As anyone who has ever turned on a television can attest, there are bad cops, and there are good cops. In moodily lit TV studios and communities across the nation, the men and women sworn to protect and serve draw our fascination and condemnation. In the news business, stories about law enforcement are a tried and true standby. That said, we at New Times realize that stories about cops often tend to blur together, a litany of crime and punishment. This week, we’ve written a different kind of cop story. Over the last month, New Times reached out to law enforcement agencies across the county and asked them to nominate exceptional officers. We received some excellent candidates, and the officers were uniformly deserving. We chose to focus on three particular officers whom we felt were both representative and unique. These are their stories.
Bill Proll, Lieutenant and Night Watch Commander, SLOPD
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BILL PROLL: Lieutenant and Night Watch Commander, SLOPD
These days, Bill Proll would make a pretty awful undercover cop.
Whether he’s strolling down Higuera Street or cruising by Cal Poly, he’s never far away from someone he knows.
“I’ve been with the San Luis Obispo Police Department since 1984,” Proll said with a grin. “I’ve long since given up any hope of not being surrounded with people I know.”
On a recent Thursday evening, Proll piloted his old, off-brown Crown Victoria (call sign, Lincoln 1) with a New Times reporter in tow. Though Proll, 50, doesn’t make many arrests or traffic stops now that he’s a lieutenant, he still likes to roll around the city, keeping the pulse of the goings on and supervising his patrol officers.
Over the course of five hours, no fewer than 30 people hailed, waved at, or greeted Proll—a veritable cavalcade of inside jokes, small talk, and catching up. For his part, Proll likes to prank people he knows around town by shining his car’s floodlight at them and watching them momentarily panic before seeing him and laughing.
In his almost 30 years on the beat in SLO, Proll said he’s learned a lot, made his fair share of mistakes, and developed some strong convictions.
“After doing this for a while, you get to know what’s important and what’s not: You have to pick your battles,” Proll said. “When you’re assessing a situation, the opportunity of changing someone’s life and behavior is there. Honestly, if you’re going to be a dick about it, you’re going to make it worse.”
Proll said that being reasonable, conscientious, and polite—but not a pushover—sums up his personal law enforcement philosophy. Many cops choose not to live where they work, but Proll has thoroughly embraced the SLO community ever since coming here from Danville in the early ’80s to attend Cal Poly.
Proll serves on the athletic board and also teaches two racquetball classes every quarter at his alma mater, pro bono. Proll said he loves teaching the sport and doesn’t mind not getting paid.
“It’s definitely fun when some of my students realize that I’m a cop,” he said. “They’re always pretty stunned.”
In addition to commanding the night watch (from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.), Proll has taken up the cause of beautifying SLO by eradicating graffiti. Proll manages the department’s graffiti taskforce, which is largely made up of civilian volunteers.
Though his schedule is pretty packed, Proll has also found the time to contribute thousands of hours to the Special Olympics over roughly 20 years. He is the SLO County director for the law enforcement torch run—which raises money and organizes events for local Special Olympic athletes.
This year, the four “Tip a Cop” dinners he organized raised $91,100 for the cause. He attends several different Special Olympic games and conferences every year, and was even the designated California torch runner for the 2009 Winter World Games in Idaho.
“Running into the opening ceremonies with all these other cops and all the athletes was pretty incredible,” Proll said. “By far, that was the neatest experience of my life.”
Proll said his interest in the Special Olympics was sparked by former SLOPD chief Jim Gardiner.
“I don’t have kids, but just seeing the joy of these Special Olympic athletes keeps me doing it,” Proll said. “They go through so much bad stuff every day, but they are still the neatest people—it’s unbelievable.”
Proll said commanding the night watch has been his favorite job thus far in his trip up the SLOPD ladder, and—though he gets tired of paperwork and meetings sometimes—he has no intention of going anywhere.
