Inspectors Are Learning Code of Cautiousness
Every time Liz Cameron goes out to work she wonders what people are going to say to her.
Are they going to call her a meddlesome bureaucrat? Are they going to curse her, or spit on her? Are they going to threaten her life, sic their pit bull on her, or pull a gun?
A code enforcement officer with Ventura County’s Building and Safety Department since 1989, Cameron said she has seen it all.
Her predecessor was shot at, and she has personally been manhandled, verbally intimidated, and had her tires slashed.
Cameron once had a woman say that she was going to hunt Cameron down and kill her. And apparently threats like that are not unusual for code enforcement officers, who enforce the rules for a variety of city and county offices, including planning departments, building and safety offices, fire departments, health departments and agencies regulating weights and measures.
A recent survey by an association of code enforcement officers statewide found that 65% had been assaulted or threatened, and of those about 29% were threatened with a deadly weapon.
According to the survey, to which 153 code enforcement officers responded, assaults or threats were made with:
Shotguns, rifles, guns, vehicles, baseball bats, pool sticks, a chain saw, bomb devices, knives, hammers, bottles, rocks, a bicycle kick stand, shovels, assorted garden tools, scissors, fists, feet, teeth, spit, and a variety of wrestling holds.
The survey included reports from a code enforcement officer who had been beaten with an open-house sign, and another who was struck by a woman and then bitten on the cheek by her husband.
In 1991, a health inspector in Bakersfield was severely beaten by a man she ticketed for illegally dumped raw sewage on his property.
The inspector, Cindy Volpe, pressed charges and the man was convicted of assault. But before sentencing, the man tracked down Volpe, broke into her home and shot to death her, her husband, and her mother. The man, Robert Courtney, was later killed in a shootout with police.
“Every time you walk up to someone’s property you have to be ready for anything,” Cameron said. “I mean you don’t know--maybe they’re having a bad day.”
Levels of intimidation in Ventura County have not reached the point where code enforcement officers have been killed or injured, but in two recent cases, irate property owners have tried to run down code enforcement officers with their vehicles.
In another case, a code enforcement officer working with the county Weights and Measures Department was locked in a walk-in meat locker by a business owner.
Ray Mattley, the acting supervisor for code enforcement in Oxnard, said he has had knives pulled on him. Ventura’s code enforcement officers carry pepper spray to ward off wild dogs and the occasional out-of-control homeowner.
In Camarillo, a homeowner who had been illegally putting a new roof onto his house, was served with a restraining order last year after he told city officials that he lay awake at night thinking about killing the code enforcement officer who cited him.
“I think people believe that it’s their property and they can do whatever they want,” Cameron said. “They sometimes get upset when we tell them that, ‘Hey, you can’t dump trash on your lawn,’ or whatever.”
Code enforcement officers in the county have had their lives threatened, their vehicles damaged, and have been scared off by property owners firing gunshots.
“You have to know when a threat is real and when it’s just a threat,” Cameron said. “You have to know how to diffuse a situation, or know when to leave, or when to call for backup.”
Next week, a Moorpark man is scheduled to go on trail for attempting to run over a code enforcement officer with his truck.
The officer, Mario Riley, had gone to enforce a city cleanup order on the home of Gerald Goldstein. Goldstein’s mobile home was so filled with clutter that he was living out of his pickup, according to inspection reports.
Rooms in Goldstein’s home were stuffed up to the tops of doorways with newspapers, magazines, old toys, lamps, food and other junk. When workers came to clean out the place, two of them became physically ill because of the stench.
It was not the first time that Riley had been assigned to visit Goldstein. Three years before, the city had ordered another building in which Goldstein lived to be razed because it was so loaded with junk that it had to be condemned, city officials said.
Before the incident, Goldstein, who moved to the city more than a decade ago, had been a fixture at Moorpark City Council meetings. He is known for his sometimes humorous and mild-mannered criticisms of City Hall. But Goldstein saved his most caustic remarks for Riley, who at one point he said was a “jack-booted thug.”
In September of last year, Riley came to Goldstein’s property with two sheriff’s deputies, the psychologist who managed a trust fund set up to care for Goldstein, and a small work crew.
According to testimony from a preliminary hearing, Goldstein reportedly became enraged after Riley and the work crew arrived, and shouted obscenities at them. He then jumped into his truck and sped the truck at Riley trying to run him down, according to the deputies.
Goldstein narrowly missed him, according to deputies, and then turned the truck around and again headed for Riley. The deputies said they had to draw their guns to stop him.
In a preliminary hearing Friday, Goldstein’s attorney, Louis Samonsky, said the accelerator of the truck may have gotten stuck, causing the truck to bolt toward Riley.
The trial, which was originally set to begin Monday, was put off for a week while Goldstein’s attorney evaluates the case.
For his part, Riley said he was shaken by the incident and is haunted by the thought of what could have happened.
“What if they had to shoot him, or what if he hit me?” Riley asked after one court hearing. “That really bothers me--all that over a bunch of trash.”
Riley’s fears were echoed in comments made in the statewide survey conducted in 1994 by the California Assn. of Code Enforcement Officers.
“A shopping cart of fruit or tamales is not worth my life,” was one response.
Code enforcement officers throughout the county have tried to emphasize that they only respond to complaints, and usually only take action when a code violation jeopardizes someone’s safety.
“We’re not hard-core Gestapo,” said John McCurley, who supervises code enforcement in Camarillo. “Our approach is very low profile. We prefer to educate the public of code violations. Most of the time they’re just not aware that there’s a violation.”
Cameron and representatives from the enforcement officers association said that threats are inevitable and so officers should be trained and equipped to handle them. Cameron said that an informal phone survey she conducted showed about half the code enforcement officers in Ventura County did not have radios or cellular phones to allow them to call for police assistance.
The other problem code enforcement officers have is that violations are not taken seriously, Supervisor Frank Schillo said.
While not addressing threats against code enforcement officers directly, Schillo said he convened a meeting recently of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and county officials to make a case for taking such issues seriously.
“The problem is when a judge is dealing with murderers and violent criminals every day, and then he sees some housing code violation he has a hard time taking it seriously,” Schillo said.
Most homeowners correct violations when they are made aware of them, the supervisor said, adding that they usually don’t react violently and they respect the rules.
“But some people--what do they call themselves? ‘Citizens of the World?’ They don’t believe they are ruled by any laws,” Schillo said. “They have their guns and feel they don’t have to listen to anybody. Well, by supporting these cases [against code violators] we send a message that we don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.”