Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Reading daily articles of cities going broke and the increase of crime across the USA, I took to the streets to see for myself what the people are facing as a consequence of the economic decline. Please note, there are two entries on this page. 


USA: The Growing War Within.
The present assignment is to photograph the SWAT team and Vallejo/ Benicia Police Units in action. After joining them at training, I'm heading out on night patrols in the bankrupt city of Vallejo, California, where the police force is now greatly diminished due to the city's near non-existent budget to pay them. Apparently we're in a recession. and with a recession crime dramatically increases. And public services dramatically decrease. My job is to document it all unfolding...


The streets in Vallejo are reminiscent of a war zone, with daily loud cracks of automatic guns that spit 15 rounds a second at their target, being either other gangs, or the police. And rarely a day passes without the heavy thumping of Police helicopters hovering over head, lighting up the neighborhood in search of the bad guys. But I knew all this going into this assignment, because I found my paradise here - a beautiful little rundown cottage on a 1/2 acre property surrounded by towering redwood trees, oak trees and lines of giant willow trees marking the entrance way. And four minutes away is the beach and a riverway development project underway, of restaurants and river walks and parks being built as a seemingly inevitable boom is, or rather was, set to take hold. Then came the recession, and heaven on earth turned into hell as a large wave of criminals and gangs inundated the area within a matter of months, providing a glimpse at what would soon become a national crisis, as city after city across the country inches closer toward bankruptcy.

As a consequence, and as was my constitutional right on US soil, my house was subsequently armed with weapons strategically placed around and within the property, with a large black domestic wolf/ crossed with a giant teddy bear for a guard dog. I wasn't going anywhere. Indeed, I'd created the perfect illusion of a well fortified property in the midst of serious gang warfare; for Hell Angels, Bandidos. Outlaws. Mongols. Paganas; all had come to the party, and it wasn't in their nature to play nice when it came to territorial acquisition of prime waterfront real estate selling dirt cheap. All the while the police shrunk to numbers totally incapable of bringing the streets under control. The fact I had a Police Sergeant, who was an exemplary long range shooter for a next door neighbor, who parked his police car right outside my house every night, was a really really nice touch, all things considered. And so it was game on in La La Land.... This is what I learnt, first hand.

Vallejo is a microcosm of the US as a whole. With skyrocketing unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures, it is crumbling from within. And as sure as the US government has limited budgets and limited patrols manning its borders, so too does Vallejo have a similar problem, with gangs and criminals coming in from other areas to take full advantage of a situation where law enforcement is virtually removed from the equation. For the police officers who still have a job with the Vallejo Police Department, things are getting a lot more dangerous. They're outgunned and outnumbered. Seriously.

And things are only going to get worse, not only in Vallejo but across the country, as the US writhes helplessly in the quick sands of economic ruin, with more cities struggling to keep their heads above ground. Less cops equals an increase in crime. Its as simple as that, and this is only the end of the beginning. Renowned economists believe the US will not surface from this economic nightmare for at least a decade.

But there is one consolation worthy of mention. The budget for US defense and foreign policy will more than likely be reigned in over the coming years for the sake of a greater cause: the American people, and homeland security. The days of the US fighting wars offshore (the reasons for which are long forgotten, if ever they were understood at all) are numbered. A war is brewing within its borders, one bankrupt city at a time.


(photos restricted)

It was an unusually cold night in the bankrupt city of Vallejo, with a slight drizzle of snow flakes that dissipated before hitting the ground. The streets were empty, and there was a quiet that was uncharacteristic of the times. At least for a little while. Driving around in a police patrol car at 11pm, I was given a tour of a city that was experiencing an epidemic of crime and violence due to severe budget cuts and the subsequent reduction of law enforcement. 6 police in 3 squad cars patrol a low income area housing 120 000.

Neighborhoods are constantly woken by automatic gunfire late at night, and sirens arriving far too late on the scene leave the public wary, frightened and without protection. So begins the civil unrest and criticism of the (remaining) men and women in law enforcement who risk their lives daily to serve, under unfathomable stress, on incomes and benefits the city is vigorously negotiating to cut. Not that the pay is that high to begin with. And it’s not as if these police officers can be replaced by a monkey in a cop suit. This is a highly specialized team of individuals working collectively to protect and save lives, including their own. But without proper funding, training and support, they face the present situation that is in every way alarming, and in every way unacceptable. Whether it is through mismanagement of city budgets or causes that stretch to federal and global levels, the streets of Vallejo are deteriorating to the point of their becoming absurdly dangerous, with a dwindling police force that is simply unable to contain it. Carrying side arms and shotguns, they face doped up teenagers and veteran gangs with automatic weapons, which they're not afraid to use, for want of marking their territory. And so the police adjust, joining forces with the SWAT team during training to sharpen their skills to accommodate the changes, while their Union struggles with city officials to better their situation; which is simply not going to happen.

