He’s memorized Poway’s nighttime-drivers’ behavior, where stop signs are run, where the dim-bulbs do 55 in a 35 mph zone. The later it gets, the drunker they are. “We have a saying: the only people out at 2:00 a.m. are drunks and cops.” He likes to “hide in the open,” sometimes hovering near Jimmy’s, next to Poway Fun Bowl, waiting for a driver to leave. Police call it “criminal profiling,” but he’s working off the likelihood that a kid in a hoodie hanging out behind a closed store, or a driver leaving a bar and weaving over the median, are worth momentarily detaining.
The entrée violation is a burnt-out license-plate light. We pull out from the station and within 30 seconds Meleen spots one. Quick pursuit, flashing lights, high-beam side-mounted spotlights. It’s almost Hollywood. Tonight, he’ll stop a dozen or more people, let most of the sober go with a warning, arrest the DUI drivers, run a few field sobriety tests, and conduct himself with each motorist (in my hearing) as graciously as if it were Thanksgiving dinner.
“Do I assume every person has been drinking? Absolutely not.” But he does look for “watery, red, droopy eyes,” an open container on the floor, smells of “an alcoholic beverage.” (Meleen can detect the odor of booze when he gets to the rear bumper.) He listens for slurred speech, notices the guy who fumbles with an ID. “It’s all a matter of building your case.”
After Meleen makes a vehicle stop for a burnt-out brake light, we head to the Poway Business Park. During the day 17,000 people work in some 500 businesses on this 900-acre site. Late evening, it’s duskily lighted, with yards and lots, fenced and locked.
I ask him to verbalize what he’s looking for. He doesn’t think about it, he says; it’s just “beat knowledge.” Except for a graveyard cleaning crew, there shouldn’t be anyone out. Street racers like the business park for the same reason burglars do: it’s unoccupied. But Meleen and company have dispersed them in recent months. Now, he’s checking parking lots to confirm there are no car engines idling; no one’s cutting a hole in a fence; nobody’s slowly rolling by to case the joint for a break-in. It’s all about absence, what’s not supposed to be happening. For the bad guy, it’s also about absence — making sure no cruiser is creeping by.
At one point, I remark to Meleen that his viewpoint, what he sees night-in, night-out in Poway, is distorted. Sure, most citizens are law-abiding and cooperate with him, the public servant, but the public he serves is not those with whom he deals. And they are a menacing lot. Most of us don’t see this grimy side of life except in stylized form on TV; we don’t encounter potheads and drunks, a malicious-spirited lot. Most of what’s dangerous in our neighborhoods exists behind a fog of protection. By arresting the bad guys, cops are constantly clearing the streets and, paradoxically, creating that fog. “That’s why we do it,” Meleen says. “We want to protect [those] people who don’t know how to [protect themselves] or don’t really want to see what’s going on.”
You’re Home But You Can’t Remember How You Got There
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. crime rate has fallen. The rate of night-prevalent crimes — business break-ins, vandalism, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape (66 percent occur after dark), vehicle theft (72 percent) — has also dropped. What’s more, the percentage of deaths involving vehicle wrecks and alcohol, more common at night, has fallen from 60 percent of all fatalities in 1982 to 37 percent in 2008.
Meleen says that despite these drops, crimes against peace officers keep rising. That explains his chest bulk, a front-to-back bulletproof shield he wears under his shirt. He is more aware of such violence at night because of its unexpectedness. Nowadays, people are more desperate than ever, meth-heads in particular, looking to fight cops. Is it any wonder why the police act when they feel threatened?
Consequently, with nighttime stops, Meleen is wary. He does a driver-side approach. But he hangs back if the guy, for example, “is a parolee who’s just murdered his wife and thinks I’m stopping him because I know he did it.” In that event, or if the vehicle is stolen, he draws his gun and awaits backup. Every driver he’s ordered out and onto the ground has complied. So far, he’s never had to fire.
Some nights, Meleen and the other traffic deputy Mark Tally get off at 4:30 a.m., then have to show up at court in downtown San Diego by 8:00 or 10:00. Tally says that he’ll doze at home first, then rack out on a couch in the “officer waiting room” beside the courtroom. “It’s the worst part of night shift,” Meleen says. That and missing family events, NFL football, and seeing his wife, sometimes for four days at a time. She’s at work when he clocks in, and she’s in the last throes of sleep when he climbs into bed. After court, Meleen may go back to sleep, but if it’s mid-afternoon, he just has to “suck it up” and go in at 4:00 p.m. Remembering rolling home once following such a stint, Meleen says, “Do you ever drive home at 5:00 in the morning and you can’t remember how you got there?”
If Meleen appears fuzzy, his sergeant reminds him that he can rack out at the station or take the day (night) off. It’s the deputy’s call. Otherwise, Meleen “loves being up at night. I sleep better during the day. I can get four hours of sleep and work a night shift okay.”
Again, the radio interrupts. “Subject wandering near the Garden Center on Vista View. Subject’s got a backpack or a bedroll. Subject is heavyset, with a beard, greenish/tan shorts. Subject seen carrying a stick.” Sounds harmless. But Meleen guns the Crown Vic. “This is a suspicious-person call.”