Policing Mendocino County
by Mark Scaramella, February 22, 2017
In this interview, Deputy Orell Massey, Mendocino County’s first and only black deputy, looks back...
Midnight Rambler Incident — I was on patrol one night and saw a car going about 80 miles an hour. Per normal procedure, I pulled him over, ran the license. I recognized the name on the ID. It was County Counsel Doug Losak. I smelled a strong odor of marijuana. I asked whether he was smoking marijuana or if he had marijuana. He admitted that he had it in the car and he had been smoking it. I told him I had to take a look for other illegal substances. Since it was the County Counsel, I needed a second person on the scene since I'm prone get complaints for almost anything, especially in a high-profile case like this with a guy who happened to be an attorney. I had my recorder on but I did not want to be alone with him. The supervisor on duty came out to the scene. Mr. Losak mentioned he had a firearm in his vehicle under the seat. I asked him for permission to search the vehicle. He was reluctant. But I explained that I didn't need his permission under the circumstances. There was a small amount of marijuana in the vehicle and the firearm under the seat which I confiscated. I don't think it was loaded but there was a loaded magazine within his reach. He did not appear to be impaired to the extent he could not operate the motor vehicle. So we issued him a citation, submitted a report to the district attorney, and put the weapon in the Sheriff's evidence room. That was about it. I get along well with Mr. Losak. He later told me he was sorry for putting me in that position. I told him it was part of the job, according to the law. He later said he intended to get a concealed weapons permit. But, it's like a marijuana card: you either have it or you don't. He didn't have it. Either your license is expired or it's valid. Planning to do something doesn't count.
Doctor Feel Good – I remember stopping a doctor on his way to Lakeport a few years ago. He had lots of marijuana. He did not want to tell me who he was. He said he was in charge of all the nurses and the emergency room at Ukiah Valley Medical Center. He said he had purchased some marijuana and was returning to Lakeport. He did not appear to be under the influence. I gave him a citation and confiscated his marijuana. There was a similar incident involving a doctor from Sacramento with lots of marijuana. They were both driving expensive cars in the very early morning. There were several vehicle violations which caused me to stop those vehicles. In the first one there was a young female with the doctor. I later learned that his wife was on vacation in Europe and he was driving around with a young female in his car. She was under the influence of methamphetamine. So she was also cited. The doctor did not have a valid driver’s license because of a previous cocaine violation. He had a meth pipe in his car and his passenger was under the influence. I took them to jail. I was later called to a federal court hearing in San Francisco because he had a history of drug problems in several states. His medical license had been revoked in two or three states. They wanted me to testify about the incident to determine if his medical license should be revoked. I don't know what the outcome was. But I never saw him again at the Ukiah hospital.
The Rubber Tree — I do a lot of Lake Mendocino patrol. When I first got here I didn't know what that term meant. [The rubber tree] But it didn't take long. You can be up there and you hear voices and you walk around. And you walk in a certain area out there and you understand — Well, I have come across people in embarrassing situations.
AVA: Illegal activity?
Mostly embarrassing. I usually point out that there are women and children in the area and it would be better if you took your activity to a more secluded place and leave it at that. You catch people in cars doing things all the time they should not be doing.
AVA: So you tap your flashlight on the window…?
Sometimes. Yes. It can be cold up there. One or two in the morning. A single car, fogged up windows, pretty obvious. So you park and you walk over and you listen, sometimes the car is moving…
AVA: Any actual crimes?
Mostly drugs. I came up to a parked car with a young woman who had passed out with a meth pipe in her hand. I knocked on the window, she was startled, tried to hide the pipe. She denied she had it, but I had been looking at it for several minutes. People never fail to amaze you with the excuses they come up with. It’s part of the job. So many unusual things.
AVA: Why is meth so prevalent in the county?
I think a lot of meth is still manufactured right here in Mendocino County. Absolutely. Methamphetamine is second only to marijuana. You don't see that much cocaine. Meth is certainly transported into the county, but I think the majority is made right here.
AVA: The love drug can be the source of a lot of crime and danger.
Marijuana is at the root of a lot of serious crime in this area. The murder rate is up, home invasion robberies are up. People come here to commit robberies. People get killed during the transactions. Bodies are found in marijuana fields. Gunfights. Frequently they involve foreign nationals who are under strict orders to guard the marijuana with their life. The drug cartels will tell the guards that if they don't do the job, they or their family will be killed. I've arrested people with maps in their car and burglary equipment and guns. They are on their way to rob somebody and they have a map to the location. It's becoming more common. Criminals from out of the County find out somehow where the marijuana is and they will try to steal the valuable marijuana crop. Marijuana's value has dropped in Mendocino County, but there are still states where people pay top dollar. You can legalize it. But sometimes all that does is shift the problem somewhere else. Instead of being better, it's just different. We will see.