As the clock ticks past midnight on Thursday, Proll begins to yawn. Aside from some illegal fireworks, a few would-be underage drinkers, and some hoodlums by the train station, it’s been a pretty quiet night.
Proll’s shift will end in a few hours. Until then, he’ll be cruising around and using his intuition to check on some hotspots. After all, he know these streets pretty well.
Al Barger, SLO County Sheriff’s Deputy, Narcotics Detection K9 Handler, K9 Unit Coordinator
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- AL BARGER, AND JACK, K9: SLO County Sheriff’s Deputy, Narcotics Detection K9 Handler, K9 Unit Coordinator
Deputy Al Barger’s partner, Jack, is pretty involved in his life. They work 10-hour days together, they go after drug dealers together, and they live together.
Though one has two legs and the other has four, they are equals in almost every other way.
“If Jack could drive our car, I’d be out of a job,” Barger jokes.
Barger, 49, has led the Sheriff’s Department K9 unit since its inception in 2001. For more than 10 years, Barger was the only K9 deputy in the department.
However, he and Sheriff Ian Parkinson have spearheaded the K9 unit’s renaissance. Currently, there are six K9s and handlers in the unit.
“The expansion of the program is absolutely necessary, and it’s fantastic that we’ve expanded it,” Barger said. “The K9s really deter assaults on officers, and can track violent suspects to keep deputies and citizens safe.”
Barger and Jack, a black Labrador retriever, have been working together since 2010. Jack is a pure “sniffer” dog—he only works to find drugs—and is never placed in dangerous situations.
When he’s not sniffing, Jack is sleeping in Barger’s bedroom or chilling in what Barger called his “palace,” a spacious, air-conditioned compartment in the patrol car specially outfitted for him.
Barger said K9s and their handlers have a deep, trusting, and familial relationship. Though this relationship is often mocked by outsiders or used to deride the officers as “soft” cops, nothing could be further from the truth.
To wit, Barger’s previous K9, Jake, and Jack have combined to sniff and seize 1,073 pounds of marijuana, 92 pounds of methamphetamine, 28 pounds of cocaine, and .91 pounds of heroin over 12 years.
Since the department was expanded in 2012, the four cross-trained patrol dogs (who apprehend suspects as well as sniff for drugs), have had almost 50 successful apprehensions, with only four “bites” (suspects who didn’t give up).
Barger said having a K9 ride with a deputy is exponentially cheaper than having an additional deputy, and thus the K9 program allows more patrol cars to be on the street while promoting more efficient law enforcement.
“It saves time and money, and it’s a real asset to the department,” Barger said. “These dogs are phenomenal.”
Barger is humble, giving all the credit to his superiors, fellow K9 deputies, and, of course, the K9s themselves. However, he has clearly been instrumental in proving the worth of K9 work, training subsequent officers, and advocating for the expansion of the unit.
Barger proudly noted that the K9 unit is entirely funded through asset forfeiture. Namely, the same drug busts the K9s precipitate also fund the program, with plenty left to spare.
Barger said he’d someday like to expand the unit to include two more K9s and handlers, as well as a designated bomb sniffer dog, but is currently focused on managing the success of the unit.
Though Barger’s job quite literally follows him home, he says his relationship with Jack is one of his job’s most rewarding elements. When Barger isn’t riding with Jack, he likes spending time with his wife and three sons.
Barger still gets emotional when he discusses Jake—his previous K9 whom he worked with from 2001 to 2009.
“It was really tough to make the transition when Jake died,” Barger said. “At the end of his life, we thought we had his cancer beat, but then it returned. My wife was making him chicken and rice every night because he couldn’t eat anything else. It was really difficult, because he really was a family member.”
After losing Jake—and several other family members, to cancer—Barger said he and his wife decided to participate every year in the Central Coast Cancer Challenge.
Barger said people often assume K9s are vicious, but sniffer dogs are not trained to attack at all, and patrol dogs are trained to apprehend suspects only when given very specific commends.
