Atascadero merchants, police work on protocol

A recent miscommunication between Atascadero police and a business with an emergency has spurred efforts to improve these interactions.

“We plan on working with the business community on how law enforcement works and with law enforcement on what businesses need,” City Councilman Tom O’Malley said.

The issue arose from an incident that took place at K-Jon’s Fine Jewelers at 5255 El Camino Real on the morning of Feb. 11. Police were called about someone making a scene at the store.

Police responded within three minutes and followed department procedures, police Chief Jim Mulhall said.

However, officers didn’t follow up with shop owner Stan Sherwin in the way Sherwin said they should have. Mulhall said it’s up to each officer on how to handle calls and that because Sherwin declined to press charges, nothing more was needed.

Meanwhile, Sherwin didn’t fully understand it was his responsibility to say a crime had taken place because he was expecting police to come speak with him and take a report.

Now Sherwin and Mulhall want to find better ways to cooperate in the future.

“We welcome any opportunity to build stronger relationships through effective dialogue,” police Cmdr. Steve Gesell said.

Sherwin says that because businesses rely on the police, he wants that as well.

Mulhall is planning to make presentations to businesses on police procedures and what to do when calling for help. He also submitted an article on these topics to the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce newsletter.

Additionally, Sherwin contacted city leaders about ways to reach out to the community. They are exploring interest in offering a similar presentation on police response through the chamber as well, Gesell said.

Sherwin said positive change is all he’s looking for.

“I want anybody in this town to benefit from what hopefully comes out of this,” he said.

Customer hassle

The incident began when a man, later identified as a 24-year-old transient named Steven Shepard, allegedly came into K-Jon’s and hassled a customer, made threats and struggled with Sherwin while another employee called the police.

“I didn’t know if he was going to pull a knife or a gun,” Sherwin said. “But I’m expecting the police to be there any second.”

As Sherwin’s employee was on the phone, she answered several questions from the police dispatcher. That concerned Sherwin, he said, because he wanted police there as soon as the call was placed.

“When you need the police, we don’t need questions,” Sherwin said. “We need them here.”

However, police say those questions help them assess what type of emergency is occurring, enabling officers to respond accordingly.

Failure to get that information, Gesell said, can present “obvious safety issues and can potentially result in a less than ideal response (such as) guns drawn needlessly” — or, conversely, a more routine response when there’s a larger threat, he said.

Officers made contact with Shepard farther down El Camino Real within three minutes.

Sherwin takes issue with that response time because the scene to respond to should have been his store, he said. Police say the scene was where Shepard was contacted.

Other local media reported a 30-hour police response time, but what actually happened was Mulhall visited Sherwin on Feb. 12 to talk about the incident after learning from the Chamber of Commerce that Sherwin was upset about it. A police report was later taken at Sherwin’s request.

The responding officers determined that Shepard may suffer from mental illness, but wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as the K-Jon’s employees thought.

“Since there were no crimes committed in the presence of an officer, it had to be a citizen’s arrest for anything to happen,” responder Sgt. Robert Molle said. He had asked the dispatcher to call Sherwin to ask if he wanted to prosecute.

When Sherwin was asked, he said he declined because he didn’t fully understand what the dispatcher was asking.

“How do I know what to prosecute?” he said. “I’m a jeweler. I don’t know the degrees of assault or what to charge someone with. Is it assault? He didn’t hit me. Is it trespassing?”

Sherwin wanted police to look at his shop’s video footage and take a police report, though he didn’t communicate that to the dispatcher.

Because those wishes didn’t come across in the brief phone exchanges, the police thought the issue was over when Sherwin declined to prosecute, Molle said.

City leaders say they’re looking for ways to make sure police and callers understand each other.

“I think there’s an issue of understanding the language of a couple different worlds there,” O’Malley said of the situation.

What happened to the suspect

Steven Shepard was arrested later on Feb. 11 for other alleged crimes. He was booked in County Jail in lieu of posting $75,000 bail and remained there on Wednesday. His charges include resisting an executive officer from performance of his duty, three counts of attempting to commit a crime and unauthorized possession of a shopping cart, according to court records. Tips on how to report a crime

Authorities say that being specific is key when speaking to a police dispatcher. “Specificity should drive the proper response in the shortest order,” police Cmdr. Steve Gesell said. The first few questions dispatchers are trained to ask are:

1. Why are you calling?

2. If you are reporting a crime: Is the crime in progress or did it occur earlier?

3. If you are reporting a traffic collision: Are there any injuries?

4. If you are reporting a disturbance: What is the nature of the disturbance (verbal argument, loud party, street fight, etc.)? Are there any weapons involved?