What do we want? CHP officers who act or react?

Where I Stand
Keri Cameron, retired California Highway Patrol officer
9/7/2011

Maybe it will come as no surprise to some of you that I would write in support of the California Highway Patrol. I am not ignorant of “bad cops,” as I have worked with more than one. I do not believe that we have any “bad cops” working for the CHP in Plumas County.

There are officers who were sent here, through little choice of their own, who may not have the finesse in talking to people that they will one day develop. Some officers may be over-zealous or see the law as more black and white than others.

Officers have every right to learn the job so that if they were ever to transfer to a larger area, they would be safe. And to learn the job, shouldn’t they be able to enforce any laws that our legislators have enacted? Why, because they came to a small town, are they expected to be limited in whom they stop or why they stop them?

Should the California Vehicle Code be highlighted with the laws that can “actually” be enforced in Plumas County? And why would that be? What makes the people here above the law?

To those who don’t know, I recently retired from the CHP after 25 years of service. More than half of that time was spent in busy metropolitan areas. I came here because of my father’s illness.

I had never intended that any of my career would be spent in the small town where I grew up. Once I came home though, there was something rewarding about working in a town where maybe we actually made a difference, where the laws we enforced, though not always popular, benefited people that we cared about.

When I was in the Bay Area, death and injury of officers was not uncommon. One incident, in particular, touched me more deeply than any other. An officer I worked with made a routine stop and was subsequently shot in the head. He would have been shot more than once but the violator’s gun jammed. The man tried to get the officer’s gun away from him but even though he had suffered a near-fatal injury he had the wherewithal to hang onto his gun, saving his life.

This was a very difficult time in our office and made many officers question if they had chosen the right career, whether the good we tried to do on a daily basis was worth it.

I can only tell you how it hit me personally. It occurred to me that the man shot the tan uniform and what that uniform represented. Not the officer himself, because he didn’t know this officer or the man he was or the good he did. He shot any officer who happened to pull him over wearing that uniform. He had a deeply engrained hate for law enforcement.

I called a friend here and I tried to convey that she, too, should be upset, not because a man she had never known had been shot, but that a man she had never known had been shot just doing his job — his job protecting her and untold numbers of people who would also never know him or the important work he was doing for them.

He didn’t do the job because he would get more money if he wrote more tickets, arrested more drunken drivers, handled more accidents, but because he had taken a job to serve — not to always be liked or respected, but to serve. He was shot because he chose to serve.

I speak of that story from my past because something happened Aug. 25 that brought up similar feelings for me. Officer Hymas was on patrol on Highway 70 doing a job that has become a very unpopular job in Plumas County. He was nearly hit head-on by an extremely intoxicated driver.

Thank God he was not looking at his radio, watching for deer or any of the many things that will divert a driver’s attention. The oncoming vehicle suddenly drove into his path and was coming right at him.

Hymas had the time to swerve to the right. The intoxicated driver’s vehicle hit the patrol car on the driver’s side, lessening the impact, but caused the patrol car to spin out of control and collide with a streetlight.

But here is what strikes me: Suppose the intoxicated driver had just driven through Portola and he passed a CHP officer, and in the moment the officer encountered the car it had a taillight or a license plate light that was not working, but that officer opted not to make a traffic stop because vocal people in the community think that the CHP should not be focusing on things so petty.

And now suppose that it was your son or daughter, wife or husband who was hit a short time later, who was maybe not looking ahead at that moment and was hit head-on. Many times you don’t have the opportunity to view a person’s driving for long periods of time; there is only that moment in time to make a judgment call that may save someone’s life.

Shouldn’t the CHP be able to use any lawful means to check the status of any driver if the sole purpose is to keep you and yours safe? Again, this is not for increased pay, more days off, popularity, but simply for the safety of the people in the community.

I think many of you owe a debt of gratitude to Hymas and the other officers who put their lives on the line for you every day. Law enforcement is a tough job when everything is going right, but imagine how much more difficult it becomes in an environment where people are criticizing you and your character. And imagine one more thing: How would you feel if Hymas had been killed, his wife widowed and his four small children left without their dad, who is their hero? Maybe he should be yours!

Years ago I worked with an officer who made it her policy to never stop mechanical violations after dark. Her reasoning was that she was not going to risk her life for a minor violation. Consequently, she was not taking the number of intoxicated drivers off the road that the rest of the officers were.

Her role, as she saw it, was reactive: If the call came in, she would respond to it. She arrested intoxicated drivers — but it was after they’d crashed. Is that what the people here want? Officers who languish waiting for the next call, instead of officers who are proactive, who will look for the intoxicated or otherwise unsafe drivers before they hurt themselves or someone else?

If that is the result of this situation it will be the citizens of this county, and those who travel through it, who will lose in the end.

 


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