“Most of the time they’re just like family pets,” Barger said. “We let them play around with little kids at fundraisers, and they really enjoy that.”
After speaking with New Times, Barger had to drive off for a court date. Jack eagerly bounded into his “palace,” his tongue wagging. The partners sped off together.
Detective Mike Zigelman, Arroyo Grande PD
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MIKE ZIGELMAN: Detective, Arroyo Grande PD
Mike Zigelman freely admits it: He is a geek.
The man affectionately referred to as “Doc” around the Arroyo Grande Police Department headquarters is, in fact, a licensed doctor of internal medicine. Zigelman says he likes detective work because of its “puzzle-solving” aspect, and sees it as a scientific, mathematic, and intellectual challenge.
“I’ve told the chief, if he wants to give me a pocket protector, it’s got to be made out of Kevlar,” Zigelman joked.
After becoming disillusioned with bureaucratic hassles and the broken insurance system in the world of medicine, Zigelman, 62, took up reserve duty with the AGPD in 2004 after attending a night police academy.
“I always had an interest in law enforcement,” Zigelman said. “It was my second choice if I didn’t get into medical school. The two really have a lot in common—the puzzle loving, the contact with people, and being of service to the community.”
Perhaps because of his “geek” background, Zigelman fell into the niche field of computer forensics—investigating cyber crimes. He said it was slow going when he first started experimenting in 2005, but now Zigelman is a seasoned cyber detective.
Zigelman estimates he has had between 700 and 800 hours of computer forensics training by now, and he is the only operating detective in this particular specialty in all of the South County.
“You’re always trying to improve, trying to do it better, and trying to be more efficient,” Zigelman said. “The most satisfying thing, for me, is putting some of these criminals behind bars.”
Due to his own skill and the undeniable pervasiveness of high-tech crime, Zigelman estimates he has caught “several dozen” cyber criminals for the AGPD in his time there, and many more if you include his work with other local and national law enforcement agencies.
Zigelman said the work of computer forensics breaks down into two categories: investigation and forensics. Investigation is everything that leads up to seizing a person’s computer, and forensics is the laborious process of preserving, duplicating, examining, and processing data. That data is then shaped into evidence that aims to show if and how someone acquired illegal content.
“People sometimes think that computer forensics is like the TV show 24 and we can push a magic ‘find evidence’ button,” Zigelman said. “Sadly, there is no such button. It takes time, care, and a lot of digging to get information out of a computer.”
Zigelman—who works between two-thirds and three-quarters time as a detective—said most of his casework falls into a few categories: permutations of fraud, financial crimes, cyber bullying and extortion, and, the biggest of all, child pornography.
“Over half of the time I spend on forensics is on child porn,” Zigelman said. “It’s really sad that we see such a large amount of it, but bringing these guys to justice for crimes that otherwise would have never been discovered is pretty satisfying.”
Zigelman describes the computer forensics field as a giant game of “leapfrog,” with criminals and law enforcement constantly making technological improvements to blow past their opponent.
“We are in a cyber war, and it’s picking up,” he said. “The guys we’re up against are getting more and more sophisticated in hiding their crimes, so we have to keep catching up.”
As he spoke to New Times, Zigelman was in the process of moving into a new office. The space featured no fewer than five computer monitors, enormous, whirring computing towers, and an impressive collection of smaller gadgets.
Zigelman said he has been an avid computer user since their advent. He constantly spouts out terminology and jargon that belie his 62 years.
“My two kids are much better than I am with the social media stuff, but I think I could teach them a thing or two about computers in general,” Zigelman said with a wink.
Ultimately, Zigelman said he is lucky to work in what he deems a “progressive” police department that prioritizes computer forensics.
“Lots of agencies still think totally in terms of traditional police work,” Zigelman said. “It’s dangerous, because they don’t see the tidal wave of high tech crime coming their way.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.