Driving in the patrol car listening to call-ins on the radio was like listening to a lottery of disaster and strife. As to which calls were taken first, comes down to priority, of the most critical and urgent situations that need to be addressed. If a caller mentions a gun, or some one dying, the police are coming as soon as they can, which can still take hours if they’re already on the scene of another incident. Consequently, the public has adapted to this astonishing situation, by way of overstating things in the hope the police response time is more acceptable. Answering bogus calls slows the process down considerably when it comes to fewer police on the beat and their coordinating activities to better serve those really in need. I was surprised to hear that calls about prowlers or domestic violence or arguments are way down the list, if ever they get attended to at all within real time. And as for dogs barking and parties raging and people calling the police to complain, forget about it. They’re not coming.

Vallejo was the first city to declare bankruptcy during the great recession of 2008-9, and its deterioration has been closely monitored by other cities that face the same predicament of financial hardship and the need to hack budgets to stay afloat. The police and fire brigade inevitably get hit with lay offs, and the world becomes a much more dangerous place.

Heading into downtown Vallejo, ten calls were listed on the police scanner, on a night slowed to a near standstill because of the cold. The calls included a car accident, drunkards on the roof of a building throwing bottles at people on the street, a prowler at the back of house, and a woman lying dead on a kitchen floor. As to which took priority... previous calls did, for all three cars were preoccupied.

Cruising the streets awhile, we came to gradual halt at an intersection to view a well groomed white box of a building with the name Hell’s Angels posted out front in professional calligraphy. I was astounded to hear that other large, renowned gangs like the Banditos and the Kings of Cali have also set up in the Vallejo area, blending into the community, where they allegedly engage in illegal activities ranging from drug and gun sales, to robbery and murder, to money laundering and prostitution. In this present environment, business is apparently booming. The police are well aware of what’s goings on, but with number for surveillance, organized crime goes unchecked. This adds to the burden on the street as more guns and drugs become available, providing an only option for the large number of unemployed and homeless who are desperately looking for ways to survive. And so they turn to crime. And the market thrives, feeding itself.

The tour continued on through the vast expanse of low income african american communities, where social problems of domestic abuse and drug addiction are rampant, and the constitutional right to bear arms devotedly practiced. The people aren’t friendly here. They’re anxious, destitute, with little hope. And they're as angry as the denizens of Hell when the police are slow to respond to any violent outbreaks, which are regular.

The patrol car slowly eased alongside the curb as we arrived at the scene where a woman had died, her face covered with a towel as she lay on the kitchen floor. For four hours the corpse remained in this position as family members sat in adjoining rooms, awaiting the police, weeping all the while over their loss. Police conducted their interviews with great sensitivity and respect, so beginning the process to have the body removed. In this instance, there was no criminal act, but rather natural causes that brought about her death, or so it was alleged. 

Should it of been a murder, being a common occurrence, such lengthy delays in police response time  jeopardizes the evidence at the crime scene. Witnesses vanish into the night, and the process becomes profoundly difficult in putting a solid case together in order to bring the perpetrator/s to justice. In the end, investigations were minimal, and inconclusive, and into the eerie night we returned, the snow flakes constantly disappearing at eye level, with mobs of angry african americans lining the streets, throwing insults and shouting for justice. And then a single gun shot sounded. People scattered, taking cover. Then stillness. With no back up coming, the next movement was critical. The police cooly walked to their car, guns unclipped, hands set for reflex draw.... And I observing all close behind them.

And then off we drove... looking at the lottery draw of violent incidents on the computer screen.... wondering where to go to next.... 

At 2am, the final leg of my tour for the evening put me in the Vallejo police station, which was near abandoned despite there being long lines of police vehicles parked outside. Inside, three operators were taking calls, prioritizing them, then relaying them to the police on the street. They spoke proudly of their jobs and expertise, and laughed nervously at the possibility of layoffs. Elsewhere throughout the building, there were very few police on duty. I saw only three in the hour I was shown around a labyrinth of corridors, passing one empty office after another. Layoffs are one reason. Another is officers resigning, who, with families, are unable to manage on the decreasing salaries and benefits; with the escalating risk making it even more difficult to stay. They find work elsewhere, some going to such extremes as taking well paid, but highly dangerous security jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are greatly missed by those still on patrol, who’s morale understandably is at an all time low; for it is they who are left to bear the brunt of a social onslaught that presently has no foreseeable solution except Time itself. It heals everything, this is true, but it most certainly could do with a good, well managed push from government, at all levels, to turn this situation around as quickly as possible. 

Unfortunately, with 15 millions foreclosures and counting, unemployment hovering around 10%, and bankruptcies in their thousands inundating the state court systems each month, there is lot to overcome... If ever... Personally, I think America is in decline... and it only has itself to blame;  the reason much the same as that which resulted in the Fall of the Roman Empire in 456 AD. . Insatiable greed, which rotted it from the insides out, until it became too weak to defend itself against the invading Barbarians. Hence we've learnt absolutely nothing in over 1500  years.

God bless America? Hardly. God left America along time ago. And they've been blowing up the planet looking for HIM ever since.

For travel assignments and inquiries.
Bradley Rae
Freelance Photographer/ Writer/ Videographer