By Laird Durham
The 800 square miles of Napa County are divided up in many ways, depending on who is doing the dividing.
The most famous divisions are its 16 viticultural areas. The least-known divisions, perhaps, are the six “beats” patrolled by 50 Napa County Deputy Sheriffs, almost half of the Sheriff’s sworn force of 106. The deputies roam the valley in their high-tech patrol cars, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They respond to nearly 100 calls per day from residents about burglaries, robberies, assaults, domestic disputes, rapes, vehicle thefts, suspected bombs, stalkers, downed trees or cables, drive-by shootings, escaped criminals, drug deals, drunks, delinquents, vandals, drownings, requests for search and rescue, mental health issues, reckless driving, and dozens of other crimes, misdemeanors, and misfortunes that a population of 150,000 people can come up with – even murders (last year there were four).
The deputies’ patrol in 12-hour shifts, running from 6 to 6 – daytime or night time, the night-time split is known as the “graveyard” shift.
James Baumgartner has been a deputy sheriff for 18 years; his father, John, now retired, was a deputy for 35 years. Most of James’ years as a deputy were in the K9 program. He worked two dogs, both trained and acquired from famous schools in Europe, one in Holland and one in Belgium. One of his dogs is a local hero for capturing
an escaping suspect by chasing him up a tree.
For the past two years James has been a lead deputy
on the graveyard shift, filling in from time to time as
James may be assigned to patrol any one of the six “beats,” in constant contract with Napa Central Dispatch, both through his radio and his on-board computer. The display screen in his car shows him all calls for help made to three services — the Sheriff’s Department, the Napa Police Department, and the Napa Fire Department –
and the actions being taken in response.
Although James has enough seniority to qualify for day-time duty, he chooses to work the graveyard shift because he likes to think he is performing a bigger service to the community he has lived in since he was born.
“The day shift is a ‘paper shift,’ ” James says. “The deputies on day shift patrol spend most of their time responding to calls and writing reports of actions taken. On the graveyard shift we receive fewer calls, so I have
an opportunity to be proactive – to monitor potential trouble spots and try to prevent them from becoming
serious situations or actual crimes.”
From experience, James knows that certain neighborhoods are often scenes of criminal activity, so he drives through them looking for people behaving in odd ways or
hanging out in the small hours. Of course that activity can be completely innocent, maybe romantic couples, insomniacs, or people with nighttime jobs like his.
“On the other hand, you have to wonder why a person is out there at that time. Why would you be riding a bike or walking alone at 3 am? I stop to say hello and ask if they need help. I look for responses from the persons that tells me something is not right: perhaps the person is evasive or has health problems and those responses might lead to more questions about what are they doing. They might be using
or dealing drugs or engaged
in a variety of mischiefs. Most of the time, the persons turn out to be friendly, and to appreciate my stopping to check on them. But, not always.”
James’ stops have led to the recovery of stolen property and interventions in sexual assault.
“Sometimes, cars are parked in dangerous locations, where they can be the cause of an automobile accident,” James points out, “or they may be involved in using or dealing drugs, or underage drinking.”
James checks on industrial parks, commercial developments, and electric power substations for signs of trouble, such as open doors, broken windows, or torn fencing. Lately, some of the large pipes and valves loping above ground at industrial buildings that prevent dangerous back-flows have been damaged at night by thieves seeking copper or valuable components, so he looks for that.
James says his goal is to keep the Valley safe. He believes his presence on patrol deters criminal activity and allows him to respond fast to trouble.
When the night seems peaceful and calm, James sometimes parks along highway 29 in 55 mph zones with a laser speed measuring instrument call LIDAR to catch speeders. Although most drivers comply with posted speed limits, some hit speeds in excess of 70 mph. James pulls those vehicles over.
Known to his fellow deputies as a tireless workhorse, James gets by on five hours of sleep in 24. He also patrols the Napa River and Lake Berryessa in one of the Sheriff’s patrol boats a day or two per week. He recently ordered a misdemeanor trespassing fisherman off the Brazos railroad bridge in South Napa where someone fell and drowned a few years ago.
On his time off, he gives talks and demonstrations for school students, sometimes getting into a highly-padded “attack suit” to show how deputies work with K9 dogs to catch criminals or find drugs.