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Role as 'Watt Cops' Irks Police Officers

RULE: Lights out after business hours Joe Garofoli, Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writers Friday, February 9, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


They're jokingly called "watt cops,'' but Berkeley Police Officer Rudi Raab is not amused that he and others on the late-night shift soon will be looking for stores with too many lights on after hours.

Asking police officers to help solve the state's energy crisis is a "misuse of emergency services," Raab said, especially for swing-shift cops dealing with serious crime.

"When the businesses close, where do we put the ticket? Who gets the ticket?" Raab asked.

He hopes that question is answered soon, when Gov. Gray Davis' aides complete a plan for fining auto malls, shopping centers and other retailers that use too much wattage after business hours.

The governor also would offer incentives for retailers to retrofit their electrical systems or use energy-efficient bulbs -- something he hopes will counteract Republican sniping that he shouldn't be picking on business.

The California Highway Patrol and county sheriff departments would be charged with enforcing the plan. Sheriffs, in turn, would direct municipal police departments to follow suit.

Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer acknowledged that there might be grumbling from the rank and file. If city police chiefs balk, "we'll then send in deputies," said Plummer, a supporter of the plan who jokingly calls himself the "chief watt cop in Alameda County."

"There's some confusion going on right now," Plummer said before meeting with state officials this week. "We hope to make some sense of it. My hope is that they can define the law a little more."

Davis' supporters promise that the plan's combination of incentives and a public awareness campaign won't be heavy-handed.

"We're not going to have officers out there counting lightbulbs," said Lon Hatamiya, secretary of California's Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency, one of the architects of the governor's plan.


But beat cops such as Raab -- the ones charged with enforcing the governor's emergency order starting March 15 -- wonder how they are supposed to determine how many bulbs are too many. The California Energy Commission is working on standards for officers to follow, but those guidelines aren't ready yet, and that vagueness worries officers.

"I don't see a positive response from patrol officers," Oakland Police Officer Vinnie Johnson said Wednesday night as he busied himself with paperwork in his car at Telegraph Avenue and 22nd Street, not far from the city's Auto Row.

"Officers are too busy -- besides, if it's after hours, who are we going to talk to anyway?" Johnson asked.

Nevertheless, like all swing-shift officers interviewed on patrol this week,

Johnson said he thought that cops would enforce the law, if grudgingly.

"It's going to be difficult to enforce, particularly in large metropolitan areas," said Emeryville Police Officer Fred Dauer. But he added, "If we're ordered to do it, we'll obey orders."


The plan's supporters played down a provision for $1,000 fines against businesses, emphasizing that officers would be asked to work with retailers.

Cops will walk the property with business owners, listen to their concerns about safety and point out areas where they could dim the lights without compromising security, said Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services, another coordinator of the plan.

Businesses that could prove they have made a good-faith effort to conserve would not be fined, Lamoureux said.

"The fining would come in only for the really recalcitrant businesses who refuse to comply with the law," Lamoureux said.

Yet in meetings with the plan's authors this week, business representatives said they were worried that dimming their lights might cause security problems.

Last week, Shamrock Ford turned down its lights after being featured in a Chronicle story about late-night watt-burners. Police and dealership officials said they don't know if two thefts that occurred afterward were related to the dimming.


The plan's backers steer away from the image of cops with "wattage detectors" and emphasize the incentives that will be offered to retailers who conserve.

Hatamiya said rebates could be financed from a proposed $800 million state conservation effort, but neither he nor Lamoureux offered specifics on how much the rebates would be.

Several trade groups representing late-night watt-burners have lined up behind the proposal, including the California Grocers Association, the California Business Properties Association, the California Independent Auto Dealers Association and the California Motor Car Dealers Association.

That support isn't surprising, said Republican consultant Sal Russo. "Sacramento is a go-along town. All the people that should be screaming from the rafters about this are part of the club."

Republicans mocked the "power police" idea in a radio ad that began running yesterday in Northern California, the Central Valley and San Diego.

"Now government is into the energy business," a voice in the ad says. "Setting the price and then having the power police fine you if you use too much. Now whose bright idea was that?"

E-mail Joe Garofoli at and Henry K. Lee at

-- Martin Thompson (, February 09, 2001


This has to be crazy even for California. Do we change the penal code to include 'energy crime'. I am sure the criminal element will really like this one. Much easier to shoplift in a dark store than a lighted one. Next step will probably be a whole new beauacracy to chase down energy cheaters.

A stiff increase in electric rates and a bunch of blackouts would probably be more effective.

-- Martin Thompson (, February 09, 2001.

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