It began with a dispatcher’s note on a computer screen fixed to the center console — possible child porn had been found on a computer in Shandon.
San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s Deputy Neil Clayton was ready to begin his 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. patrol, with keys already in the ignition. But instead, he tapped the screen, marking the call as his, and began his investigation.
As the night unfolded, Clayton prioritized the most pressing calls as his shift spanned 225 miles in just five hours. Nearly a dozen reports flashed on the dispatcher screen as Clayton and his partner, in separate cars until 9 p.m., divvied up their responses and weighed which to reroute while in pursuit of another.
“It’s on us as deputies as well as the watch commander and dispatchers to triage these calls,” Clayton said, noting that any life-threatening calls take priority over thefts, for example.
One recent night showed a glimpse of the struggles, frustrations and sheer distances traveled by deputies patrolling the county’s single most expansive territory — the North County, a stretch of real estate larger than the state of Rhode Island. That size, coupled with the few deputies who usually patrol it per shift, means residents can wait long periods of time for deputies to arrive on routine calls.
Whether the status quo will ever change depends upon many factors, most notably whether the Sheriff’s Department will get more money in next year’s budget, which starts July 1.
On this particular night — between the porn case, a drug overdose, a possible burglary, a drug arrest and a suicidal caller — long stretches of highway turned into twisting backcountry roads and suburban neighborhoods.
Clayton traveled from Templeton to Shandon, northwest to San Miguel, south to Templeton and then east to Creston all before 9 p.m. One call was pending for nearly two hours as Clayton was diverted away from it on three occasions for more pressing matters.
Fifteen minutes after Clayton began his investigation into the child porn case, he was heading east on Highway 46.
“My record shift is 600 miles in one day,” Clayton said. When asked if he likes driving, he laughed and said, “Some days more than others.”
On good days, the day shift in the North County has four deputies patrolling 1,420 square miles. On bad days, it’s common for the day shift to have only two.
It’s also common for the swing shifts to have four deputies, who partner up after dark, when ideally there should be six deputies. The graveyard shift should have four deputies in two cars, but it’s common to have only two deputies in one car.
The demand for quicker response times has kept the pressure on an already understaffed area.
“I’ve had people not happy with me just (driving) from Templeton to Shandon,” Clayton said of response times between rural locations.
It’s typical in North County to have a 25- to 30-minute response time, and even longer when calls reach the rural corners of the backcountry.
The average response time for calls in the North County was about 17 minutes in fiscal year 2009-10, with a target time of 15 minutes, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
That same year, the South County saw an 11-minute response average while the coast saw an average of 13 minutes. Both had a target response time of 10 minutes.
Sydney Wattles, 75, of Shandon has called the Sheriff’s Department over the years to report speeders in his neighborhood. He’s often frustrated, he said, because a deputy can’t always come right away. He knows the distance obstacles that deputies often face, but he’d still like to see improvement.
“I’m paying taxes, and the people who live out here should be getting someone out here more,” he said. “And we’re not the only ones. It’s not an easy situation, but there has got to be an answer.”
These complaints have not fallen on deaf ears. In February, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said he wanted to review the size of the department’s beats and its service populations and determine whether some areas are too big.
But as recently as Thursday, Parkinson said those discussions are on hold until the county and state budgets pass in June. Then he’ll know what he has to work with.
Funding for additional deputies could come if the solar projects proposed for the Carrizo Plain become realities. Parkinson doesn’t have specifics on that yet but said the department could get extra patrol money during the three years of activity when the plants are under construction. Dedicating an existing deputy to the Carrizo Plain — 70 driving miles from Templeton — would be a burden on the other regions, Clayton said, explaining why there could be additional funding.
Because of budget cuts and the loss of 25 positions over 2009 and 2010, the Sheriff’s Department countywide is staffed with 355 employees — putting it at 1995 levels, Parkinson said.
The Templeton substation staffs 25 people full time. That includes 19 patrol deputies, one rural crime deputy, two patrol sergeants, one commander and two clerks. There are also five to seven citizen patrol volunteers.
“When you figure days off, people calling in sick and those on training assignments people get farmed out fast and we’re stretched pretty thin,” Clayton said.
The reality proves challenging for the deputies.
Last year, Clayton and his partner took a domestic violence call in California Valley, but they were 85 driving miles away patrolling near Lake Nacimiento.
Responding to a March 20 shooting outside a San Miguel bar, for example, was a juggle.The call came in at 2 a.m. when four deputies, in two cars, were just getting off shift.
