Early Sunday morning, March 6. Time: 1:15 a.m. Place: Downtown Fullerton.
Walking the streets amid a throng of booze-scented partiers, Sgt. Pedram Gharah, Cpl. Ryan O’Neil and Officer Davis Crabtree of the Fullerton Police Department smile at passers-by and even pose for selfies. Good vibes abound, despite the occasional hard stare or nasty remark.
Gharah, O’Neil and Crabtree belong to Fullerton’s ECHO Unit. They, along with two motorcycle officers, patrol downtown Thursday through Saturday, when nighttime revelers transform the city center into Orange County’s version of the Las Vegas Strip.
The Fullerton officers nab drunk drivers, drive through municipal parking structures looking for people doing drugs or drinking; break up fights or deter them with their high visibility; and make unannounced visits to some of the area’s 52 restaurants and bars to ensure they aren’t over capacity and a potential fire hazard.
“Our main focus is the safety of our community and the safety of the thousands of people attracted to our vibrant downtown,” ECHO leader Gharah said.
On this drizzly night, the crowds are thinner than usual and problems at a minimum. A broken window at the Night Owl coffee house. Overcrowding at Revolucion 1910 Mexican Grill and Cantina. Jaywalkers. Cars illegally parked and blocking traffic. Public drinking.
Suddenly, the mood darkens. The officers focus intently on a nearby 20-something who’s hitting an electrical box. His girlfriend tries to calm him, while another couple nervously looks on.
To the untrained eye, it doesn’t seem like much. However, Officers Gharah, O’Neil and Crabtree quickly move toward the group. Before they arrive, though, the agitated man has twice shoved the other guy.
No big deal, right? Wrong.
During the weekends, ECHO police have a zero-tolerance policy in downtown, lest small problems spiral out of control. Officers quickly handcuff and arrest the now-contrite aggressor, who ends up spending the night in jail and receiving a citation for challenging to fight in public.
“We like to nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand,” ECHO’s Crabtree said. “Two guys attract a crowd, and then potentially more fights could break out. More people get hurt, and we’re put in danger when trying to break them up.”
Earlier, Gharah, in a police cruiser, patrolled the parking structure at 150 West Santa Fe Avenue, when he saw a can on top of a parked BMW. The car’s doors were open with a couple people partying inside. Gharah flashed his lights and approached slowly. The driver soon handed him an nearly empty bottle of peach vodka. Gharah cited him for an open container violation.
Officers O’Neil and Crabtree arrived as backup. They quickly discovered a third friend sprawled out on the pavement in a drunken stupor. As they cuffed the inebriated man and began leading him away, the BMW driver suddenly became belligerent and shouted insults at the police.
“I think this is one of the most difficult positions to work because of dealing with a lot of intoxicated people,” ECHO’S O’Neil later said. “They can try your patience and see how far they can push the limits.”
Fullerton PD formed ECHO in 2007 in response to downtown’s growing popularity and the attendant problems. “Back then, it was out of control,” Gharah said. Today, the average number of weekend fights has dropped to one from 12 to 15, he added.
Despite all the challenges, Gharah said he and his colleagues enjoy keeping Fullerton’s downtown safe.