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Desert Companion

Field notes: Downtown blues

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Ride along
Photography by Brent Holmes

A prostitute, a fleeing perp, and hard-earned street smarts — on patrol with the cops of Downtown

From his car, Metro officer Aaron Perez focuses his binoculars on a young woman standing by a white picket fence outside the Lamplighter Motel. It’s a cold day, yet she’s wearing short shorts. Between her and us is a vacant lot — the last piece of real estate on East Fremont before the city jurisdiction ends. Where she’s standing, people arrested for nonviolent crimes such as prostitution rarely go to jail due to overcrowding in the Clark County penal system. Perez tells me that the pimps and drug dealers Downtown know that, and it’s why they choose the Lamplighter.

“It’s a daily-weekly, like a Siegel Suites. In the 12 years that I’ve been here, we get a lot of people who rent these rooms just to sell dope out of them for a week. You have pimps shack up there with their girls. Sometimes, it’s as bad as seven or eight girls on that corner, getting in and out of cars.”

This girl is alone, and boards have gone up in the some of the Lamplighter’s windows. Metro is using civil forfeiture laws to “lean on” motels proven to cater to illicit activity. The Safari Motel was recently shuttered, and the Lamplighter will go dark soon, too.

Perez is waiting to see if she “connects” with someone. But the girl steps out of sight. The lot separating us is surrounded by fencing — every 10 feet, fliers state “We Buy Houses / Fast Cash.” The girl is heading toward a Lowe’s parking lot. The home-improvement store has “no-trespassing” signs posted specifically to allow cops to question suspicious loiterers; “Lowe’s hoes” is how some refer to them. We drive there in the police SUV and, sure enough, find her in the parking lot.

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Her eyes are half shut, tattoos blot her arms and neck, she’s 23 years old, and her name is not Cherish, but it’s a name like that — one meaning “beloved” and suggesting the opposite of a person used for an hour in a dingy flophouse.

*****

Later on, I ask Perez, “Do you know how I got to do this?” At this point we’re several hours into his shift and have already talked about work, family, relationships, life in Las Vegas, crime and punishment. Cops do so much car time alone that when they can talk, they talk. I’m the same way. But why I wanted to do a police ride-along is yet to come up.

“The captain said you wrote some article?”

We’re driving down Charleston. Perez has just shared that last night, on this street, he stopped a man walking toward a convenience store with a BB gun in his pocket. A background check revealed prior convictions for armed robbery — specifically for stickups at convenience stores. As he recalled it, Perez told the guy, “You haven’t done anything illegal, yet. Don’t go doing what I think you were about to do.” I asked why he’d stopped the guy, and Perez said, “Jaywalking.”

“Yeah, I wrote an article.”

In the January issue of Desert Companion, I shared a story about being stopped and frisked after crossing Las Vegas Boulevard against a “don’t walk” signal. The jaywalking tale included comment from a Metro spokesman, but more extensive analysis came from a criminologist who said automatic body searches during routine stops do more harm than good. They rarely land weapons and erode public trust.

Now, I wondered, was I being set up on this ride-along?

After “Stopped and Frisked” came out, I’d been contacted by Capt. Andrew Walsh, the top cop in the Downtown Area Command. He invited me to coffee in the spirit of listening to critics and fostering community relations. We met at PublicUs, where he admitted that officers (and in particular younger officers) will sometimes over-enforce their orders. A call to curb pedestrian fatalities had resulted in a wave of jaywalking tickets, yet giving warnings the way Perez did on Charleston can just as well suffice to prevent those deaths. Knowing when to request a body search is another part of the job that takes some experience, Walsh said. Given that my jaywalking stop took up almost 30 minutes of two officers’ time, it was obviously not the wisest use of police resources. This ride-along was arranged as a gesture of transparency, but also, I suspect, so that I might see what smart policing looks like.

After all, I’m not cruising around with one of the department’s many rookie cops. Metro’s current hiring spree has brought on many officers in their early 20s for whom this is a first job. Perez, on the other hand, is a 13-year veteran of the force who previously worked for sheriff departments in L.A. County and Tooele, Utah, in addition to being a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Iraq.

