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CHP leaders talk about improving public relations

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer
8/24/2011

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will be featured Aug. 31.

The California Highway Patrol is committed to improving its relationship with Plumas County drivers.

CHP’s Quincy Area Commander Bruce Carpenter, with support and direction from his supervisors all the way up the chain to Sacramento, has guaranteed that people are going to notice a difference.

For years the CHP’s reputation for being overly aggressive in the county has strained its relationship with the community.

That strain went public during a July 15 meeting, when county officials and business leaders blasted Carpenter and the CHP.

Since that meeting, which was conducted by State Assemblyman Dan Logue, Carpenter has been on a public-relations campaign. He has met individually with citizens to address their complaints. He said he has instructed his officers on how he wants things done.

Carpenter has held two more meetings. On Aug. 11 he met with a dozen Northern California CHP commanders along with Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood and District Attorney David Hollister.

On Friday, Aug. 19, he met again with Logue and many of the participants from the July 15 meeting, which included Plumas County Supervisors Lori Simpson and Jon Kennedy.

Carpenter added he is planning to hold a public townhall meeting in the near future.

The Aug. 19 meeting included the CHP’s Northern Division Chief Stephen Bell and Assistant Chief Todd Chadd. At the meeting, Carpenter was handed yet another complaint from an upset citizen.

Quincy resident Dan Hanna read a letter (a copy was also delivered to Feather Publishing) documenting an Aug. 15 incident involving CHP officers and his son Josh.

Hanna claimed his son — a Quincy High School senior — was stopped without probable cause and aggressively questioned.

Hanna said the officers told his son: “You look high. Have you been smoking anything today? You look drunk tonight.”

Hanna said the officers didn’t cite his son.

The incident was among many topics addressed during the Aug. 19 meeting held at the sheriff’s office. After that meeting, Carpenter, Bell, Chadd and Logue agreed to meet with Feather Publishing.

Following are excepts from that meeting:

Logue: Our meeting today was very, very good. There was a lot of discussion about the recent incident with Mr. Hanna. And that was very well vetted.

Mr. Hanna was there. He read the letter. He choked up.

(Chief) Stephen (Bell) and I have agreed to, with Bruce’s direction, have a townhall meeting here in the next month or two.

I even warned Steve that it may get hot. But he said, “Bring it on, because I want the people to know that we are here and that we are sincere and want to fix this.”

Bell: I agree with Assemblyman Logue. I think the meeting was very productive.

During the meeting we talked about “How are we going to re-polish our image — this tainted image that we have?” And we are going to do it honestly. We are going to own it.

Bruce wrote a letter to the paper that says “this is our issue.” And taking responsibility is the first big step. This is our issue. We are committed. We are going to resolve it.

We are not talking about things that happened one or two days ago, or even a month. We are talking about long-festering issues.

And people (in Plumas County) are really upset about that. Because, for whatever reason, they haven’t been addressed or resolved.

Well, Bruce is here. Bruce is going to correct this. He has already put himself out there.

I say in a year you are going to see a difference. It may be 30 percent better, it may be 40 percent better. I’m a numbers guy. And I’m hoping to push that a lot higher.

If Bruce is successful in getting 100 percent satisfaction, … well, he probably should run for president.

Ultimately our goal at the end of the day is for the citizens of Plumas County to say: This is my Highway Patrol. This is our Highway Patrol.

Carpenter: I’ve had a lot of contact from members of the community. I’m getting specifics. First-hand information. And we are looking into every single one.

And if we are in the wrong, we are going to own that.

I’ve really rallied my management team — my sergeants and I — to really focus on the message. How we expect things to be done. And we are hammering that home.

It’s an ongoing training issue in some places. Could it be a discipline issue in some cases? Yes. It could.

But we are hoping to get everybody on the same page. I think we are getting there.

 

The Hanna incident

Carpenter: All I can say at this point is there is an active investigation related to that contact. I can’t get into a lot of specifics because of the personnel issue side of things.

Chief Bell: We are going to take that (Hanna) letter, and we are going to display it at the (Quincy CHP) office. Right or wrong, (the officers) are going to know this is the perception of the highway patrol.

Is this the professional organization we want to be? You are going to find out that a lot of (our officers) will say, “That’s not us.”

