‘A symptom of much deeper problems’: Grass Valley officers focus on issues of mental illness, drug abuse, poverty (PHOTO GALLERY/VIDEO)
As Grass Valley Police Officer Zach LaFerriere drove away from Hospitality House after responding to a call for service at the homeless shelter, something was clearly on his mind.
The 16-year police veteran appeared agitated, shaking his head and flashing a grimace as he drove away.
LaFerriere responds to hundreds of calls for service a year, dealing with hundreds of different faces, but for him, all too many of these faces share the same sad stories.
“The majority of my job is dealing with people who are on drugs or who are mentally ill,” LaFerriere said.
A lifelong Grass Valley resident himself, LaFerriere said that arresting the same people repeatedly is extremely demoralizing. And he’s also the first to admit that he doesn’t have the answers.
“The issues — substance abuse, mental illness, are so entrenched, often generational — how do you break that cycle?”
Officers cover different beats, but tend to agree on the same thing: The vast majority of police time and resources in Nevada County are spent addressing issues of mental illness, drug abuse, and poverty — with most incidents involving the homeless community.
Detective Dennis Grube works in the department’s Strategic Response Unit (SRU) and plays a different role as an officer than LaFerriere, spending more of his time on often lengthy criminal investigations than responding to immediate calls for service.
Officer John Herrera, with 20 years of police experience, recently assumed a newly created and unique role in the department, serving as the Grass Valley police downtown/parks officer.
Grube estimated that around two-thirds of all Grass Valley police calls for service are transient-related. Herrera gave a much higher figure — estimating that well above 80% of his department’s calls for service are “homeless driven.”
Grube, Herrera, and LaFerriere were all quick to emphasize that many calls for service involving the homeless are wholly unfounded.
“I get a lot of calls where I have to have the same talk with people and explain to them that it’s not a crime just for someone to be homeless,” Herrera said.
Nonetheless, the police veteran said the homeless community is unquestionably the biggest focus for his department.
“I’ve really seen it grow in the last 15 years all across the U.S….the way I like to classify it is that homelessness has really become a subculture of America…I say subculture because it’s everywhere, even in the foothills of this little tiny town,” Herrera said.
On the several-acre property located off Gates Place, near the Spirit Empowerment Peer Center, Grube walked gingerly through the remnants of what appeared to be a recently abandoned homeless encampment in a small area well covered by a few large pine trees, far from any prying eyes. The private property, largely undeveloped and covered by brush and dense foliage, is marked with several “No Trespassing” signs, but this hadn’t deterred the former occupants of this encampment.
The sheltered area that Grube now surveyed was littered with trash: Food, bottles, grocery bags, and old cigarette packets were just a few of the items covering the ground, along with a few larger items such as discarded sleeping bags and even a badly worn out tent.
Encampments such as these are fire hazards, are often a haven for drug abuse, and pose threats to human and environmental health, so the landowner has given police permission to come onto the Gates Place property and cite or arrest trespassers.
“Believe it or not, this one actually isn’t so bad,” Grube quipped as he looked over this particular encampment. Police regularly conduct such sweeps on properties such as the plot on Gates Place, calling in city volunteer teams to clean up encampments, looking out for potential fire hazards, and arresting/citing trespassers when necessary, Grube said.
Born and raised in Grass Valley, Grube has been with Grass Valley police for close to seven years, enough time to develop familiarity with many of the homeless living out of tents and their cars on the long winding stretch of road on Gates Place.
As he made his regular rounds down the road, Grube was able to pick out most of the homeless, living out of their cars or on tents all along Gates Place, by name, with some coming out of their habitations to talk to him.
For Grube, taking someone into custody when he patrols Gates Place is the last resort. Instead, he prefers to deal with the homeless through face-to-face conversation, giving warnings when necessary, establishing relationships, and directing people toward the resources they need — housing, mental health care clinics, and addiction recovery facilities such as the Spirit Center.
“I didn’t start this job to be a bully,” Grube explained of his approach to policing. “I give people a lot of chances.
“It’s not the old-school kind of policing anymore for us, we’re not tackling criminals and slamming them into walls or whatever as much,” Grube said. “Today it’s more about learning to have some level of empathy, to try and show that you understand someone, although that can be difficult depending on what they’ve done.”
And it’s being able to develop a sense of empathy — more than it is being able to crack heads or handle a gun — that Grube said is essential to police keeping a handle on the sources of crime in this community.
But Grube acknowledges that empathy can only go so far in preventing crime, admitting that he’s had to arrest many of the same people far more than he would like to.