“If it literally would have come in two minutes later those swing shift guys would have gone home and the two-man graveyard shift car would be the only one to send,” Clayton said.
Six deputies were sent, but, as it happened, the graveyard car was diverted, midroute, to a reported Templeton prowler peering into windows.
The graveyard shift deputies found the man intoxicated and discovered he was the same suspect the CHP was seeking who fled a DUI collision. The deputies were committed to that investigation for two hours while their colleagues worked the investigation on the shooting into the morning.
Calls ebb and flow
Neighborhood kids stopped in their tracks and waved as Clayton’s patrol car slowly pulled onto a residential street in Shandon, gravel crunching beneath its tires.
The report: A woman had purchased a computer and found child porn on a disc inside. She immediately smashed the disc in disgust but didn’t report the crime. It came up seven months later when she told a friend, whose mother called the Sheriff’s Department.
Clayton left with the computer tower after phoning a detective. Detectives have since searched the hard drive for evidence of pornography, Clayton said, but it was clean.
Clayton left the neighborhood, heading south on Centre Street when another call appeared on the screen.
A drug overdose was taking place right around the corner.
“There are days where you can have no dispatch calls, and you can also have a day where you’re five calls deep, waiting,” he said.
Clayton was the first deputy on the scene, the flashing lights of the County/Cal Fire’s engine showing in his rearview mirror.
A repeat offender on parole had overdosed on drugs after his wife left him. The man said he read on the Internet that if you shoot up with methamphetamine and take 20 antidepression pills “you’d feel really good.”
He was clutching his shaven head, his thick fingers pressing into the skin. With sheets and blankets tacked over the bedroom windows, the only natural light came from the living room as Clayton came and went to calm the household dog and a panicked neighbor yelling outside.
The man was hunched over, saying he felt shaky. An empty pill bottle lay beside him on the bed. Clayton found another in the trash.
The man revealed his forearms where red, puffy splotches were forming. The syringe missed the veins and the liquid methamphetamine was pooling beneath the skin.
They waited for an ambulance from Paso Robles — about 20 minutes away.
As he wrapped up his report, Clayton settled back into his patrol car and headed south.A new report flashed on the screen — a home alarm had been triggered in San Miguel.Clayton rerouted northwest.
Once there, Clayton walked around the home with noticeable caution. He later described how he checked all the doors and windows for forced entry. With everything secure, his report concluded the two small dogs inside could have triggered the alarm.
With the third case of the day complete, Clayton pulled over at a local gas station after patrolling the area. He removed a red ice chest from his trunk and began peeling a hardboiled egg.
“You never know when you’ll get another chance to take a break,” he said.
At 6:45 p.m., Clayton headed back to Shandon on a report of shots heard in the Salinas riverbed. On his way, his partner called for backup on a foot pursuit in Templeton. Clayton turned around.
When he arrived, two patrol cars were interviewing an 18-year-old man who witnesses said sold marijuana in a local park. Clayton helped his colleagues search the man’s truck, bagging various glass pipes for evidence and confiscating the jars and plastic bags of marijuana.
As Clayton headed back to the Shandon riverbed call, he was again diverted — a Creston man called 911 saying “he had no reason to live,” according to the dispatcher.
The report required two vehicles, with another deputy as the primary responder.
“Any call where there’s a risk of predisposed violence, like a suicidal or domestic violence, we send two deputies out,” Clayton said.
Clayton arrived first because he was closer, eventually powering on his spotlights to see better as night fell on the winding dirt road.
The silhouette of a man appeared in the window as Clayton pulled into a long driveway. He discovered the man’s divorce had finalized that day and he just needed to talk to someone.
His partner arrived from Templeton just as Clayton was leaving.
“You have to be comfortable with being alone and more isolated as deputy sheriff,” said Clayton, who chatted with the man before referring him to a counselor.
But Clayton said decreased staffing and the time it can take for backup to arrive when they are spread throughout the region represent a safety issue.
“I can’t count the times where our backup is a city agency,” he said. “That’s why we’re lucky to have a good working relationship with our allied agencies.”
For the most part, however, the deputies are pretty much alone.
Many miles of rural roads to patrol
There are two beats in the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s North County region. One beat stretches into Santa Margarita, Pozo, California Valley, Creston, Templeton and the unincorporated portions of Atascadero. The other includes the unincorporated areas of Paso Robles, San Miguel, Shandon, Heritage Ranch, Oak Shores and Lake Nacimiento Resort.