AVA: Who is more likely to use the N-word to your face? Mexicans or whites?
Whites, probably. But Mexicans are a close second. It's amazing. You can just be talking to someone and things are going okay and then the person starts to get upset and it ALL comes to the surface. Especially when they realize they are going to be arrested and go to jail. That definitely makes it worse. I can walk into the jail on any given day and if I can walk back out of that facility without anyone calling me the N-word, that's a good day. People just start shouting awful things. Some of the jailers try to keep a lid on them but it's sometimes hard to tell where it's coming from in that echo chamber. I can't even recall the last time I went in there and I didn't hear somebody shouting a racist remark. You just have to roll with it. But you don't get over it.
AVA: I assume it's worse in the jail than with the general public.
Yes, but I also hear it a lot when I'm transporting people from the scene of a crime to jail. They can be in the back of the car and go completely off. They tell me I'm not a real policeman. Leave the white women alone. Unbelievable! Even if I'm not the arresting officer. Doesn't matter. If you ask a lot of people who arrested them, they will say they don't remember — but they remember me! I usually note the bad behavior in my report and the judge frequently requires them to write a letter of apology. Some people have actually apologized on their own, saying they didn't really mean it. But once you say it is out there. You can't unring that bell.
It's very strange, how many people seem to actually hate me. They don't know me. But I just have some kind of reputation. Not everyone, of course. But I sure get a disproportionate share. People complain about things that you know are not true. I don't think you can come up with anything I have not been accused of. I've seen it all, heard it all. At first I did not understand why there were all these frivolous complaints. I thought maybe it had something to do with me. I just didn't want to believe that racism was at the bottom of it. I tried to be extra courteous. I would go back over my recordings and see how I sounded. Seems to me I sound a lot more courteous than a number of other deputies. So why do I get all this negative feedback? They even sent me to a communications school. Okay, if that will help. By that time I knew what the problem was, but no one else seemed to know. I thought it was obvious. None of that stuff worked. Same old frivolous complaints. Every complaint has to be investigated. It's an obligation of the Sheriff's office. It's supposed to be for my own protection and the public's protection so they can say later that it was investigated if it comes up and nothing came of it. Everybody has to cover their rear. But of course since I'm the only black deputy in this very white community, many locals I contact on the job have made it clear they do not want me here so they accuse me of trying to get back at the white guy. I hear that a lot. People get offended just because I pulled them over saying I don't have a right to do it. Sometimes the complaints make it sound worse than it is. One woman wrote a letter to the Ukiah paper saying I “whored” her out of the car or I “drug” her out of the car and made her stand in front of the headlights and she had never been so embarrassed. Nothing like that had happened.
There was an incident in Potter Valley where a woman said she had been sexually assaulted by some men in a dark colored truck. She didn't have many details. Very little information to go on. We started to wonder what really happened. If you've been a cop for a while you can sort of tell when people are giving accurate information. All she knew was it was a dark vehicle and there was more than one man, maybe three. She said she could recognize them again if she saw them. A volunteer firefighter heard the call on the scanner and came to the scene apparently thinking he could be of assistance. I saw him standing there. I didn't know who he was. The victim suddenly saw this guy and said that he was one of her attackers. She said this in earshot of two other deputies and a sergeant. So I said to this man who I didn't know and had never seen before that the lady over there claimed you were one of the individuals who assaulted her at the bridge earlier that morning; can you explain your whereabouts? That's all I asked. He got all defensive and angry. I told him it was the lady over there who mentioned him and I had to ask these questions. He said I could call his parents, how dare I?, etc. On and on. Okay, okay; no big deal. I later found out that the lady had an outstanding warrant from another county. So she ended up getting arrested on that warrant. To this day I don't think she was telling the truth. We took her to jail and we put out a BOLO on the dark truck which is all we really had to go on at that point.
