The East San Angelo Beat: Domestic Disturbances, Theft and Downtown Bars
“Each sector has it’s own personality,” says Officer Jason Chegwidden as he begins patrol Saturday evening. “Sector 2 will be kind of a break from Sector 3 because we have the downtown area, the barrio…and the neighborhoods north and south of Harris.”
Chegwidden has been with the San Angelo Police Department for five years now, and is the most senior officer on the Saturday Bravo shift. Making his way through the sector streets, which cover everything south of Houston Harte and east of Bryant, Chegwidden notes some of the differences between his sector and the other two that comprise the city of San Angelo.
Here, it’s mostly residential, with different types of neighborhoods marking much of the area. There aren’t a lot of businesses, but downtown bars aplenty, and he doesn’t have a Walmart. Crime in Sector 2 is reflective of its makeup: number one remains domestic disturbances, followed by thefts and burglaries and alcohol-related incidents, especially on the weekends.
With a high residential concentration and a strip of drinking establishments, Chegwidden’s shift on Friday and Saturday nights follows a fairly usual pattern, he explains. Starting at 4:30 p.m., he begins making his rounds, visiting the outer reaches of his sector’s perimeter, checking out known problem areas and monitoring the streets.
When he comes on the sun is out, meaning surveillance and some of the more visual offenses are more easily controlled. “Things look different at night,” he explains, then notes that during the daylight hours he’s more apt to focus on checking inspection stickers, watching known drug houses, exploring ways in and out of hotspots.
“During the daytime, you’re looking more like at speeders. If you have a known house you’re watching, like a drug house or something like that, you can go during the day and do intelligence on it. You can see all the good spots,” he says. “Nighttime, you lose a lot of your landmarks and stuff, so you can go scope things out—spots to hide…all kinds of stuff—then come back at night.”
The day/night split has a distinct impact on Bravo company’s patrol, Chegwidden says. Saturdays, when they start, work is slow and calls for service are relatively thin. As the sun falls and people return home from their shopping tours and the bars start to fill, activity begins to pick up. This differs from Fridays, he says, in that people tend to be out and about immediately after work on Fridays, where he notices a later start on Saturdays.
Saturday, Officer Chegwidden begins his shift by driving out to the reaches of his sector’s perimeter, checking a few of the large businesses and warehouses along the way. Ethicon, the animal shelter, Caterpillar and the Taylor Publishing building are on his route this afternoon.
The goal each week is to make it down every street in the area, Sector 2 Sergeant John Rodriguez says, and in order to do that officers change their patrol patterns and hit different streets on different days. Switching up the pattern is important, Chegwidden says, because the criminal element is smart and takes note of police presence. If an officer were to pass the same area each day at the same time, criminals would notice that and adjust their dealings accordingly.
As he passes the Ethicon building, Chegwidden relays what he’s looking for. It’s mostly suspicious vehicles in lots that should be vacant, people behind the buildings using drugs or involved in other activities, and making sure that if the property has gates they are closed and locked up. Calls for service are rare out here, he says, but he still tries to make a regular appearance and make sure everything is in order. He’s caught people out here before.
Pulling up to the animal shelter, Chegwidden continues. “One of the things I check at the animal shelter—I don’t know what kind of narcotics they keep out here, I’m sure it would be desirable to the drug addicts, so a lot of times I’ll cruise by. They have an alarm, so more than likely if someone tried to break in here, the alarm would catch them. A lot of times I just come over here and see if their gate’s closed, and sometimes they’ll leave their gate open, but just check and make sure nobody’s behind here, breaking into the city trucks or anything like that.”
Chegwidden adds that one of the things he likes to do is to come by the businesses during their regular hours of operation and get a tour. ‘Knowing how the businesses in your sector work helps you know how to respond and what to expect when issues arise,’ he says.
