Mesa's Operation STEAM aims to quell criminal activity in the summer - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Mesa's Operation STEAM aims to quell criminal activity in the summer

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Posted: Saturday, July 31, 2010 3:00 pm | Updated: 4:39 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

Stephen Valdez and two friends walk across the street on a Friday evening in west Mesa without using a crosswalk.

An innocent enough occurrence, it seems, and one that plays out countless times across the East Valley.

But not on this night. And not in this part of town.

As Valdez and his buddies cross Broadway Road near Hobson Road at 6:40 p.m., Mesa police officer Craig Garcia spots them from his patrol vehicle, speeds up and pulls up to the trio as they jump back toward the sidewalk.

Valdez, it turns out, has a history of "involvements" with law enforcement as a juvenile - 50 such occurrences, according to Garcia - and is a documented gang member, according to police. But Valdez, who turned 18 on June 30, is an adult now. And before this night is over, Valdez is arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana, while a second charge on cocaine possession or attempted cocaine trafficking is pending, awaiting the results of tests of another substance found on his presence.

This arrest and many like it are part of Operation STEAM, a Summer Tactical Enforcement Action in Mesa that is designed to quell criminal activity that increases during the summer when school is out. The operation by the Mesa Police Department came about when Chief Frank Milstead noticed increased incidents at this time of year, particularly in crime-ridden neighborhoods throughout west Mesa. Working with community members, Mesa police devote 20 officers and two sergeants to the effort, which began the week of June 6 and will last through Sept. 6.

Although the total number of arrests made by Operation STEAM will not be tallied until after Sept. 6, police have made 12 juvenile felony arrests, 45 juvenile misdemeanor arrests, 129 adult felony arrests and 379 adult misdemeanor arrests between June 1 and July 23, according to Detective Mike Melendez, a Mesa police spokesman.

Although it is too early to gauge the operation's success, it was evident one recent Friday that offices were proactive in cracking down on suspicious activity and criminal behavior.

"The officers are active and are making a number of arrests," Melendez said. "They're working with community members who are helping to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, and that's important."

The Tribune participated in a ride-along during Operation STEAM on Friday, July 23 - a night that includes an officer in distress call, an attack by a pit bull, two teens fleeing and escaping from officers and four arrests. Overall, the Operation Steam unit makes 32 arrests that evening.

The first of those is Valdez.

"Any night is unpredictable," Garcia said. "You never know what you're going to get into."

When Garcia questions Valdez, he admits to having a bag of "weed" in his pocket - 2.2 grams, to be exact. Garcia further searches Valdez, finding 30.2 grams of a white powdery substance in six small plastic bags inside a square plastic container.

"As I was searching him, he had the container inside his pants where you'd expect a belt buckle to be," Garcia says. "When I felt it, I'm thinking, ‘Oh God, he's got a gun.' But thankfully it wasn't. Can you imagine someone his age having 50 involvements with law enforcement as a juvenile?"

"Involvements" means that Valdez has either contacted law enforcement, was questioned by law enforcement or was arrested for various offenses including burglary and as a suspect in a kidnapping in 2007, according to Garcia.

Valdez admits to Garcia he has been selling the white powdery substance, but he says, according to the feedback he is getting for his product, "it wasn't that good."

The substance tests negative for cocaine after an initial test inside the police station. Results from a second test are pending.

At the minimum, Valdez is facing a charge for the marijuana possession, Garcia says, and faces his first felony offense as an adult.

Early in the evening

Operation STEAM begins quietly enough at 6 p.m. as Garcia spots a known prostitute walking along Country Club Drive near Main Street.

"You get a feel for who's hanging out where," Garcia says.

Prostitutes are becoming a problem again on Main Street, Garcia says, as attempts by Phoenix police to clean up Van Buren Avenue have pushed the prostitutes into Mesa via the Light Rail that helps bring them here.

"Things are cyclical," Garcia says. "It used to be that an undercover narcotics officer's goal was to go through Pioneer Park and buy crack cocaine or drugs. But now, it's been pretty much cleaned out. Mesa has definitely changed in the last 10 years."

As the evening progresses, Garcia observes a man walking along Broadway who almost steps off the curb to jaywalk before noticing the police car approaching. Garcia later follows a woman into the parking lot of a Walgreens drugstore to question her about a wide turn she made, a common occurrence for motorists who are impaired or driving under the influence, Garcia says.

