Lt. Mike Dunkle
Lt. Mike Dunkle
Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Tuesday, July 16, 2006
(Television interview conducted July 12, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m. This week's newsmaker is Lt. Mike Dunkle, temporarily the acting commander of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: It has been an interesting few weeks for the Sheriff's Station. Your captain is out for a month with a back injury, so you're steering the ship these days.

Dunkle: I am the guy in charge for now, that's right.

Signal: People are starting to wonder whether Capt. Patti Minutello will be coming back.

Dunkle: As far as I know right now, she is. That'll be confirmed by her doctors in the next few days, and we're hoping she will.

Signal: Her injury was severe enough that—

Dunkle: It was severe enough to put her off work for a temporary amount of time, but insofar as long-term disability, we don't know yet.

Signal: What is the biggest crime right now in our valley that people might not think about?

Dunkle: Obviously the more prevalent ones are the things like you read about in the different newspapers — the robberies, the graffiti, the vandalism, things like that. The one that probably, although it happens to a number of people, doesn't make the press, is identity theft.
    It has gone up substantially in the last couple of years, and it truly shows. If you talk to your neighbors, friends, business associates, you can almost always find at least one person in any setting who has had it happen to them in one manner or another.

Signal: Are you generally successful in hunting people down?

Dunkle: As much as I'd like to say we are, no. It's like a lot of other crimes out there. It's reported on a grand scale, but actually getting back to the person who may have done that thing is very difficult to do.

Signal: In terms of the success in hunting people down, you tend to hear that if a crime isn't solved in the first 24 or 48 or 72 yours, it's probably not going to get solved. We've had some murder cases recently where no arrest has been made. Do cases really turn cold that fast?

Dunkle: A lot of times, the investigation that goes on behind the scenes is ongoing, but the progress isn't as quick as we've been led to believe by certain programs such as "CSI."

Signal: Which is shot right here in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Dunkle: Yes, exactly. And all the people are under the impression that it's a matter of scanning, punching in some computer codes, instant DNA analysis, all of that — within seconds, any crime can be solved. That's certainly not the case. Old-fashioned detective work is exactly that. It's talking to all of the victims, witnesses, informants, going back and matching it with other cases that may or may not be similar, and then just tracing down all the leads and getting enough to actually put a certain person in custody for that crime.
    When it comes to murder, as you know from being in your line of work, we take a great amount of pride in our prosecution and the amount of time we put into both the initial investigation on scene, by virtue of the fact that we shut it down with the standard yellow tape, traffic is cordoned off for hours at a time, and people are generally inconvenienced when we have those kind of investigations.
    But the reason we do it is because, No. 1, it's the worst crime, and second of all, you really have (only) one chance to get that scene right. So between getting the scene right and all the work that goes into that — the documentation of any physical evidence, the witness interviews, all the hearsay that comes into play, pulling up reports that may or may not be related to that particular location — there's a whole host of things that get done.
    And that is just the beginning of things. Then comes the hard part of actually putting together a case for a person who may or may not be instantly under suspicion at the time when the crime happened. A lot of times, if you have an incident that occurs at a house and one or two of the partners living within the house is murdered, certainly there's a chance that the other partner is the likely suspect. Not always, but sometimes. But when you have what appears to be a random crime and the suspect obviously isn't at the location or anywhere nearby, then the investigation can take a lot longer. So (there are) many leads to follow up and things like that.

Signal: When a homicide takes place here in the Santa Clarita Valley, does it go directly to the homicide detectives downtown or do you get involved in it?

Dunkle: We handle the initial response of the black-and-white cars and the uniformed deputies to the scene. And then, once we've established the crime scene, a perimeter, and put that location in a static sense, if you will, then the detectives from downtown, which is now in (the city of) Commerce, are called out.
    They come out generally in teams of four, and they will send two detectives to the scene and two more to go to the station to do additional interviews for potential witnesses and things like that.

Signal: It has been a month since a man was murdered by someone wielding a machete in the Valencia Marketplace shopping center. No arrest was made, and certainly not in the first few days. In your experience, can that man's friends and relatives have any reason to believe an arrest ever will be made?