Nooks and Crannies
Snaking his way back through old, rutted roads after passing the Caterpillar lot, Chegwidden goes on a tour of some of his sector’s less obvious hiding spaces. He starts on Ben Ficklin Road just after the dam, driving around the bend where the street winds under 87 before spitting out again on Riverbend Drive. People like to swim in the water on the river side when it’s hot out, he explains, mostly where the water is moving. Today there is no one in sight.
Heading back into town up 87, he motions off to the Mayfield Paper building. There’s a large, dry field around the backside that before it was mowed, provided good cover to criminals on the run. Chegwidden drives around back and points out the graffiti marking buildings along the tracks.
“What they’ll do is rival gangs will come out and mark out their writing, and you know that a rival gang, they’re fighting over turf or something like that,” he says. “Some of it’s art. A lot of these guys that do graffiti are artists, but some of them mean something. You can decipher their messages and see what they put there. They’ll encode a lot of stuff into their graffiti…like different numbers and stuff to let a rival gang member know this is a [a certain gang] tagging.
“The city is pretty good about painting over graffiti,” he continues. “One of the best ways to combat graffiti is as soon as it’s painted on something, you take it back off, you paint over it.”
Some of the graffiti on the buildings appears vibrant and relatively fresh, other areas depict faded messages in varying colors that are hardly visible. There isn’t a lot of graffiti in this area, but Chegwidden’s next stop is covered in both old and new scripts.
Climbing down a somewhat steep embankment, the officer explains how important it is to get out of the car and explore his sector. The Bell Street bridge is another popular youth hangout, he adds, and usually, under here, they’re up to no good. It’d also be an easy place to run and hide, and if officers didn’t make the effort to get out and check these places, a criminal on the run could slip by unnoticed.
“It’s extremely important to know how to get around, to get out and talk to people,” says Sergeant Rodriguez. “That’s one of the hardest things we have to get across to new officers, get out and talk to people. A lot of people in all parts of town, want to be able to tell somebody, ‘hey, I think this is going on’. They may not know for sure—and sometimes it turns out to be nothing—but it’s extremely important for officers to be able to do that. Get out and talk to people, get to know how to get around your district. Learn—if there are hotspots, how to get in and out of them from different angles and different streets, and sit up on them and all this stuff. You can’t do that unless you drive up and down the streets,” he said.
Having walked the length of the bridge from the underside and checked both sides for signs of criminal activity, Chegwidden returns to his car. He’s got one more relatively hidden spot to patrol this afternoon before the calls for service start coming in.
Behind the South Concho Park is a large wooded area with a rutted path running through it known to be a home for a band of transients. The group had been living in storm drains, where excess trash and other items had caused one of them to clog, but have since been deterred to other locations after police focused on the areas. Saturday Chegwidden doesn’t find any pitches or noticeable evidence of transient living, but he still makes the drive through to be certain, stopping to move fallen branches out of the way as he passes through.
Calls for Service
As predicted, Chegwidden’s radio begins to go off just before sunset. The calls coming in are mostly domestic disturbances—some made from victims, others from passersby. Responding to a busy Sector 1, Chegwidden is sent to a call made from someone in the area concerning a man threatening to kill the woman he’s with. The two are arguing, the caller has said.
Chegwidden and another officer arrive at the area from which the call originated but find no one around, then receive a similar call moments later. The couple is now at one of north San Angelo’s less reputable hotels, and the fight continues. Upon arrival, the officers approach the couple and begin to assess the situation. After several minutes, the second officer calls Chegwidden inside and reveals what he’s found. The man has an active felony warrant and will be taken to jail.
Both have been cooperative with the police, and as the man is escorted off the premises, the woman repeats that she loves him, she’ll do what she can to get him out.
Not long after, an assault in Sector 2 comes over the radio. When calls are received, dispatch seeks to acquire as much information as possible to help assess the urgency of the situation. This call in particular is a code 3, meaning Chegwidden will be “coming in hot”.