He’s 41, burly, and quick-witted. He has two kids, a Game of Thrones ringtone on his cell phone, and a keenness to joke that his two statistical divorces are out of the way — one for the military service and another for his police career.

During this shift, we respond to a domestic call in which the alleged aggressor is locked out of her apartment, weeping, barefoot and bleeding from the hand while dressed in nothing but a nightgown. In come reports of gunfire. We speed toward those with the windows down to better hear if shots ring out. And we catch the aftermath of a hit and run. The driver is several blocks away from the original accident and staggering from his wrecked car in a drunken fugue state. But for this article, I want to focus on a stop outside the Lowe’s on East Fremont.

 *****

Most shoppers ignore the girl in front of the police SUV. Perez asks if she has any priors, and she mutters, “Drug trafficking.” Back in the car as he does a background check, Perez tells me, “A lot of these girls are just working for their next hit.” The computer lights up with recent charges for solicitation, but there are apparently “way more” narcotics arrests.

“The fact that she’s out working the streets as a prostitute to me means she’s not a dope dealer. I’d almost be willing to bet my entire paycheck tomorrow that every dope charge she has was for the man she held the dope for when they got stopped. That’s what they do — these pimps don’t care about these girls. They care about how much money these girls make, and that’s it. When they get stopped, if he has a gun and a bunch of dope on him, he’ll give it to her. Nine times out of 10 she’ll get pinched for it, and he’ll get off scot-free.”

A man in a baggy tracksuit walks up to us from the parking lot’s backside, claiming to be her boyfriend. He has bloodshot eyes. “Okay, but I need you to wait over there,” Perez says, pointing to a planter 30 feet away. “Keep going. Further. Further ...” The man grudgingly walks away. “Over by that tree. There you go.”

Cherish barely acknowledges her boyfriend’s arrival. If anything, she seems annoyed. Back in the car, Perez tells me, “Most likely this guy’s her pimp. In street-level prostitution, the girl will walk around — he’ll be somewhere nearby so he can see what car she gets into — and then when she comes back, he’ll take all the money that she earned in case she gets arrested. But it’s hard to get him on anything because he doesn’t engage in the act.”

Perez is writing her a warning citation: loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution. The guy watches us shiftily, his hands in his pockets. Then he walks toward us again, muttering something about “a question.” Perez steps out. “Hey, man, I told you to wait over there!” Pretty soon, Perez is searching the guy. He pulls a 9mm magazine from the man’s front pocket and reaches for handcuffs, but the guy jerks free, breaking into a sprint.

Perez leaps after him. I see them running through the parking lot and hear Perez’s voice over the police scanner breathlessly calling it in. The guy hops in a white Volvo — Perez has his hand on his holster, concerned, he tells me later, that the guy will drive at him or shoot. Perez yells the license plate number over his radio as the Volvo peels off.

Another set of tires squeal — an undercover cop at the other end of the lot fishtailing after the Volvo. Perez jumps in his car to join in the pursuit, leaving Cherish behind. “The crime at this point is obstruction,” he radios in. “The guy wouldn’t leave my stop.” We zigzag through traffic, stop when we lose him, then receive a tip from an oncoming motorist that a white car just sped onto the next street, which leads to a housing development. There, we meet up with the undercover unit, but the Volvo has disappeared.

“God, that pisses me off!” Perez says. “It worried me that he wouldn’t leave my stop, and now I know why. He’s probably got a gun in his pocket.” We’re driving back to the Lowe’s parking lot to see if the guy is picking up Cherish. “Here’s the thing. If that guy’s gonna walk up to us like that, who else is he gonna walk up to? That guy is not gonna think twice before robbing that store, or robbing this guy on the corner, or robbing this family walking to the laundromat.”

The 9mm magazine has only two rounds in it, but the gun it belongs to probably has a bullet in the chamber.