Dunkle: Oh, absolutely. It's my understanding from talking to the involved detectives that because of the notoriety that this crime received initially, and also because of the reward that was set up afterwards, there were a number of tips that came in from as far away as the East Coast, indicating who (the killer) may or may not be, what their motive may be.
%#160;%#160;%#160;%#160;Whether or not (the tips) actually lead to the solving of the crime, I don't know, but there are certainly things that they have to track down, trace, go through. And then there is other information they have, local information that they're putting to use as well.

Signal: From what we hear, there may be some evidence to indicate is wasn't random. Does that jibe with what you know?

Dunkle: There's always that chance.

Signal: In another case, a man was found wounded in his car on 16th Street in Newhall and later died at the hospital.

Dunkle: Right.

Signal: A call came into the station a little after 10 a.m., but apparently it took a second call sometime a little after noon before deputies responded. Why don't you walk us through what, to your knowledge, happened that day.

Dunkle: OK. There were actually three calls that day.
    The first call was involving the same individual, the person who was found in his car, but at the time when that call came out — it was about 6:45 in the morning — he was visiting a local service station. The cashier there looked at the person, made a judgment as regarding his injuries and physical status, and called us and the fire department, as well. We went out there. By the time we got there, he had left. We looked around the area for him, did a short "Be on the lookout for...," were unable to locate him, along with the paramedics, and then we left.
    Then, at about 10:30 is when the second call came in, over at Newhall and 16th, and you're right, the information was given to us: It was a good description of the vehicle, it was everything that would have been enough for us to go on and investigate. And for whatever reason — and we're still looking into that right now, internally, as an administrative investigation — which is separate from the criminal investigation — that didn't get done.
    It's my understanding that when the granddaughter of the original caller arrived at his house, she told him, "There's a guy in front of your house. Did you know that?" He said, "Well, I called the Sheriff's Department. I guess they must not have shown up." So they made the second call, and that's when we showed up.
    That time, when they call was actually dispatched to the units in the field, we were there within three minutes, and I'm sure you know the rest of the story.

Signal: It was only after the fact that you were able to determine that the call that came in a little after 6 a.m. that morning involved the same person, right? You didn't know that on that day.

Dunkle: No, we had no idea.

Signal: How did you figure that out?

Dunkle: I think it was information that was gathered during the follow-up investigation of that death.

Signal: The description of the injuries and that sort of thing?

Dunkle: Exactly.

Signal: What kind of injuries did the man have?

Dunkle: It's hard to go into the details of that without compromising any kind of investigation that may be going on.

Signal: Initially he was — apparently the caller at 10:30 said he was bloody and slumped over, twitching?

Dunkle: In his car, leaning, I believe, and there was blood in the car, the way I remember it being described.

Signal: When a call like that comes in — it didn't come over 911, right?

Dunkle: It's my understanding that the (homeowner) called here, the regular business line.

Signal: 255-1121.

Dunkle: Right.

Signal: If somebody calls 911, there's an audio tape, right?

Dunkle: There's a tape of any incoming call that goes either via the 911 lines or the station business line.

Signal: All calls?

Dunkle: All calls that go directly to the desk for dispatching for police services.

Signal: Is there also then a written report of all calls that come in?

Dunkle: There's a computer-generated list of calls that come in—

Signal: Phone numbers?

Dunkle: Right, and where they came from.

Signal: So is there an audio tape of the 10:30 call that you're able to review?

Dunkle: Yes, there is. Actually all three calls, I believe.

Signal: Will you be making that available to the public?

Dunkle: Again, we're not in charge of the investigation. It is a homicide handle; they are a separate unit from the Sheriff's Station, and they have the initial handle. If, at the conclusion of the investigation, they feel that it would somehow benefit the public or the victim's family or our investigation, certainly they'll make those available.

Signal: People have speculated that maybe the caller at 10:30 wasn't believable. And as you said, it was his granddaughter's call at 12:30 that elicited the response, so obviously the 10:30 caller was elderly. Are there people who call frequently? Are there people who just don't seem believable? Do you have a report where you write down, "Caller is old and incomprehensible" or "Caller is drunk" or "Caller is crazy?" How do you decide how you'll handle a call that doesn't seem quite right?

