Chaos struck a quiet street in the La Loma neighborhood recently when a small gathering turned house party went awry.
Partygoers looted the home and spilled into the street.
When the police showed up, people outside scattered, jumping over fences into neighbors’ yards.
Those who stayed became confrontational with officers, using foul language and taunting them. Some even mooned the officers, while others – suspected gang members – twirled red bandanas in the air and yelled gang slurs.
This is the point in the movies when officers would start arresting everyone within arm’s reach, moving their way inside to clear the home of the scourge.
But in this column, this is the part when the public’s expectations or notions deviate from the reality of what the police can or will do.
Both homeowner Lola Neils, who was out of town for the night, and Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll felt there’s a lesson to be learned from this incident – they just differ greatly on what that lesson is.
Neils says officers stood idly by and allowed her home to be burglarized.
“Why would anyone call the police at all? Why should we?” she said. “They are just going to stand there and watch.”
Carroll says Neils should not have left her 17-year-old son home without some adult supervision, at least a neighbor who could keep an eye on him and call her if there was a problem.
Carroll said the officers could not do more to intervene because they didn’t have the owner’s consent nor the “exigent circumstances” to enter the home. Those circumstances give police officers the right to enter someone’s home without a search warrant or permission. In general, a person’s life or safety must be threatened, or the suspect of a serious crime will get away, or evidence of a crime destroyed.
Neils said she has left her teenage son home alone before. He usually has small gatherings, and that is what he had planned for the evening of Jan. 24, she said.
“We allow 16-year-olds to drive around in public, but we can’t leave them alone in their own home?” she said in response to Carroll’s opinion of her parenting.
Neils said things got out of hand when someone, it’s unclear who, posted on social media that there was a party at the house, and soon people her son didn’t know started showing up.
The first noise complaint came around midnight. A neighbor said there was a loud party at the home and people were looking in cars parked on the street.
Handling higher-priority calls on a busy Saturday night, officers responded about an hour later, Carroll said.
That’s when the scene got even more chaotic and people became aggressive toward officers.
“For all we know, they are the homeowners,” Carroll said. “We walk up and are greeted with expletives and told to get off the property.” If the officers hadn’t backed off, “you are guaranteed to have use-of-force issues and then we get sued,” he said.
So the officers watched the property from a distance, arresting a few juveniles as they left the party and releasing them to their parents.
The exigent circumstances to go into the home were never there, Carroll said.
Neils disagrees. She said gang members commandeered her home and later burglarized it, while a neighbor told dispatchers she could see people walking away from the home with property.
Dona Vandergoltz said she called 911 at 2:06 a.m. and told a dispatcher her neighbor was out of town, there were strangers at the house, and she could see them taking items from it. “I’m concerned that if I call for help for a neighbor I am wasting my time,” she said. “It was devastating to watch.”
Carroll responded, “As far as we know, we are still dealing with a large party. It’s not unheard of that drunken teenagers have auctioned off property inside the house to buy more alcohol.”
He said this whole situation could have been avoided if Neils had designated someone to call her if there was a problem. That way, she could have contacted police and given permission to enter her home and arrest anyone who did not belong there.
Her son also could have given police that consent, but he never contacted police, either. In fact, he left the home around the time officers arrived and spent the rest of the evening at a friend’s house.
Neils said her son and his friends were terrified. She said he was robbed of his cellphone at knife point, and he and his friends had to escape from the home through a window. She said he was relieved when he saw the police officers there and was under the impression they had taken care of the situation.
Officers were “tied up” at the scene for hours, Carroll said, and the watch commander eventually told them to leave so they could handle calls elsewhere.
Neils learned what had transpired at her home when Vandergoltz again called 911 at 7:14 a.m. to report a burglary in progress.
Officers responded and found the door to Neils’ house open. This time, they entered to secure it.
There was no one there posing as a resident, telling them to leave, and the door was wide open, so officers then felt they had the probable cause they needed to enter the home, Carroll said.
Those officers also were able to contact Neils, who confirmed that nobody but her son belonged there. She is angry that the officers who were there earlier in the morning did not make the same efforts to reach her.
All the electronics were stolen from her home, she said, as well as jewelry, clothes and two bicycles. Her floors were covered in mud and filth and urine. Christmas ornaments she has collected for years were shattered, along with a glass table, and holes were punched in the walls.
Neils said the bicycles that were stolen have sentimental value, and all she wants is to have them returned and an apology from police.
Carroll said he stands by his officers’ actions.
“If we would have done what they are asking, the headline would have read ‘Multiple people injured, multiple arrests, family says police used aggressive force,’” the chief said. “We are in that position where whatever we do, it’s not going to please everybody. The son needed to step up and get a hold of police; this is her son’s responsibility and her responsibility.”
Should have the son stepped up? Absolutely! But that does not mean the officers stand by and let known criminals walk away with someone’s property. This is inexcusable and irresponsible on the police’s part. They have known Gangbangers doing this stuff and they just stand by and watch. If the house was on fire would the fire department just stand and watch it burn? NO! They do their jobs.
This chief has shown many times in the past to be a coward when it comes to dealing with the criminal element. They seem to be more concerned about cell phone enforcements and DUI checkpoints that do not get any drunk drivers. And both activities are revenue producing not crime deterrents.