“Have you ever been arrested before? Put your hands behind your back.”
It’s 10:50 on a Saturday night in Isla Vista, and the streets are just beginning to fill with drunken revelers.
A slight chill in the air heralds the looming start of the school year and the influx of students that will accompany it. Tonight, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Investigator Craig Bonner and Isla Vista Foot Patrol Deputy Miles Davies are on patrol.
A young man sits on the curb with his head down, flashlight shining in his face. Moments earlier, Davies had effortlessly picked him out of a crowd. Now the man, in handcuffs, was getting an M.I.P. – minor in possession of alcohol – citation for holding a cup of tequila. He had violated the cardinal rule of partying in Isla Vista.
“It’s going to be a busy beginning of the year,” Davies says as he eyes a group of students hanging out in front of a liquor store.
But, then again, it’s almost always busy. While Isla Vista accounts for only 20 percent of Santa Barbara County’s population, its residents and visitors were responsible for about 64 percent of the alcohol-related offenses investigated in 2005.
Tonight, however, more law enforcement officers patrol the streets than is typical during the summer in anticipation of the flocks of Santa Barbara City College students arriving for the beginning of their semester.
While scanning for trouble, the officers decide it is time to visit Del Playa Drive, the cliff-top street that has a name synonymous with big parties and is famous for the great number of people who stroll along it searching for a good time.
It is only 10:30 p.m., and the street is not crowded yet, but loud hip-hop music can be heard emanating from many apartments. Bonner says that most parties that become problems started out just fine, but were destroyed by people the hosts are unfamiliar with.
“When people throw an open party, some people come in to party, and some people come in to take advantage,” he says.
The officers suddenly surge forward. They have spotted two men in a driveway with open beers in hand. The two plead their case with Davies, telling him that they are over 21 and from out of town. He explains that an open container citation, which is a $108 infraction, can be given to anyone standing in a place with public access, even if it is private property, like a driveway. After asking the men to pour out their drinks, he lets them off with a warning.
Around 11:25 p.m., the officers head toward Camino Pescadero to shut down a party at a house that has already earned a certain reputation with law enforcement. By now, nearby DP is crowded – so crowded that getting a car through the throng is nearly impossible. Adding to the chaos of the scene is a fire truck parked in front of the party house, flashing its red strobe lights.
Officer Davies says police handed out about 25 M.I.P. tickets here last night. But tonight, the grounds on which the party is being dismantled is the danger of fire: Several bulky, plastic tarps are wrapped around the yard to shield the party from view.
The fire marshal explains to two men standing at the front door that the petroleum-based tarps are a fire hazard and must be taken down. They comply and avoid receiving a citation.
But it is too late for their party. As they take down the tarp, a stream of people exits the premises.
A Little Leeway
Bonner and Davies now make their way to the other side of Isla Vista, and pause in front of a house with music audible down the block. It is 11:55 p.m., just a few minutes before the county noise ordinance is set to kick in. This is the main tool officers use to break up parties: The law stipulates that between the hours of 12 and 7 a.m. on weekends, no music shall be audible 100 feet beyond the property.
While waiting for midnight, Davies relates that he doesn’t take kindly to people who shirk responsibility for their parties. He says one house’s resident tried to dodge a citation by hiding, leaving the DJ to deal with the police.
Officer Davies said that when they found the man he asked for leniency, but didn’t receive it.
“Any hope he had for a break was gone when he left his DJ out to dry,” Davies said.
The officers decide that this particular party deserves a little leeway; it would be unfair to issue a citation at 12 a.m. on the mark.
Caught Ridin’ Dirty
Deep in the heart of I.V. on Sue–o Street, the officers spot a man taking a bong rip in the backseat of a maroon Scion tC. He is accompanied by a female subject.
The officers shine their black Maglites into the vehicle and demand that the occupants exit with their hands on their heads. A search of the car yields margarita mix and a bottle of Cazadores tequila. But the find that will give the officers the most grief this evening is a bag of pills that the young woman claims are Advil, but later admits are Soma – a prescription muscle relaxant.