Dunkle: A lot of it comes with the experience and judgment of the person answering that phone. We have a supervisor who works strictly the desk area, who supervises the other three or four people answering the telephones. And again, a lot times it's exactly that: It's a judgment call. But our general policy is — and we follow this a great majority of the time — that if someone requests a call for service, we send a car. Plain and simple.

Signal: Regardless of whether the caller sounds competent?

Dunkle: Well, you never know: Maybe their lack of competency is due to some kind of injury, a medical condition, the fact that they're in a situation where they've just been victimized or victim of a crime. Sometimes that can cause people to react differently. There s a variety of reasons, but that certainly isn't a reason to dismiss the caller.

Signal: Do you get crazy people who call the Sheriff's Station all the time with some kind of problem, wanting you to respond?

Dunkle: Not all the time, but there are some "frequent flyers," we like to call them.

Signal: Is there any indication that the 10:30 caller was one of these "frequent flyers"?

Dunkle: No.

Signal: We get a lot of letters to the editor at The Signal, and some have complained about a lack of response in other situations. Apparently there are some communities such as Shadow Pines that are considering hiring private security because of a perceived lack of response from the sheriffs. Some writers have suggested that maybe it's time for the city of Santa Clarita to have its own police department. Is there any benefit to forming a municipal Santa Clarita police department?

Dunkle: The benefit that would be there is a certain amount of local control over staffing, hiring, dismissing of employees, things like that, because they would be city employees. ... I think in terms of what that department could provide the city, though, on the negative side, are the costs.
    I'll take one of our neighboring cities a little farther south, another large city, a little larger than Santa Clarita. They have their own police department.
    It's slightly larger; we're at (approximately) 180 sworn officers with 50 civilian employees. They're at a little over 200. They have their own building, and their annual cost for police services — just for salaries and employee benefits, things like that — is in the realm of about $35 million a year.
    Our contract, for a slightly smaller number of deputies, is $15 million. So you've got almost a $20 million differential there, and in Santa Clarita, $20 million translates to a lot of things that could be spent otherwise (such as on) parks and recreation, roads, road maintenance, any number of things. So there's a huge trade-off there.

Signal: Is it simply a matter of scale? Or is this city you're talking about one of those that ran into problems when they made bad decisions about pension benefits some years ago?

Dunkle: I think it's just a matter of the overhead, without knowing all the specifics — I know the dollar amount is just huge, and I'm not really sure why. I know their facility costs more to maintain because it is their own facility; it's not part of a group of facilities like the Sheriff's Department is, which is part of Los Angeles County, and the costs are shared.

Signal: As you said, the city contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for police services within city limits. To what extent does the city have oversight? How often does the city manager come and tell you what to do?

Dunkle: On a regular basis, actually. But we get direction from a variety of sources: from the community, obviously; from the city manager's office and the elected officials within the city; from Supervisor Antonovich's office; and from our own bosses inside the Sheriff's Department.

Signal: So everybody's always telling you what to do.

Dunkle: Exactly. So we like to believe that in the regular meetings I have with all those groups, that our priorities are somewhat similar in that we agree on things like staffing, on special teams that are provided, on types of enforcement that we want, on where we want to apply our resources and things like that. It's not like we have carte blanche on how to do everything. It's very much a democratic process. They're very trusting of us. They have a great amount of faith in us, and with good reason.

Signal: If it's democratic, well, somebody's still got to be in charge; who trumps whom? Do you run into situations where the city wants you to put your resources into one thing and Sheriff Baca wants you to put your resources into something else?

Dunkle: We do. And we always somehow manage to strike a balance. That's the beauty of it.

Signal: What has the city come to you with lately? What do they really want you to focus on?

Dunkle: They are very much into, in terms of solving crime ... again, the graffiti, which is citywide, has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. And the city has put forth, as well as the county, specialized graffiti eradication teams. Those are for the ones we don't catch.

