By Mel Ewald
Chino Police narcotics investigator Chris Carrino believes marijuana has essentially become a prescription drug even though he has never met someone who needed it for legitimate medical purposes.
Officer Carrino told Monday’s third meeting of Chino Police Department’s 25th Citizen Academy that changes to the justice system are making enforcement of narcotics laws increasingly difficult.
But there is a bright side, he said, and it comes from an unexpected source – the electric company.
Officer Carrino said juries are less enthusiastic about convicting marijuana offenders than they once were, before California residents enjoyed the right to grow the drug for their own “medical” use. But very few jurors who have to write large checks every month to Southern California Edison feel sympathy for marijuana growers who steal electricity.
At a recent grow house bust in Chino, Officer Carrino spoke to an Edison representative who was on the scene to evaluate how much power the drug growers had stolen. The amount was in the tens of thousands, reflecting how power-intensive indoor cultivation is, the investigator said. As a result, the growers will face felony theft charges that are likely to cause them more problems than the drug charges, he added.
A similar incident involving a house where a marijuana crop was within the legal limits could have left Officer Carrino feeling powerless, if not for code enforcement. Investigating the report of a grow house, Officer Carrino said he could detect none of the usual indications of indoor farming: covered windows, mail left uncollected, trash cans seldom placed at the curb, unpleasant odors, and other signs.
So he knocked on the door and a woman answered. When he asked her if she was growing marijuana, she replied that she was not. Her specific answer led Officer Carrino to ask a follow-up question: Was any other resident of the house growing marijuana?
It turned out another tenant was growing the drug in a closet, which he had wired for lights and irrigation. Unfortunately, he was within his rights in California because he had six or fewer mature plants, Officer Carrino said.
Then the light bulb went on in the investigator’s head and he called Chino code enforcement. Turns out it may be legal to grow marijuana in a closet, but the wiring and irrigation systems the farmer was using are not allowed and he was cited.
Despite the trouble it causes him, marijuana is not among the drugs Officer Carrino describes as “big” in Chino. That distinction goes to the most notorious of opiates, heroin. “Here in Chino, heroin’s real big,” he said.
The most popular type – black tar heroin – comes in a small package, which Officer Carrino described as “like a little black booger.” Black tar is not the most pure form of heroin, he added, but it is cheaper and that makes it more common in Chino, where the purest form, China white, has yet to surface.
Other “big” drugs in Chino, not necessarily in order, include “Dust Off” aerosol (the narcotics investigator described a man passed out in the front seat of his car surrounded by the empty containers) and promethazine.
A sedative and antihistamine, promethazine is often an ingredient of prescription cough syrup. Its abuse was popularized by certain rap stars, who mix it with Sprite and hard candies to disguise its unpleasant flavor, the investigator said.
Art it’s not
Narcotics was one side of a triangle of closely related law enforcement challenges presented to the academy class. The other sides are graffiti and gangs.
The difference between graffiti and art is simple, Officer Melissa Garcia told the class: The tagger does not have permission from the property owner.
Like artists, graffiti vandals sign their work and that habit has been put to use against them. Last year, 1,492 graffiti “monikers,” or signatures, were identified in Chino, along with 926 tagging crews. When Officer Garcia sees a moniker, she can enter it into her phone using her Graffiti Tracker app. “I live by it,” she said. A recent entry tied the moniker to damage estimated at $15,000 in Chino and the vandal was arrested, she added.
Two weeks ago, Officer Garcia arrested the youngest graffiti vandal of her career – a 13-year-old.
In 2015, Chino Police arrested 59 taggers, more than double the 25 arrests of 2014 and more than the 41 arrests in 2013. Graffiti damage cost the City of Chino $337,986 in 2014 and $562,095 in 2013. What it cost private property owners is not available.
On the plus side, the very expense of removing graffiti damage frequently escalates what could be a crime of mischief into a felony, Officer Garcia said.
Graffiti also can put officers on the track of more serious crimes because it is so closely interwoven with gang activity and narcotics.
Meet the gang
Gangs are still real in Chino and not going away, including the infamous Chino Sinners, who started as a car club in the 1950s, Officer Patrick Burg told the class. The law defines a gang member as any person, including a girlfriend or parent, who participates in gang activities knowing that its members commit crimes.
More than 7,400 gangs have been documented in California and their membership is estimated at more than 300,000. In the eight square miles of Los Angeles where Officer Burg used to patrol, 69 gangs were operating, he said.
Once easily identifiable by their tattoos, gangs are evolving and changing their tactics. They are cutting down on the body art, cleaning up and losing the “low rider” look, according to Officer Chris Chinnis. They are also recruiting more female members.
Gangs often record contacts with police, argue the legality of photographs or detentions and file complaints challenging the contents of files or claiming civil rights violations, Officer Burg said.
Asian gangs are deeply involved in growing marijuana, identity theft and other “paper crimes,” he said.
Gang prevention is the number one goal of Chino Police Department’s gang unit. Its second goal is to confront gang members.
Deterrence “is something we do pretty well here,” Officer Burg said. When a known member of a motorcycle gang moved in recently, “We went to his door and said we want to let you know we know who you are,” the investigator said. The gang member was not pleased.
A tagging-crew-turned-gang known as KSW, possibly for Kan’t Stop Writing, moved into Chino but appears to have changed its mind after Chino Police hauled 10 of its members to jail, Officer Chinnis said.
What hasn’t changed is gangs’ readiness to commit crimes, including homicide, he added.
For that reason, gang unit officers “are going to keep getting smarter,” Officer Chinnis said. “You can’t be an effective gang cop in the station,” he added. “You’ve got to be out in the streets.”
Next week: active shooter training.