Turning on his lights and sirens, the officer accelerates, weaving around partially stopped cars on his way to the call. Driving downtown he proceeds with caution, frequently changing the pattern of the siren to keep drivers from tuning it out and slowing at intersections and groupings of cars. Vehicles began to pull over to the right-hand side of the road and others pause in place as his patrol car approaches, but a few drive defiantly onward, apparently oblivious to the meaning of the siren and impeding the officer’s progress to call he can only assume is serious.
“I’ve been doing this for five years,” he says, “and there are still times that make the hair on your neck stand up.”
Finally, Chegwidden makes it out of the congested area and is able to give his car some gas. Within minutes he’s arrived at a trailer park across town, where he finds a pair of women waiting to flag him down. The story turns out to be more of a he-said she-said event, but he couldn’t have known that until he arrived.
After both parties implicate one another in assault, one party is asked to leave and the officers remain on scene until the premises have been vacated. The call took a little over an hour to clear, and various versions of the events leading up to the initial 9-1-1 call have been relayed.
Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Sector 2 units see a spike in downtown activity. “That’s when the bars are operating at their max,” Chegwidden says. “Like alcohol-related calls, people get intoxicated and they argue with their spouses, friends and just complete strangers. Arguments break out because of alcohol. It’s liquid courage.”
No other sector in town has quite the concentration of bars in a single area as Sector 2, Sergeant Rodriguez estimates that the majority of alcohol-related incidents happen on Fridays and Saturdays, when more people have off work. Alcohol is a big contributor to police activity in the sector, Rodriguez says, and a lot of the time the conflicts are avoidable.
“From bars specifically, I’d say the percentage [of the incidents we handle] is probably less than 15 or 20 percent. Alcohol-related, probably somewhere between 30 and 40 percent,” Sergeant Rodriguez says. “We have fights, we have DWIs, we have public intox. A lot of times it’s someone getting kicked out of a bar who’s refusing to leave. We want to be fair to people, so we try to find them a ride home or something like that. If we can’t find them a ride, then we’re kind of forced into the issue of taking them to jail for public intox or something like that. From the bars themselves, that’s a lot of it. When the bar people go, ‘hey, you need to leave,’ if those people would simply leave, it would reduce our workload a whole lot.”
Unfortunately, patrons under the influence commonly stay on site, thus resulting in either the police being called to handle the situation or in the patron being taken to jail where he can be babysat until better judgment returns on the wings of sobriety.
On the weekends, patrol units park on different corners and officers walk the block, hitting parking lots and alleyways as they survey the area. Aside from domestic disturbances, burglary and theft are the number one crimes on the weekends and cars parked downtown provide easy targets.
“It’s (burglaries) mostly in your concentrated residential areas, and a lot of times on weekends, when you have a lot of folks downtown and you have a lot of cars parked there, you have a lot of folks who go and target that area, that go check the parking lots. It’s like anywhere else in the city—you have juveniles, drug addicts, all kinds of folks go around and just check door handles, and if one’s open, they just go in.
The only problem with the parking lots as opposed to residential areas is you have a lot of foot traffic from people coming and going,” Chegwidden explains, noting that identifying a suspect is much more difficult in high traffic areas.
Saturday night, Officer Chegwidden circles a strip of Chadbourne just before 2 a.m. on foot, stopping to talk to bar patrons who ask questions and make wild claims as the officer passes. Next weekend he’ll get to do it again, but he can never know what the night will bring.
After a longer-than-usual 10-hour shift, Sergeant Rodriguez relays a message to the public. “I’d like people to know in the entire city that we can’t be everywhere at once. If they feel like something is going on in their particular neighborhood, they need to call us and let us know, because we might not, honestly, know about it,” he says. “People calling us is how we start to work on problems that we have. Especially on this shift guys don’t have time to get out and talk to people very often, so we don’t always know what’s going on in your neighborhood. We need them to be more informative…so we can serve them better.”
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