Now, for the ones we do catch, I can tell you there are two different teams of deputies, actually three — one in the county, two in the city — that make their primary goal the apprehension of these kids — and I'll call them "kids" because most of them aren't my age, and many of them aren't very close to that — who are out there spray-painting and ruining the neighborhood, causing a blight.
    We've been very successful in our apprehension efforts, although you can never do enough, and we've been equally successful in the prosecution and, in one recent incident that I'm aware of, we were actually able to do a cost recovery in the amount of $20,000, because two of the kids were responsible for damaging four or five different locations within the city limits.

Signal: That one in Saugus where the two 18-year-olds were hauled out of a house—

Dunkle: Right.

Signal: Has graffiti gotten that much worse lately? It seemed like it was bad for a while, then it got better, and now the complaints are coming in again.

Dunkle: We are getting a lot of complaints. A lot of people are of the perception that it's all gang members and that they're of a particular class of people, and that's not necessarily the case. It's about a 75-25 split, 25 percent being gang and 75 percent being what we refer to as "tagging crews."

Signal: They're not necessarily gang members.

Dunkle: Exactly.

Signal: Sometimes we hear about a bank robbery where the perpetrators were from out of town. How predominant is that? Are we a place where a lot of people come in from the outside to do crime, or is most of our crime home-grown?

Dunkle: That's a good question. I can't say that most of our criminals are from any one particular area. We don't necessarily find out about it until obviously we arrest them or at least have an idea who they are.
    We can certainly guess, but there has been, over the past several years, an increase in people who find Santa Clarita a good source of plundering, if you will, for their particular criminal acts.
    On the other hand, earlier this year and late last year we had a series of robberies happening around town, armed robberies, mostly at liquor stores. That person was apprehended, and we filed 12 felony counts on him just with our station, and there are several others pending with Glendale and the city of Los Angeles. He lived out here.

Signal: Some people seem to think the Sheriff's Department doesn't respond to reported crimes because the city is telling you to keep the crime numbers low. What do you say to that?

Dunkle: This isn't the first time I've heard that. And my response is always the same: If our job is to keep crime statistics low, then we're doing a bad job, because unfortunately — and I mean this with all sincerity, it is unfortunate — the Class-1 crimes have gone up a little bit each year for the last five years.

Signal: It's not related to population growth?

Dunkle: Some of it is, but when you look at it in terms of crimes per capita, the numbers still go up, even when you add in the population mix.I'd say back about 2001, we had approximately 200 crimes for every 10,000 people. Now we're up into the mid-220s. Is that a substantial increase? Not if you look at 200 versus 229, but if you multiply that times 10,000, however many extra we have in the city now, those crimes tend to add up. The raw numbers add up after a while.

Signal: Why did Class-1 crimes go down 10 years ago, and why are they coming back up now?

Dunkle: I believe — and not being an expert in the matter, but being more of a conduit — we have a number of socioeconomic factors that tie into it. When the economy's good, it seems like crime is a little (less).

Signal: Because people are able to get a job.

Dunkle: And a variety of other reasons. In the early 90s, we had some real problems out here. Crime was actually higher in the early 90s out here than it is now — and with substantially (fewer) people. But it's starting to creep up again. One of the things I have to emphasize is that for a city our size, it's so hard to notice. We're the fourth largest city in the county. That's huge. Only thing bigger is Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Glendale. And yes, we have that small-town feeling that makes everybody feel warm and secure and makes everyone want to move here and everybody loves their neighbor, for the most part. We don't have all the truly, truly violent criminal activity that's either to the north or to the south of us, and we're blessed that way.
    But at the same time, that doesn't mean you can let your guard down, either, just because you're in your own home town, so to speak. That's the hardest message we have to get across to the people who live here or visit here.

Signal: You've held a community meeting recently that had to do with Neighborhood Watch programs.

Dunkle: We had four of them.

Signal: What's the goal there?

Dunkle: The goal is public education. The goal is to help people learn to protect themselves, and at the same time they're doing that, protect their neighbors.
    If it's crime that's happening inside your neighborhood, whether it's vandalism or car burglaries or home break-ins, those kinds of things, neighbors need to get out and have conversations with each other. Talk with each other. Share stories, share information, and if you spend a little bit more time outside, be aware of (your) surroundings, be aware of new cars in the neighborhood and report that to us.