“I just wish I would’ve pulled the gun out. But at least he didn’t, either. Anytime I can avoid a shootout with someone, I’m happy. My kids like me coming home, for some reason.”

 *****

Perez has been shot at nine times during his police career. Finding ammo on the guy obviously put him into alarm mode. But even if he’d found the gun, that in itself wouldn’t justify an arrest in Nevada. Perez tried to put handcuffs, or “hooks,” on the man so he could do a background check; convicted felons are among the few Las Vegans barred from possessing firearms. But fleeing to his car pretty much negated the chance for an arrest.

Metro has a policy against car chases for anything less than a violent crime or drunk driving. Shortly after Perez called in the pursuit, he and an officer in the unmarked car were told to stand down. Apparently, what I saw was them holding back.

And there lies the tension between what police see and feel on the street, and what the law and department policy will allow. From the beat cop purview, a
potentially armed, aggressive pimp just fled a possible jail sentence. The cop wants to see the thing through. But from a legal standpoint, a guy interrupted a loitering stop and ran to his car, and that’s not worth zipping through city streets for.

I had asked Captain Walsh what the hardest thing about policing Las Vegas is, and without hesitation he mentioned the prevalence of guns combined with loose firearm laws.

In 2015, Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill overturning handgun registration requirements in Clark County. Many of the guns that criminals use are acquired through burglaries, but since Metro’s gun registry has been purged and eliminated, it’s difficult to prove the weapons were stolen unless the original owner kept the weapon’s serial number and provided it during a robbery report — a rare occurrence, I’m told.

“There’s a story I’ll tell you,” Walsh said. “We arm our officers with intelligence: These are the bad guys, these are their pictures, this is what they’ve been arrested for, this is who’s wanted. Right? Just a ton of stuff so that when they go out, they’re focused. You, Mr. Law Abiding Citizen, are not our customer. And, lo and behold, there’s Joe the Criminal out driving a car. We stop him. He’s a documented member of one of these crews that we know are shooting up houses and shooting at each other. They’re involved in a lot of violent crime. Inside that car we find a loaded .45 caliber handgun. Inside that car we also find graffiti implements — magic markers. So what do you think he goes to jail for?

“The gun is not required to be registered anymore. It’s not reported stolen. He doesn’t go to jail for anything related that firearm — he goes to jail for having a f**king magic marker. The pen is deadlier than the gun.

“That’s a huge challenge for us. The gun is not illegal in his car, even though I can give you tons of cases this crew is involved in over the last 24 months that have touched our entire city. These are the things that drain the resources of the police department and change neighborhoods. Before long, this guy is involved in some type of horrific event. He’s either dead, he kills somebody, or he kills an innocent bystander. And when we look back we think, ‘Well, gee, we did stop him one time before. Where was the opportunity to charge him with something substantial?’”

*****

The Volvo hasn’t returned to the Lowe’s, and Cherish is gone. Perez retraces his steps to see if the guy dropped anything in the lot. He also watches his body-camera footage to relay a better physical description of the guy to the other patrol units, and it only takes a few minutes for one of them to find Cherish in the neighborhood that Perez uses to spy on the Lamplighter. We drive there.

“What’s up, Cherish?” Perez says. “You wanna go home or you wanna go to jail?”

She wants to go home.

“You do? Because I wanna take your ass to jail. Where’s your boy at?”

She doesn’t know. There are four patrol cars guarding this quiet residential corner. Five officers, all male.

“Where does he live?” She says Sahara and “that way,” and that’s it. “What’s his name?” She calls him Ross, but they just met this morning, she says, so she doesn’t know his last name. “Did you choose-up with him or is he your boyfriend?” Perez asks — meaning, are they a couple or do they work together? She won’t say. “Does he got a Facebook?” She’s not sure. “What’s his phone number?” She doesn’t have it. She doesn’t have a cell phone, anyway, but she does have a question: Why was there an undercover cop watching them in the Lowe’s parking lot? I wondered that myself. Turns out it was Perez’s friend who showed up as a kind of preemptive backup since he’s notorious for “getting into shit” — his own words.