Next thing I know, someone's at the Sheriff's office wanting to file a complaint against me. Oh boy. Here we go. He wanted to see the Captain. He told the supervising sergeant that I had accused him of all these awful things and he was very embarrassed and I was way out of line. Remember, this all happened in the presence of two other deputies and a sergeant. The sergeant told the captain he was there and nothing was out of line. That seemed to calm the guy down. So after the sergeant said that, the complainer started backing off. He said he was just curious about what had happened, he toned it way down. As we were leaving he wanted to apologize in the sergeant's office. That's when we found out he had applied to be an officer for the CHP. I told him, Let me see if I understand this: you want to be a cop, yet if I ask you a question like I did out there and you get upset about it, how do you expect to maintain your control when you are called everything in the book as a cop? How will you deal with that if you can't even deal with being asked a simple question? He said he didn't really mean it that way. I just walked out. I don't know what his motivation was. But I certainly am singled out a lot. Many times the racism stuff is not blatant name-calling. But I doubt if a white cop had asked him that same question that he would have overreacted the same way. I've been around incidents where officers have been quite abrupt and pointed and yet I am the one who gets the complaints. Some of my fellow deputies don't understand either. I was in the office one day at the computer and the Sheriff walked by and said, Deputy Massey, you are the hardest working deputy I've ever seen. And another deputy in the room stood up and said, ‘Ask him who gets the most complaints in the department too.’ That told me that this deputy has no clue about why I get those complaints. He was oblivious. Of course the more you work the more complaints you will get. But these are just so out of proportion. I didn’t say anything. What can you say? I just left and thought to myself, he has no clue about all the turmoil and racism and backlash that I am subject to every single day I go out there in that crazy uniform and try to perform my duties. And it takes extra work just to keep records of my calls in case there’s a complaint. When I go on calls with other deputies, you’ll occasionally hear them curse people out like, “Shut the F- Up!” And I think to myself, Boy! I wish I could say that to people and get away with it. But no, I have to be extra courteous. And I can honestly say I have never cursed a suspect on the job in my entire career. Never.
AVA: I remember in the Air Force frequently black airmen facing any kind of discipline would prefer white officers to black officers because the race card didn't work very well with black officers. Do black suspects tend to play the race card during your encounters with them to get more favorable treatment?
Massey: There are always some people who try to play the race card. Race is such a big factor in so many things nowadays. You will sometimes come across a white officer or superior who goes out of his way to be fair with a black suspect so that it won't appear as if race is a factor. They might be more lenient. Maybe they don’t want the situation to explode or be in the news or be on the hot seat. So yes, sometimes a black suspect will prefer a white officer to a black officer. That can happen.
But it’s strange. In Mendocino County I’ve had black people accuse me of racism just like everybody else! [Laughs.]
The first time that happened I was shocked. This black guy called me a racist and I nearly passed out. I recall a young black man I worked with for several years, first when I was a probation officer and then as a deputy. I encouraged him to follow the right track. I can certainly relate to the problems this kid had. The hardships. Because I have experienced many of those things myself. You certainly have empathy. But you cannot let that blind you to enforcement of the law. You have to enforce the law and take a person to jail if necessary. Because that's what you're sworn to do, I would never consider whether a person was black or not in my enforcement duties, I'm a professional and I try to be as fair as possible.
There was an incident out at the north boat ramp at Lake Mendocino — one of several by the way. I pulled up to some people who were arguing loudly in the campground. This black guy walked out and he said, ‘I've heard about you. You’re trying to arrest all black people in Mendocino County!’ I said, ‘There are only two of us here! You and me!’ I looked at him amazed, where did he get that impression? I only see two or three black people a year on duty. I can't even remember the last time I arrested a black person. But that's what he said. There are actually some black people in this County who believe I'm trying to lock up all the black people!
When I run into the Hispanics, they think I'm racist because I'm trying to lock up all the Hispanics. And when I run into the occasional Indian, they say I'm just trying to do the white man's job! Me? Doing the white man's job. They say I'm like an apple, red on the outside and white on the inside. They’ve got their colors a little mixed up. And some white people say, You're not really a cop — you are just trying to get back at the white people. So I guess I have a problem with all of them.
I think it was Barry Vogel who asked me what can be done to reduce the racism I’ve experienced. I told him, Two ways: either hire more black deputies or don’t hire any at all. [Laughs.] And under the circumstances, I’m probably the last of the mohicans running around out there. So I doubt if you’re going to see another black officer on patrol out there any time in the near future.
AVA: You’ve put up with it for years. It’s amazing. You should get credit for it — except that it shouldn’t be happening in the first place.
Massey: The Sheriff has told me a few times that there’s an African American who has applied for the department and the Sheriff wanted me to take them on a ride-along and answer any questions they might have about what it’s like to work in Mendocino County. But I never saw anyone. They never showed up. No persons of color on ride-alongs. I don’t know what happened. And no black officers have been hired in the almost 20 years I’ve been with the department.