Signal: Should call 911? Or should they call 255-1121?

Dunkle: It depends on the situation. Obviously "crime in progress" is 911, as long as you're not calling from your cell phone.

Signal: In which case it goes to CHP and gets dispatched to Hawaii or somewhere like that.

Dunkle: Even I can't get through on 911 on my cell phone.

Signal: And then if you do call, whether 911 or 255-1121, are you going have to wait behind some City Council member's phone call because they come first? What's the deal with that?

Dunkle: Excellent segue. That was something else that came out not too long ago, and the impression that I'm sure everyone was left with was that VIPs get special service.
    The article contained a segment of an e-mail that came out. That segment of e-mail was part of a larger two-page document that talked about not just calls for VIPs, but providing an equal level of service for all the residents. And that was the part that didn't quite make the cut, but was a huge part of that document.

Signal: Some anonymous "insider" has been sending things to the press that they want the us to look into. We sometimes hear, more so again lately, that there are morale problems; deputies aren't happy with the management. What's up?

Dunkle: Morale is something that is — I can't say cyclical, (but it's) certainly subject to a lot of outside things that most employees, including myself, don't really have control over.
    You have, at least in our department, well — let's look at what the average day is like for a deputy sheriff at the Santa Clarita Valley Station. We're down 26 people right now. It's just strictly at the deputy level. The majority of those vacancies are on the patrol side, the guys and women driving around in radio cars in uniform, handling the bulk of the calls, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now you add in those 26 vacancies; that's five shifts per week for each one of those persons. So now we have an overtime budget that's going through the roof.
    We have what's called "drafting," where at the end of your shift, when you're getting ready to go home, "Oops, sorry. You can't go home because we have a vacancy to fill on the next shift." So you're going to be working a 16-hour shift. And you may have just worked your shift, plus worked that morning in court. Or you may have worked a double (shift) the day before. Or you may be scheduled for another overtime shift the next day. Too bad. In a five-day cycle, they're working six and seven days, so you've got that.
    And then for a long time, we had some contract problems. We went without any kind of a contractual raise, including a cost-of-living allowance, for probably two and a half, three years. That all plays into it.
    Then you've got things like equipment issues, and yeah, you're right, management does play some part in that, as well.

Signal: And that $15 million annual cost to the city is going to go up if these overtime and other costs keep rising.

Dunkle: Exactly.

Signal: So we're going to catch up with whatever city you were talking about. But the bigger question is, if somebody calls the Sheriff's Station, are they going to get a deputy on the phone who's tired or upset or whatever?

Dunkle: Last year, we answered a total of 55,000 calls out here. That's a lot. That's an awful lot. And of that, we made almost 5,000 arrests, and of all those citizen contacts, and then citations and things like that, that's 70,000, almost 80,000 contacts being made over a year's time. Of that (number), we have 185 complaints. And we don't discourage our complaints — although some people would probably like to think that we do, that we just kind of push things off to the side, that everything's informal. No, our complaint process is very thorough. Everything is documented, and the deputies know that.
    So what I'm saying is that given that, and the fact that our response times in emergency situations are anywhere from five to seven minutes, depending on where you live, we do an excellent job out here. Our deputies drive around, and when they're going on emergency calls, driving Code 3, they drive fast, but they drive safely. They respect the rules of the road and the people who live out here. They do an excellent job of pursuit management.
    The force we use on suspects we arrest is extremely low. I can think of two or three incidents in the last several months wherein we had (suspects) who were acting totally out of control, threatening us with an ax, another person had a knife. And that situation, we took a tactical look at it. We assigned people different roles to make sure that they used the appropriate level of force. And these situations, where they could have led to an officer-involved shooting, did not.
    Those are the kinds of things that unfortunately, we just don't market as well. And a lot of people say, "Well, yeah, but we expect you to do that." Well yeah, that's true. But at the same time, don't hesitate to give a pat on the back to the people who are out there doing that every day in 100-degree weather, working six or seven shifts a week.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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