There is talk of putting Cherish in jail to bait the guy into picking her up. But she hasn’t done anything to merit that, so eventually they let her go. No jacket, no cell phone, nothing but a police citation, and a detective’s phone number in her pocket, she walks off under the evening light.

“She ain’t giving him up,” Perez tells me. Since she didn’t cooperate, Cherish’s misdemeanor warning was escalated into a fine that can only be voided if she provides information on the man. “That’s daddy, bro — she ain’t giving up daddy. Eventually he would get out of jail, and he knows where she’s at. She ain’t risking her life.”

*****

There are 70,000 residents in the nine square miles policed by the Downtown Area Command. Between the I-15 and Mojave, Sahara to the south and Owens to the north—that’s the zone, and within it is one more place Perez can look for the guy. The Volvo’s license plate number was registered by a 50-year-old woman who lives one mile away, in an apartment complex near Charleston and the 95. As we drive there, Perez reflects on the moment when the guy walked up to us a second time. The brazenness of it still amazes him.

“Things escalate like that in an instant. Had he turned around with a gun in his hand, I would have had about half a second to decide, am I shooting him or not? You don’t have time to take factors in, which kind of sucks. As quick as that guy took off running is about how fast we get into shootings around here.”

I’m grateful to have ridden with a cop who didn’t agitate the situation further by pulling his gun. As the event unfolded, I had wondered what the best course of action was for myself. Duck? Get out and run? Fortunately, sitting in frozen panic was fine.

“Now you know why you had to sign a waiver,” Perez says.

We turn in to a cul-de-sac. It’s a row of two-story stucco apartment buildings with cracked walls, faded paint, splintered trim, and not a tree or plot of grass in sight. Perez uses the driver-side spotlight to check out cars and building numbers, alerting some of the tenants that a cop has arrived. Silhouettes fill windows and peek from behind curtains. A few people go out to the stairway landings to watch. The Volvo isn’t here. But Perez will still knock on its owner’s door. First, he shows me the shotgun release button, “just in case you need to defend yourself.” I’m waiting in the SUV, next to the 12 gauge that I don’t know how, and certainly don’t want, to use.

Something about it recalls a thing Walsh had said about the job’s extreme learning curve. I see Perez deal with
potentially violent encounters, play both the good cop and bad cop during interrogations, and, later on, mediate a domestic dispute that requires calming down a fiercely angry woman who kicked out her partner, yet refused to allow the woman to take luggage, or a jacket, or even shoes to the women’s shelter where she’ll stay the night.

Perez is 41. I wonder how this all looks when a 22-year-old handles those stops.

“A lot of police officers get hired between the ages of 21 and 25,” Walsh had said. “Think about this theoretically. If I get a 22- or 23-year-old police officer assigned to my area command, they’ll have to deal with issues like prostitution, drugs, gangs — the expectations for that young officer will be that he or she is a gang-intervention expert, a detective, a social worker. He’ll be a person who can deal with someone who is mentally ill and in a crisis. He’ll be able to walk into your home or mine and take charge of any situation — and a lot of times these situations may become violent in a heartbeat. We really have put a lot of pressure on police agencies to be the catch-all in society. We also want them to be highly educated, we want them to be compassionate, we want them to know and understand diverse cultures that they are going to come across, and for good reason, because we don’t want to offend people. You got all this in the brain of a person who’s 23 years old. It’s definitely challenging.”

Perez talked to an older couple at the residence who claimed not to know the Volvo’s owner. They’ve lived at the address for almost two years, and the car was registered there last May, so he suspects they’re protecting someone. Maybe they got a warning call, he posits. “Unless these people just picked a bunk address to register the car to, which I doubt.

“Chances are they’re family,” Perez says. He saw a resemblance and believes the people he just met were the guy’s parents. “For the most part, family’s not going to hang family out to dry. I understand that. Whether he’s a criminal or not, he’s still your family. It is what it is.”

He speeds up behind every white Volvo we see for the rest of the night.

“We’ll get him eventually,” he says.

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