Escondido, CA

‘The youth are our future and if we can give them a second chance, I think it’s important,” says Chief Craig Carter

Last week I sat with Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter and caught up with some initiatives he has pursued during his five years of running the department. He will celebrate his sixth anniversary in August.

Although no critically pressing issues demand his time right now, the chief is continuing on a steady-as-you-go approach. 

“We’re going to continue to be as efficient as we can, understanding that all of the cities are vying for the same amount of money,” he said. “I think we are going to have to be a lot smarter in how we deploy our resources in order to make sure that we solve crime and handle the radio calls.” 

One of those things he is most proud is what he calls the juvenile diversion program. Because of the program only 50% of juveniles arrested go to juvenile court, an institution he believes is kind of vocational education for young criminals. Instead the department works with Patty Huerta of Education Compact, a mentoring program that keeps young people out of jail and ultimately prison. 

Under this program, juvenile offenders get to choose from three options:

1) Mock court,  where their peers act as jurors, prosecution and defense. The only adult is the judge, who is an actual judge who volunteers his or her time. The jurors have a menu of punishments they hand down. Such as requiring the offender to send a letter of apology to his parents or the party he wronged, doing community service time or writing an essay talking about what bad decisions he made. The punishment might also involve attending a decision-making class. With the jury trials the teenage jurors often give harsher sentences than the judge would. “But you roll the dice,” said Carter. “It’s fun to watch the kids represent them as defense attorneys. They take it very seriously. Compact teaches them how to do it. It’s not like they are going in blind. They read the case. They meet with their client. It’s a hundred percent complete jury trial. Part of the process is that you have to come back as a juror, prosecution or defense attorney. So you get to help the next group. “it’s a fantastic program!” said Carter.

2) Go to the police department. The juvenile give his or her side of the story and the police question him with the parents present. “We determine the appropriate level of discipline and give them a laundry list of things they need to do,” said Carter. The goal is to get the teen to accept some degree of responsibility. “Can we get them to agree that they did something wrong, to recognize that it is a problem and not to do it again? We are getting a lot more from this than we are the juvenile justice system; which doesn’t have a whole lot of time to deal with this. If I send the youth to juvenile hall, they get to speak to criminals down there and they become smarter criminals. I don’t want that.” 

3)A SARB hearing, where they bring in school resource officers. 

 “The youth are our future and if we can give them a second chance, I think it’s important,” said the chief. “One thing I’ve learned out of this program. If someone goes to juvenile hall, they get to see some pretty bad people. They act a little tougher than they are and maybe step to the next level. It gives them that street credibility and I don’t want them to have that either. If I can avoid that I think we all win.  It’s also important to remember, if the kid goes to juvenile court, the family has to go too—and most families don’t have the money to take off time from work to go there.”

The juvenile diversion program still requires parents to attend, but at night, so it’s not such a burden. “It’s probably the first time the parents find out what really happened,” said Carter. “The kid probably didn’t tell them the truth. They get to see the case. To hear the arguments on both sides. The parents in the back say, ‘Well that’s not what he told me.’ ”

When Carter is talking to groups, he tells a story of when he was still a sergeant. He was at Escondido Boulevard & Felicita when a truck ran a red light and cut him off. He pulled over the driver, a 16 or 17-year old who had just gotten a license. 

When Carter asked why he thought he was stopped, he said, “I kind of rolled through that stop light.”

“It’s called running the stop light, but yes,” said Carter. 

“I knew it as soon as I saw it.”

“Do you pay your automobile insurance?” he asked. He said his parents did. “I have a deal for you,” said Carter. “You can contact mom or dad right now, or you can accept the ticket. If I talk to mom and dad there’s a chance you won’t get the ticket.”

It took almost a minute for the boy to decide. Which told Carter the punishment from his parents would be worse than the ticket.  He called his mother and handed the phone to Carter, who explained what had happened. The mother thanked him and said, “We will take care of this.”  Carter told the boy, “Your mom and dad want to talk to you when you get home.”

“He seemed like a good kid,” said Carter. “but sometimes that conversation has more of an impression than a ticket would be and going to juvenile traffic court.”

The chief talked about crime statistics. “One thing as chief you are careful about is accepting the praise when statistics go down because you are going to have to accept the blame when they go up.  There’s a lot of influences I do not get to control. One auto thief gets out of jail and steals three cars and  my theft rate goes up. I don’t get to control that.”

That being said, Carter was happy to report that the crime rate is down and has steadily been dropping. “This last quarter we had a slight increase in some areas and a decrease in others which is very common. I feel like we are doing great. We have one of the highest arrest rates in the county for those that need to be arrested. I  think that helps lower our crime rate.  Just holding people accountable.”

The officers of the department answer calls but are also proactive. “They are very hard working and handle a lot of calls for service, as well as finding time for proactive law enforcement.” 

One way they are proactive is with the homeless. Although not as prominent in Grape Day Park as they once were, nothing prevents the homeless from showing up elsewhere.  “That’s the risk  and I would say that happens to some extent.” With the homeless “we have compassion and we recognize that most of a time they are in a situation they don’t control. Every single contract we make with homeless, they are offered services.”  The officer explains that if the person takes the services, the department will do everything to help. “But if you break the law we will hold you accountable.”

Most must hit bottom before they accept services, he said.  The officers get to know them by their first name. “We have helped unite family members. We see that a big success. Family will help make them succeed, but services won’t work until they have family support,” he said.

Carter is proud of the department’s four community policing officers, who are part of COPPS. All officers are encouraged to be proactive and be community policing officers.  “But those four officers have a little more time in order to take care of the problems long term.”

They work closely with Interfaith Community Services and the  McAlister Institute. The latter group, “has no red tape,” said Carter. “Their attitude is ‘This is what we need to do and we are going to do it.’ If someone who wants to get united with family has a warrant or property in storage they will step in to help. There is always barriers to being helped. They help us remove those barriers.”

I asked the chief about how well the department’s body worn cameras are working. “It’s going great!” he said. “It’s becoming second nature. The officers that have been around awhile don’t have the muscle memory, but the officers from the academy are trained to activate the cameras, so it is becoming second nature.  I think it’s only going to get better.”

I brought up the recent incident where the Bay Area rapper was shot and killed by police who opened up on him when he was sleeping in his car with a gun in his lap. That would have been a good time to use that robot the department is buying, I suggested.

“It’s funny you should say that,” said Carter,” who said that the night before, “we had a car in the middle of the intersection of Washington & Broadway with the subject passed out in the wheel. That man had a gun in his lap.

“You have a lot of things to think about,” he said. “You have to make sure the car doesn’t go anywhere.  That when they wake they don’t reach for the gun. In situations where a gun is involved, it heightens our awareness. It does happen and that night it was handled very well, but that could have taken a different turn. If the individual had been startled and woke up and grabbed the gun, the officers have to react.

“In that case it was a coordinated effort. Someone has to get in and get the gun first. Someone has to block the car so that it doesn’t go anywhere. And then hands on the individual to make sure they don’t start fighting or getting the gun.”

He concluded, “It does happen and that night it happened very well and no issues, but it could have had a different turn.” 

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