One moment the members of Garden Grove Police’s Career Criminal Apprehension Team are sitting in their office joking amongst themselves and enjoying the air conditioning.
The next moment, they’re in high gear chasing a lead on a homicide case they’ve been tirelessly working on.
Such is the life for members of CCAT, a special undercover surveillance unit that works alongside other departments and agencies to apprehend and gather intel on career criminals.
Team members are rotated out of patrol for an 18-month tour on the unit. In that time they put away their uniforms (opting for T-shirts and shorts on hot days) and grow out their beards for more effective undercover work — plus, it’s more comfortable (Behind the Badge did not photograph them to keep their identities private).
“We’re basically the resources to go look for the criminals,” says Master Officer Edgar Valencia.
The unit is up and running again after a temporary hiatus in November due to employee shortages at the agency.
The cops on the four-man team – Sgt. Lonzo Reyes, Cpl. Han Cho, Master Officer Nick Lazenby and Valencia – never know what they’ll be getting on any given day. But chances are waiting in a car (these days, a very hot car) for hours will most likely be part of it – as well as suddenly having to jump out for a high-speed foot pursuit.
“It’s very fast-paced,” says Lazenby, “so you never know what’s gonna happen.”
Surveillance plays an important role in what members of the team do – which is why they spend so much time in their parked cars.
“One of the best ways of arresting someone is [surveillance of]their house or place of business,” says Reyes.
When they’re not assisting detectives on surveillance work, assisting patrol officers when they apprehend suspects or searching for those who have arrest warrants out on them, they’re working with patrol and probation officers on AB109 sweeps.
“Our hours and days are based on the needs of the department,” says Cho.
The AB109 sweeps are a result of a State of California 2013 bill allowing for the supervised early release of nonviolent felons. The sweeps are regular random compliance checks (funded by a state grant) at the residences of the felons to make sure they are abiding by the law and following court-mandated orders.
“This is kind of like a supplementation [to regular parole visits],” says Lazenby. “We want to make sure [parolees are]on the right track. … It’s like a pop quiz.”
A typical sweeps day includes two teams – each with CCAT members, patrol and probation officers – driving in and around Garden Grove to check in on parolees. Much of CCAT’s work takes the team outside Garden Grove (an estimated 80 percent, according to Han), into places like Santa Ana, Long Beach and Compton.
On a recent sweeps day, the long list of parolee residences would take the team to Orange and Westminster, in addition to Garden Grove. There would be only one team going out because some of the CCAT members were pulled away to assist on a homicide investigation.
Sweeps take a considerable amount of coordination, with two or more cars caravanning to each residence. At each residence – be it motel, apartment or house – the sweeps team would expertly surround the residence as the CCAT officer (Lazenby) knocked on the door to ask for the parolee. Parolees can range from friendly and acquiescent to hostile and ready to run. Chases are always a possibility, as are arrests. At least one arrest was made on this particular sweeps day.
“Some days are a lot more chaotic than others,” Lazenby says, admitting that he does enjoy the excitement of the more chaotic days.
However, things can turn dangerous quickly.
During a somewhat routine home check-in while out on surveillance, the team ended up in hostile gang territory. The team members were able to extract themselves without blowing their cover, but it required some quick thinking.
“It’s wild sometimes,” says Lazenby.
Adds Valencia, “But that’s what makes it fun.”
Situations like this have taught the team to be even more prepared, says Lazenby.
“It teaches you important lessons about survival,” he says.
Lazenby says he’s also had to learn a whole different skill set:
Not behaving like a police officer.
“You have to walk different. You have to move different. You have to think different. It’s a whole other animal,” he says. “You have to approach everybody differently. The whole goal is for them not to know you’re cops.”
Regardless of what they’re doing, the team knows it’ll require plenty of patience. They agree the job is 95 percent boredom, 5 percent excitement.
But they love it.