"It could have been a booby trap, but it looked like a rice cooker to me," says Sergeant Hussain Khan as he radios an incident to Kensington police dispatch. Sitting in the cockpit of his white Ford Explorer, Khan, 43, a warm and thoughtful man with thick salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, makes for reassuring company on a media ride-along. "Booby traps are very rare," he notes.
That, in fact, would qualify as a radical understatement in this unincorporated Contra Costa County community of 5,000 residents, nestled comfortably in the hills between Berkeley and El Cerrito. Kensington goes about its days blissfully impervious to the grit of bigger-city life not far beyond its borders. Its geographic isolation -- only three roads lead directly into town -- has resulted in an almost mythically preserved community, complete with the customary hardware store, pharmacy, and grocery where everyone knows your name. The two-block main drag along Arlington Avenue is eerily reminiscent of Main Street USA circa 1950, and seniors, who make up nearly a quarter of Kensington residents, feel safe enough to stroll the streets at two or three in the morning. "We like to say it's the county's best kept secret," Khan says.
But if Kensingtonians -- who politely pull over for opposing traffic on their narrow residential roads -- are anachronistically friendly, you should meet their police. In 1946, the community voted to supplement sheriffs' services with a special Police Protection Community Service District, which, in exchange for an annual assessment of $300 per household or $450 per business, provides them with garbage collection, rec programs at Kensington Park, and ten full-time cops -- more per capita than much rougher East Bay cities including Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley.
When I called to ask what time of day would be most action-packed for a ride-along, Khan insisted that nothing was going to happen, no matter the hour. There would be no calls, no crime, and no conflict.
Oh, how wrong he was.
Three hours riding shotgun with the sergeant turned out to be the Kensington equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer flick. Khan nabbed a guy for speeding and blowing a yield sign. (The perp got off with a warning.) He also ticketed a car parked in a red zone, and directed traffic after a fairly significant accident between a truck and a city bus (technically, that was in El Cerrito, but Kensington cops often cross borders to help busier departments).
And, of course, there was the bomb scare: An EBMUD worker flagged down Khan's cruiser to alert him to a suspicious-looking rice cooker dumped next to a construction site. The device turned out to be, well, just a rice cooker. "You're a brave man," the EBMUD guy yelled from a safe distance as the sergeant lifted the cover and peered inside.
No rice left.
The most disturbing call -- simply because it was made in the first place -- came from a fresh-faced teenager. The kid was visiting his grandmother and got frightened when two other teens -- black kids in this mostly white town -- came door-to-door offering curb-painting services. After they left, the boy realized his grandmother's car was still parked out front, although she had told him she was going out. With strangers about, he was concerned something might have happened to her. Khan and Officer Phil Balousek, who joined us at the scene, made inquiries with neighbors about the grandmother, and gently warned the curb-painters to obtain solicitor's licenses for the future.
Riding with Khan was like watching Kensington's police blotter come to life. This community's crime logs can be almost unbearably quaint; many of the 1,700 reports filed last year would never even have made the incident lists of larger departments. Some typical incidents:
* A jacket is found in the bushes on Colgate Avenue.
* A woman reports possible shots fired on Ardmore Road. The responding officer warns a juvenile not to play with firecrackers.
* A Westminster Avenue resident thinks his neighbor poured water into his gas tank.
* Neighbors on Anson Way argue over the result of a pruning job.
* A new resident asks officers for assistance in finding her Coventry Road home.
* The local grocer reports that a middle-aged man stole a magazine. The officer escorts the thief back to the store, where he apologizes and pays for it.
Mean streets. Concrete jungle.
"I literally have changed a lightbulb," Balousek says. "Nobody in Oakland ever called police to do that."
In larger cities, dispatchers often stick officers with several calls at once, and low-priority calls regularly go unanswered. In Kensington, every call, no matter how trivial, gets police attention. "People call to say that there are trees obstructing their views, or that there are dogs barking," says Corporal Danny Jeffries.
Which begs the question of whether these cops are wasting their time and residents' money twiddling their thumbs as they wait for calls. Au contraire, say police. Because they're not rushing from call to call, they have more time to be proactive, the very embodiment of community servants. "This is not a place to sit around and do nothing," Khan says.
Indeed, the KPD prides itself on a high level of service. The cops respond to every fire and every medical call, despite the community's separate Fire Protection District. Each officer also handles projects such as outreach in schools, crime prevention workshops, and programs to alert seniors to services available to them. Kensington cops attend community events, participate in Halloween festivities, and hand out trading cards to the kiddies featuring brief profiles of each officer and, in some cases, a personal message: "The choices you make today, decide who you are tomorrow" -- Corporal Rickey Hull.
The department also plays the role of caretaker. Officers hold keys to the homes of more than three hundred elderly citizens in case of emergencies; some seniors or their relatives ask police to come by periodically, simply to check up on the residents. "The chief's goal is that as long as seniors want to stay in their homes, we're going to enable them to do that," Khan says.
Kensington residents and merchants, it seems, are crazy about their cops. At Christmas, the department's lobby is piled with candy, cakes, pies, and gifts from appreciative locals. "In Oakland, if a pie was delivered, we'd probably have the bomb squad called out," Balousek says.
When Marvin Gardens Real Estate first opened last August on Arlington Avenue, police came by to introduce themselves, offering business cards, badge numbers, and assistance with anything employees might need. The office manager, an Oakland resident, could hardly believe her eyes. "I've never met police officers who were so nice," she says, "and I'm not a police person."
Helping old ladies across the street isn't for everybody, of course, and keeping qualified cops around hasn't always been easy here. Turnover used to be way up there, says Chief Barry Garfield, who has been with the department since 1986. Garfield was recruiting constantly until he realized that a town where officers face far more treed cats than gangbangers could best be served by a specific type of cop: the veteran who's grown weary of pursuing homicide suspects through backyards at 3 a.m. and is ready to settle down. Garfield began offering positions to streetwise cops who'd had enough, who wanted a community that would appreciate them. Where school kids actually wave. "They wave with all five fingers," Khan says. "Sometimes it's almost embarrassing how nice people are."
The new chief's plan paid off. Kensington hasn't had to hire a new officer in three years, and Garfield has a team that knows police work. The average beat cop in a big-city department has just two to three years of experience, says Khan, himself a twenty-year vet who previously worked the Oakland streets and the Concord jail system. The average Kensington patrol cop, by contrast, has been in the crime-fighting business for sixteen years. And the low turnover in the department, Khan says, has made it like a family.
For cops battle-tested in tough neighboring locales, the difference is night and day. "I haven't felt cold and cynical since I left Oakland," Jeffries says. "I have 95 percent less stress in Kensington."
Balousek says he wouldn't trade his experience in Oakland for the world. "But I can't run that fast anymore," he notes. Nor does he have to. On late-night shifts, Kensington is so quiet that new recruits find themselves checking and rechecking their police radios to make sure they're still working.
And if that's a problem, well, this ain't Training Day, and Richmond is always hiring. If you aspire to be a Kensington cop, you'd better know in advance what you're getting into -- or not getting into. "If you don't do a ride-along, you will fail the interview," Khan says. "We try to make candidates understand that they're not going to be running Code 3 all day, shooting people or punching people out, that they're going to be expected to be polite. You have to have it out of your system."
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