet Smith. Smith never changes his tone, and the couple respond by talking to him in a friendly way. He asks the man for his driver's license and takes down the information. After ten minutes, Smith returns to the car, as relaxed as ever.

"They're involved with drugs. I've gathered some information that will eventually send some people to jail who definitely need to go there for a while. This actually produced some good information."

Smith's calmness in the midst of a potential arrest seems unusual, but he takes it in stride. "I talk to people every chance I get, because something like this leads to something better. Being a mechanic is more dangerous than being a cop. More mechanics die on the job than cops."

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