August 17, 2005 - While many who drive the streets of Oro Valley appreciate the mountain views, desert vegetation and quiet scenic neighborhoods, Sgt. Michael McBride sees those same streets quite differently.
McBride notices the things that are lurking, sneaking or looking suspicious within the desert landscape. He sees the potential for criminal behavior.
That's one of the reasons he was chosen to supervise a new unit in the Oro Valley Police Department that targets thieves, drug addicts and other wrongdoers.
The Community Action Team, called CAT by those who like a name with some pizzaz, was started in April, but the idea for the team has been in the works for a while, said Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp.
"The idea behind it is that there are a variety of community issues that crop up that beat officers aren't able to handle," Sharp said. "Our goal is to be able to maintain quality of life for the residents of Oro Valley by addressing those issues."
One of those community issues is the growing number of property crimes committed in the town each year.
Oro Valley is by most standards considered a safe community, and overall there are few violent crimes reported each year.
But the community has experienced an increase in thefts and burglaries throughout the past five years that the CAT officers hope to address.
In Oro Valley in 2001, there were 46 property crimes reported, according to statistics generated by the department. In 2002, that number rose only to 47 crimes. In 2003, however, that statistic increased dramatically to 722 property crimes, and, in the following year, that number has only decreased slightly to 681. Each year, the largest category of property crimes reported is theft. The large jump in the statistics can be attributed mostly to the growth of the town through a series of annexations.
The officers that are needed to staff the new unit were funded by the town council in last year's budget, but half of them have been in training throughout the past year.
Right now, there are three officers in the unit, but by the end of the month, Sharp said it should be fully staffed with four additional officers.
Sharp, who advocates a "proactive" approach to crime fighting, said the unit allows the town to have a focused response to criminal activity or the potential for criminal activity.
Beat officers may have to answer many calls in a day, he said, and don't have time to spend surveying an area, for example, to wait for a suspected criminal to commit a crime.
But McBride and his team have all day.
A typical day for the team is spent in unmarked cars, watching and waiting for a crime to happen. McBride said the unit is watching known meth users in and around the town because "in Pima County, the crime world revolves around meth right now."
Methamphetamine use has been on the rise in the past decade and has police departments across the United States dealing not only with its use but with related criminal activity such as the stealing of property or even people's identities to support the drug habit.
A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2002 showed that more than 12 million people 12 and older had reported using methamphetamine at least once in their lifetime.
Abuse of the drug continues to be concentrated in the western, southwestern, and midwestern United States, according to results of that study.
Meth can be used by injecting, snorting, smoking or oral ingestion. McBride said the drug is not new. He's seen it on the streets of greater Tucson since the early '90s, but it has become cleaner and more appealing to more people over the years.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, withdrawal from meth can cause symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue, paranoia, aggression, and intense cravings.
Chronic use can cause violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, delusions, and paranoia.
CAT is targeting methamphetamine users, specifically the meth users who have been stealing cars in Oro Valley and breaking into them to steal valuable items to sell for money to buy more drugs.
McBride said he knows they do it to get meth because every person they've arrested has been a user of the drug.
Since the unit started working in April, through the end of June when the last data was gathered, CAT had made 22 felony arrests and 13 misdemeanor arrests in Oro Valley. In that time, it seized 100 grams of meth, 845 pounds of marijuana and 15 grams of cocaine. According to the DEA, meth can range in price from $20 to $300 a gram, depending on the purity of the drug. CAT also has seized one van, one Hummer, 50 "jiggle keys," which are master keys used to steal cars, one laptop computer being used to commit identity theft, and one hand gun.
It has been able to recover four stolen cars, one stolen motorcycle and one trailer-mounted generator, all taken from Oro Valley citizens.
McBride said the meth addicts in Pima County commit felonies every day, be it thefts, drug use, or some other crimes. He and his unit wait patiently to witness one of these acts and then make their arrests.
Using tidbits of information gathered from informants, prior arrests, other agencies, apartment managers and even anonymous sources, they figure out where the criminals are, and then they wait.
"We wait to catch them doing what it is they do," McBride said. "We have a lot of luck."
McBride knows the houses where the addicts live. He can recognize a car that a thief drives. He said he even starts to suspect some people because they have "that tweaker look." Tweaking is a word used to describe a person who is strung out on meth and has probably not slept for days. His suspicions might sound paranoid, McBride says, but a lot of times he is right.
The team works with other detectives within the department as well as local law enforcement units including the county's Fugitive Investigation Strike Team and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Their crooks are our crooks," McBride said, stressing the importance of cooperation.
The team is available and versatile enough to switch gears in one day from looking for meth activity to making an arrest on an outstanding felony warrant for the county's fugitive team.
There are days when patiently waiting pays off in a climactic pursuit of a crook on the run. Other days, the suspects go quietly after a little bit of persuasive conversation with one of the team members.
Sharp calls the team the "trouble shooting squad" because its goal is to look for the potential for problems before they become problems.
"We want to make sure we can keep criminals out," Sharp said.
"We're highly motivated to look for ways to address quality of life issues to make sure we don't have a lot of the problems that other communities have."
For the most part, the people who are stealing in Oro Valley don't live in Oro Valley, Sharp said, and he would like to make sure that the department keeps the town as free from crime as is possible.
But as McBride drives around the outskirts of town, he is aware that many criminals stay near enough to drive in quickly and target the community.
"Oro Valley is a real safe place to live," McBride said. "But unfortunately, it is a high-target area. Thieves know they can get high dollar stuff in rich areas."
McBride said people can take some action to protect themselves from these types of crimes. For instance, keeping car doors locked and making sure nothing valuable is left inside helps. He said people who live in an apartment complex shouldn't drive through it with a stereo playing loudly because a thief will hear the thumping bass and know there is a stereo system worth stealing.
He said many of these precautions seem like common sense, but when people don't feel at risk to be a target, they sometimes forget to do what seems obvious.
Sharp said he is glad to have the team in place this year so when a problem comes up, which could be anything from an increase in burglaries to a need for extra help with traffic control on the first day of school, the department now has a resource to handle it.
When property crimes increase as a result of new construction, traffic issues in a neighborhood, or even routine patrol duties that can't be handled by the beat cops, the CAT unit can address those issues, Sharp said.
That means the guys chosen for the unit have to be versatile, he added, and service oriented.
Sharp said McBride is "the perfect sergeant" to lead the unit because he embodies those qualities and "because he wants to make sure the community gets quality service."
It's too soon to say whether the team has had an impact on crime in Oro Valley, Sharp said, although the town did experience a spike in burglaries earlier this year that went down in June and the department will watch that number to see if it stays down in the coming months.
In the meantime, McBride and team will continue to get to know the players in the local crime scene and continue to watch them, to see if they can keep them from committing more crimes.
"It's a good way of staying ahead of the crooks," McBride said about the CAT unit. "We really want to keep people from becoming victims in the first place."