This woman is not intoxicated or impaired, and is in fact cooperative. Garcia lets her off without a citation.

"I believe in pointing out to a person what they did wrong and making them think," Garcia says. "You can enforce the law without giving punishment."

After a fairly routine beginning to the night, Garcia notes that criminal activity usually increases after 10 p.m. - a philosophy that is about to ring true.

Mesa after dark

As Garcia drives along Broadway about 10 p.m., a call that every officer dreads making - and every officer dreads responding to - blares across the radio: officer in distress.

Making an immediate U-turn, Garcia speeds to a nearby neighborhood where he is greeted by nearly a dozen police cruisers along the street, and a pit bull barking and running in a front yard.

Officer Jacob Rozema had responded to a domestic violence dispute here, in the 500 block of East Millet Avenue, where Robert McGregor, 39, an irate ex-con, fought with him in the yard and ordered his pit bull to attack him.

Moments after a number of officers arrive on the scene, they get McGregor under control and place him in handcuffs. Covered in tattoos and wearing only underwear, McGregor, who spent more than five years in prison for committing an armed robbery, is arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault on a police officer, aggravated assault on a child, disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental operations and assault, according to a police report. An officer leads McGregor down the street and places him in the back of a police cruiser as the pit bull runs loose in the front yard and barks at officers trying to restrain it.

As another pit bull barks from inside the house, officers chase the loose dog around the home before releasing pepper spray and corraling it in the fenced backyard.

Moments before police converged on the street, McGregor allegedly had grabbed his ex-wife around the neck when she tried to leave the residence. Their 13-year-old daughter called police when McGregor dragged the woman back inside the house, according to a police report. McGregor also pushed the 13-year-old, the report stated.

No injuries were reported during the incident.

"It's one of those calls where you go from wherever you are at," Garcia says. "When an officer needs help, you just go."

Soon after assisting with the officer-in-distress call, Garcia goes to a scene in the area where police are questioning two males apprehended after police say they observed 20-year-old Angel Newman making an improper turn from Williams Drive onto Main Street.

Officers question Newman in the parking lot in front of Radio Shack. He tells officers that he has methamphetamine in the console of his car. A police canine sniffs through the car and finds slightly more than 10 grams of meth in small plastic bags in between the driver's seat and console. Meanwhile, Newman is given a sobriety test by another officer. The drug found inside Newman's car has a street value of about $600, according to police.

Newman, who also has $1,500 in cash that police confiscate, is arrested on suspicion of possession of dangerous drugs for sale, transportation of dangerous drugs for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The stop involving Newman lasts more than an hour before a tow truck arrives to take the car to an impoundment lot. The car had been titled in Newman's name just two days earlier, evidence that a bigger drug dealer bought the car for him and had it placed in his name so the main source would be harder to track, Garcia says.

"He's definitely going to jail," Garcia says of Newman. "You've got the big dealers, the little dealers and the police trying to arrest them. And it still goes on."

Don't leave a party with someone you don't know

Nearing midnight, police notice a car full of six people - all teenagers - on Pueblo traveling through a neighborhood. As police follow the car on Edgewood, the driver speeds up, turns onto the 800 block of Ashbrook, and pulls into a driveway.

Two teens jump out of the car and run, but police apprehend the other four and place three of them in handcuffs and sit them along the sidewalk in front of the home prior to questioning them. A police helicopter spotlight shines down into yards in an attempt to locate the other two teens, but to no avail.

As the homeowner stands across the street with neighbors watching the scene wind down, he says, "One minute I was sitting on my couch, the next, I see a spotlight in my backyard. I didn't know what was going on."

A passenger in the car, a 17-year-old boy, says he was drinking. A breathalyzer test reveals his blood alcohol content is .06, just two points below the legal limit of .08.

A 17-year-old girl, whose mother arrives to pick her up at the scene, tells police she met the group at a nearby party and got in the car with them to go to another party.

"Her mother came up to me and said, ‘Can you just yell at her?'" Garcia says. "She doesn't realize the trouble she could get into by doing this. You should never leave a party with someone you don't know. It can be dangerous. Look what happened."

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