This raises a technicality. If the pills are discovered to be a combination of Soma and codeine, then their possession is a felony. The regular variety, however, constitutes only a misdemeanor. The identity of the pills cannot be determined in the field, so the officers hand it over as evidence to the driver of UC Police Dept. cruiser that comes to transport the woman at about 12:30 a.m. to the I.V. Foot Patrol station. The man, who is under 18, is released after being cited.
Some of the Largest Bongs Ever Confiscated
It is now about 1 a.m. and the investigation of the pills continues in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the IVFP station. The numbers and letters imprinted on the pills are analyzed and referenced in a handbook. Davies decides to double-check the work of the rookie officer who analyzed the pills and obtains the same result.
The woman is “lucky this time,” Davies says. She is guilty of a misdemeanor, as the pills only contain Soma. The officer asks her why she had the pills.
“My friend gave them to me,” she says. “She pretty much told me they feel good. I’m not going to lie about it.”
She receives a ticket and is released. In a back room that, among other things, houses a collection of some of the largest bongs ever confiscated – up to 10 feet long – Davies takes the time to draw her a map with directions back to her car and then sends her on her way.
10-20 Officer in Danger
A call comes through the radio that puts both officers on edge: a 10-20 “safety issue.” They lock the door to the office behind them and jump into a police cruiser.
Bonner steps on the gas, and the engine of the Ford Crown Victoria screams, boosting it through the streets of I.V. at high speed. The car comes to an abrupt halt on Sabado Tarde Road, the closest street parallel to DP. Several other squad cars are already on the scene, and everybody is searching. A rookie officer has been separated from his partner in a fight with a drunken suspect and could be anywhere, possibly hurt.
The officers sprint east at top speed, and come upon the suspect – who is already being apprehended – and the previously lost rookie. A heavyset man, the suspect wears an oversized white T-shirt and is covered in blood. He has been pepper sprayed.
In the midst of the arrest, one man, unaware of the situation and of why there are so many officers, begins heckling them relentlessly.
“We’re just trying to have a good time,” he yells. “There’s only one of him and 20 of you!”
The officers ask him to step back, but he will not and continues shouting them down.
“I’m just speaking for the population!” he protests, as the officers leave the scene.
“He’s probably just bitter because I gave him a noise violation,” Davies jokes. “That’s what I like to call ‘liquid courage.’ People just don’t know if we’re chasing a murder suspect or a dog off a leash.”
If You Don’t Move, They Can’t See You
Davies says he has a hypothesis about police.
“Cops are a direct reflection of their society,” he says. “If a society is criminally prone, the cops are more hardcore.”
He says that contrary to the opinion that many students have formed, the IVFP officers are a relatively understanding bunch.
“The consensus among most people in Isla Vista is to live a peaceful life and have a good time,” he says. “We’re not out there to cause people grief.”
In spite of what he says is the relatively benign nature of area law enforcement, Davies is aware that students will try just about anything to avoid being cited. After the fight, the officers stroll along Camino Del Sur, laughing among themselves about people whose arms suddenly stop swinging as they draw near, and who think, “If I don’t look at them, they can’t see me.”
The Cardinal Rule
Davies asks the suspect with the cup of tequila to get off the curb and removes his handcuffs. The young man is lucky that he is only 17, Davies says. In their search of his possessions, the officers have uncovered, in addition to the tequila they found in his cup, a fake ID and a pack of cigarettes. He will not go to jail tonight, but the officers walk him home and tell him to remain there.
Bonner says he thinks the subject is not mature enough to handle Isla Vista.
“Some parents are doing their children a disservice by sending them out to this environment,” he says.
Indeed, as he was being questioned by Davies, the young man said he didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.
“Do you expect me to believe you didn’t know you can’t have alcohol?” Davies asked. “You’re not going to pull the wool over my eyes.”
The young man could have easily avoided the citation – but he was breaking Isla Vista’s Cardinal Rule: Never hold a cup right-side up on the street; it attracts attention.