Bruce just said it: It’s an active investigation and we can’t go into a lot of details. There are laws that preclude us from doing that. And we are not going to violate any laws to do that. That would be wrong of us as well.

Feather Publishing: Have you met any resistance from your officers about the changes you want to make?

Carpenter: In the general sense of the word, they are receptive. The vast majority of the squad is on board.

There was a lot of talk in the meeting about one bad apple can spoil everything. And in a small squad like mine, it only takes a couple people to really throw a wrench into things, if you will, and cause a lot of unhappiness in the community.

Logue: This has gone on for a while. Before (Carpenter) has been here.

And the reason this is relevant is this has almost become a culture here. A standard.

And I think that’s why it is going to be difficult for (Carpenter) to fix it. I believe you will fix it. There’s no doubt in my mind.

But changing behavior is one thing. Changing a culture is a different thing.

I’ve been hearing about this for three or four years. This has been kind of the way to do business (in Plumas County).

So a lot of these officers, I think, the ones who are doing this have come up here and said, “Well, this is how we do business here.” And that has to be addressed overall. And I think (Chief Bell’s) decision to show that letter will probably do more to help change that culture than I can imagine. That’s a brilliant idea.

Carpenter: It’s going to be read to our officers.

Bell: You change culture by playing follow the leader. And I can tell you now that CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow is completely supportive of everything we are doing.

Assemblyman Logue’s office has been in contact with the commissioner and our special rep, and we keep them updated and briefed. And they know exactly what we are doing.

Logue: The commissioner called me personally. He said, “This will get fixed. I guarantee you.”

And (Farrow) has a tremendous reputation, as do the officers at this table. And he feels as we feel that it hurts all of us. The commissioner is very committed to this. I was surprised at how committed he really was.

Feather Publishing: Is this a problem that is unique to Quincy and Plumas County?

Bell: Is this going on statewide? Absolutely not. Is it going on in another command? I don’t know.

I have been to many townhall meetings when people are standing up and screaming in my face. And you know what? They have a right to do that. And I have an absolute responsibility to listen to them.

I don’t get upset. And Bruce does not get upset with the personal things. We hear the issues. And then we resolve the issues. And that is exactly what we are going to do here.

 

CHP training

Bell: When someone comes out of the academy, they are all trained the same way. But when they come to Quincy, they get their field training from Quincy officers.

So they know, or should know, the local flavor and the local concerns.

Feather Publishing: So if new officers are trained by aggressive officers here, it continues that aggressive culture?

Bell: If they are being trained by officers who have that aggressiveness, absolutely.

But there is a check and a balance with this. We have our supervision. We have our management. We have hopefully our citizens and constituents to say, “Hey, you know what? This is not right.”

Carpenter: It’s my responsibility to deliver to my troops my vision for the area, based on our demographics here.

Feather Publishing: Let’s say you have identified a bad seed. What do you do?

Carpenter: It’s a process. It would start as a training issue. We would re-train them to where we want them to be.

And if that doesn’t work, then discipline is always an option. And discipline goes to the point where they may no longer be here anymore.

But it’s a long process. There’s a lot involved in that. The officers have rights and we have to follow the rules when we go through these processes.

Feather Publishing: If an officer is pulling people over for a dim license plate bulb, he’s doing his job. You can’t discipline him for that, can you?

Carpenter: Well, you can. Because if he’s using that tactic without any intention of acting on that violation, then that’s not how we operate.

And that’s where we can focus our training efforts and our discipline if it gets to that point.

Logue: The feeling in this community is very simple: It’s the hunters versus the hunted. The people, by and large, feel like they are being hunted.

They have called me and said they don’t see it as law enforcement officers but revenue collectors.

And when you see as many DUIs in Plumas County as you have in Nevada County (based on population), that means you are four times more likely to get a DUI here.

People start saying, “Maybe this is a place I don’t want to visit.” And I’m very concerned about that. So we are going to try to fix that.

Bell: CHP officers are not revenue agents. I want to clear up that perception. We don’t get any of the money that our citations generate. They don’t come back to the highway patrol.

We don’t have quota systems. We don’t have goals. We don’t have any of that.

It’s all based on traffic safety. Our goal is to prevent accidents. And fewer people are getting injured.


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