"Basically,” says Aaron Meleen, a deputy sheriff traffic investigator working the night shift in Poway, “we don’t have much going on right now.” It’s a Monday evening, the onset of his 12½-hour shift, and we’re strapped in his shock-worn Crown Vic, bouncing out of the station onto Civic Center Drive. The cruiser’s front compartment is a mélange of computer screen, keyboard, gun rack, intercom, dash-mounted radar scope, and handheld devices such as a cell phone and a clip-on video camera. Meleen, 27, sports a slicked-back hairstyle, short sidewalls with pronounced sideburns — a bit Guido, a bit Presley. Perhaps it’s the holstered gun or his cockpit of electronic gear that makes him seem unruffled. What will surprise me is just how fast he can Jekyll-and-Hyde that peace officer’s calm to an arresting tough.
Soon the radio dispatcher’s got his ear. The car’s GPS screen blips a code, brackets an address: fellow deputy Darrin Smith and his partner are at a “family disturbance,” two minutes away. Before Meleen can explain his night’s tasks, mostly stopping drivers for vehicle violations, we’re on our way, the Crown Vic responding with giddy-up enthusiasm. Pulling into an apartment complex, he says, “You’re welcome to come along but hang back a little. If you see any guns, let me know. It’s always nice to have an extra pair of eyes.”
We start moving toward #22. Evening’s falling. Up the stairs, inside, a man, drunk and sailor-mouthed, is on the couch. One look at me, and he says, “Who the hell are you?” I say nothing. “You have to ask permission to enter my home!” I start to ask, then Meleen says, “Calm down, dude. He’s a citizen ridealong.” Darrin Smith and Meleen are on either side of him. Another deputy stands in a doorway, keeping a woman (his wife?) at bay in a back room. Such blocking cops call “command presence.” I learn later the man’s been drinking all day, and he and the woman have been arguing for hours. A neighbor, sick of it, called in the complaint.
The man, a Mexican national, gets up. He’s pissed, an “I know my rights” guy. His face is the red of Tabasco. Whatever anger he had toward the woman he now spews at the cops. Meleen again tells him to cool it. The man tenses. He drops another F-bomb, then adds, as if it’s admissible: “There’s a citizen here. A ridealong who’s witnessing everything.” Odd. He thinks the police are harassing him. It’s just the opposite.
Meleen is tree-tall neutral. “Are you going to relax?” he says, his voice escalating, but the man is narrating his own drama: “If this was being videotaped, would you be justified? No, you would be not.” He pauses. “It’s pathetic. Your reasoning, your logic is pathetic.”
Meleen and Smith stand him up, but he starts moving against them. Suddenly, Smith kicks at the man’s ankle, and he goes down, the two cops pushing-and-holding his fall. The third cop is on him while the man screams into the carpet, “I’m not doing anything.” The three pull his feet up behind him and handcuff him. It’s over in five seconds, and then he’s on his feet. Marched down the stairs, he stops muttering in the caged backseat of a cruiser.
Night has arrived, and Meleen is unwinding beside his Crown Vic, the motor’s heat welcome in the cool air — overnight low in the mid-40s. He tells me why they arrested the man. “People who’ve been drinking all day can’t control themselves; they don’t have a cool head. We have to find out what’s happening. Has anyone gotten physical, or is this just a verbal argument? It’s not against the law to argue with your spouse.” Meleen says they cuffed him “for his safety and for our safety.” The arrest is lawful: penal code 148, resisting a peace officer. What I didn’t see, Meleen says, is that the man, in pulling away, bumped Smith. That triggered Smith to initiate the balletic takedown.
In a domestic quarrel, Meleen’s job is to sort out the “dominant aggressor.” While the man stews, the other deputies talk to the woman. Two sides to every story. It’s him, they determine. We return to the Poway station, where Smith will take three hours to book the man, transport him to “CJ,” San Diego’s downtown central jail, and document the incident in writing. (There are two rooms on the back side of the Poway sheriff’s station: Prisoner Holding and Report Writing.) The man’s rage deflated, order settles. Together, the three deputies huddle, share dread, recharge. Out alone, each has a gun and a car to protect him, though confronting drunkards or stoners intensifies the unpredictable, especially at night.
Driving After Midnight in Poway, You Will Be Stopped
Every night in Poway, three to five deputies work patrol: breaking up barroom melees, arresting burglars, bringing in guys on warrants, busting drug dealers. Meleen and 25-year veteran Mark Tally work traffic: collisions, hit-and-runs, speeding, DUIs. Back on the road, Meleen says, “I write a lot of tickets, trying to educate people, get their behavior to change.”
As the night progresses, he eyes the speeders. He watches headlights, sees them raise up as the car races or tilt down as it brakes. In his radar class, Meleen passed his nighttime “visual estimation of speed” test with flying colors. “I got each one right.”
Five years on the force, Meleen likes traffic and the night. After doing day patrol for two years in San Marcos, an opening in Poway in traffic came up. He tested, passed easily, and got the assignment. Four months on night shift, four months on day shift, that’s his duty. Twelve-and-a-half hour shifts, four days a week. He prefers nights, because fewer cars are on the road and there’s more of the people — read DUIs — “we’re looking for.” Most shifts, he racks up 100 miles in his Crown Vic, the side doors emblazoned with the emblem “Poway: the City in the Country.”