”It’s dispiriting…I’ve known some of these people seven years now, and so often you just gotta take them in, you gotta do what you gotta do.“
When Herrera was approached near the end of 2019 by police Capt. Steve Johnson and pitched the idea for the creation of a downtown/parks officer position, he admits he initially questioned the necessity of the role.
By his own admission, Herrera’s job description is odd for any police officer. He spends a good amount of his time working with city volunteers pulling weeds at Grass Valley’s DeVere Mautino Park. He’s been working with an architect to help redesign the skateboarding rink at Condon Park, and has been taking design ideas from the local teens who frequent the park. He goes around different businesses downtown on Mill Street, talking to owners about concerns they have, ranging from issues with parking spots to unruly customers.
“At first I said to Steve, ‘I really don’t know about this whole thing,’” Herrera said with a laugh as he recalled the conversation he had with Johnson over the position.
But since he took over as downtown/parks officer in January 2020, Herrera says he’s seen the unique value that the position plays in a tight-knit community such as Grass Valley.
Through everyday interactions, Herrera has formed close relationships with business and community leaders. He’s served as a key liaison for police in answering questions from the public about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. And he’s been able to meet with the organizers of groups such as Black Lives Matter and Back the Blue, forming a rapport with leaders of both organizations that Herrera said has proved crucial to allowing police to better prepare for demonstrations and prevent protests from escalating toward violence.
“Business owners here call me for anything … protest organizers call me for anything,” Herrera said as he walked down Mill Street, pointing out one store where he had recently responded to a store owner’s complaint of vandalism.
The owner told police that a group of teenagers had broken some Christmas lights hung around his building. Herrera was able to find the miscreants, admonish them for their actions, but avoid getting juvenile courts involved in a way that could have put a black mark on the teens’ futures.
“I use my discretion more than anybody,” he said. “I don’t want to make someone’s day worse by getting them in trouble…you have to think outside the box with this job and be flexible to take on a number of issues.”
While LaFerriere’s job description includes putting people in cuffs when necessary, he wants people to know that his mission as a police officer is much more than that.
“A lot of what we do, what I’m about, it comes down to relationship-building,” he explained as he walked through the corridors of Silver Springs High School, largely abandoned over the summer.
During the school year, when Silver Springs’ corridors are packed with excited students rushing to classes and extracurricular events, LaFerriere serves as the high school’s resource officer, ensuring student safety, monitoring the campus for illegal and harmful activity, and most importantly, connecting with kids.
“I know 75% of their names at this point,” LaFerriere said with a smile as he walked by a classroom. “That’s the most important part of this…a lot of these kids come from really tough homes, and I’m going to make sure that this campus is safe…and let them know that I’m here for them.”
After leaving the school, LaFerriere returned to his regular patrol. He drove to Hospitality House to run background checks on applicants for admission, as the shelter seeks to screen out applicants with outstanding warrants or violent crimes on their records, keeping the facility safe.
LaFerriere parked his car and ran the names of five to 10 applicants that the shelter wanted to ensure had a clean record. Or clean enough, anyhow.
As the officer entered the names into the police record-keeping system, each one came back with numerous results of past arrests or convictions — some of the names had 20 or more results.
For most of the applicants to the shelter, their record is indicative of a pattern of “quality-of-life” crimes — offenses such as public intoxication, drug possession, and loitering/trespassing — crimes that LaFerriere acknowledged tend to be associated more with the homeless.
Like Grube, LaFerriere is quick to say that most of his job involves dealing with Grass Valley’s transient community. And he’s just as quick to share that arresting the homeless, many of whom he considers friends, is possibly the least favorite part of his job.
LaFerriere grimaced and shook his head as he reflected on the topic of homelessness.
“Homelessness is a symptom of much deeper problems,” LaFerriere said. “It could be drugs, or mental illness, or often it’s someone who is a veteran and out of luck, and you’re commonly dealing with people who have experienced deep, deep trauma.”
The officer stopped on his drive from the homeless shelter to chat with an elderly man living out of his car who LaFerriere said has had his share of run-ins with the police department, mostly involving arrests for drug use. To his surprise and joy, LaFerriere found that the older man has quit using drugs and now holds a steady job at a local convenience store.
There was no disguising the good mood on LaFerriere’s face as he drove away after the conversation ended.
“That’s just awesome,” he said, beaming from ear to ear. “For him to hold down a job like that…that’s just so important. I’m so proud of him.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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