"Attention, San Diego units. 11-Boy requesting backup — he's on the shoulder of 805 southbound just north of Balboa Avenue, dealing with an irate citizen." That's us, I thought. "Is there a unit in the area?" A chill breeze made its way to my neck through the open door. The dark car glowed bright intermittently, as though an erratic searchlight was seeking me in the shadows. Rush hour had come and gone, but cars continued zipping past at 80 miles per hour, their headlights depriving me of stars. I was sitting in the passenger's seat of a California Highway Patrol car; the driver's-side door was wide open, and I worried it would get torn off by one of the blurry objects flying by. I twisted around to see what was happening and tried to focus on the two small silhouettes several yards away. The larger of the two, a menacing figure, drew closer to the man in the uniform. I had been interviewing Officer John Nevarez on the shoulder of the freeway when the Suburban pulled up behind us. I didn't think much of it, but when a beefy man stepped out of the car, Nevarez visibly stiffened beside me and said, more to himself than me, "This isn't good."
Introduction to Cop Land
Whenever I'd imagined myself in police cars, I was always in the back. Cops were the bad guys, just the "Man" out to get you. But that was before my sister Jenny began dating Brad a couple of years ago. When I found out he was a "CHiP," the first thing I thought was "I guess Jen's not coming to any more of my parties." But Jen is a great judge of character, and I knew there was no way she'd spend that much time with an asshole. I reluctantly forced myself to reassess my stance and concede that he was not only a standup guy with a wicked sense of humor, but also worthy of my sister's affections.
When Brad talked about his work, he was full of humanity and his stories often made us laugh. During meals, Brad would regale us with examples of how stupid people can be while drunk (aside from the obvious: the fact that they choose to drive in the first place). He tended to avoid discussing accidents, glazing over the subject with scathing remarks about the careless drivers who tend to cause them. When he did speak of accidents, he described them evenly and with journalistic precision.
I began to wonder about other CHP officers: was Brad an exception, or was it really possible that there were others like him? I told Brad that I was interested in meeting more of San Diego's CHiPs on the job. He thought it was a great idea and said he'd see what he could do to help me get in the door.
Dark and Early
Through the San Diego Public Affairs department, I arranged to report at 6:00 a.m. on a Friday for A-watch, the morning shift, switch over to B-watch in the middle of the day, and ride right on through to the overlapping graveyard shift -- C-watch. When Jen told Brad of my plan to ride along for 15 or 16 hours straight, he said, "Man, she's hard-core." But sitting in a car all day didn't seem like a big deal to me.
I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. but I didn't need it. I woke early, brimming with excitement, and hopped into the shower. Washing suds out of my hair, I began to conjure dramatic scenarios of hot pursuit. Then I imagined myself caught up in the biggest car chase of the year, on the tail of the next Son of Sam, and having to pee. What to do? I'd hate to interrupt an officer's important work for a pee break. I determined to be judicious about my intake of liquids. At 5:30 (with a sufficiently empty bladder), I stopped at the gas station in Kensington to purchase gas, diet Vanilla Coke, and a Zone bar.
As I entered the parking lot of San Diego's CHP headquarters, the sky still dark, my pulse quickened at the sight of all those patrol cars -- the Pavlovian response of one who has spent her share of time breakin' the law. Freshly lipsticked, I stood outside peering through the locked glass door at the front of the building until a man in civilian clothes spotted me and cracked it open. I'd clearly interrupted a lively conversation he was having inside with a woman behind the counter. He wore a cautious smile and asked, "Can I help you?" I explained that I was there to tag along in a patrol car for the day, and though he said he didn't know anything about my appointment, he invited me inside while he asked around.
I waited patiently in the hallway, listening to the rhythmic clink-clinking of cop paraphernalia as officers in uniform strolled by. Attached to their belts were batons, pepper spray, handcuffs, cell phones, and keys, each item tucked into its own black holster or pouch. I could clearly see their guns and tried not to imagine them being used. Many of the officers, including the women, seemed to be barrel-chested, but I soon realized that under their tan shirts they were wearing bulletproof vests.
I was wondering how they could walk with all that crap weighing them down when a short, blonde officer approached me and said, "Hi, I'm Jenny Panfil. You're my ride-along this morning." She spun around and marched off ahead of me. I followed her out the back door, where patrol cars waited in the dark like shiny black-and-white horses, saddled and ready to run. It took us a moment to find our vehicle, which apparently wasn't parked in its usual spot, but once we did, Jenny suggested we first get some coffee. My kind of cop.
Jenny is attractive and fit, a compact woman who has worked for the CHP for ten years. On the way to 7-Eleven, I learned that her husband, Scott Panfil, is a CHP motorcycle officer. They're on different shifts, which means that between work and their two small children they hardly get to see each other. Jenny originally planned to become a physical therapist, but shortly after she began a master's program she started to doubt her choice of profession. "I've always been a free-spirited person, and that just really wasn't appealing to me at all," she said. "I was not looking forward to my career." She wanted to become a cop because she "liked the idea of helping people."
Sweeping the Beat
At 7-Eleven we ran into another officer who told Jenny he was covering the Coronado Bridge, saying something about a "jumper." The bridge is infamous for being the site of numerous successful suicide attempts. As we pulled away, Jenny explained that many officers have had the haunting experience of trying to talk someone down and failing. Then she said, and not for the first time that morning, "Death is something you're never prepared to deal with."
We set off to "sweep the beat," which to you and me means "look for stranded cars." Officers select beats by seniority at their morning briefing, and that day Jenny had chosen Beat 1, which stretches from the border to downtown along Interstate 5. We cruised the freeway without incident until the staticky voice of the dispatcher filled the car: someone had called in to report a dead animal in the roadway. "Why would they tell you that?" I asked. Jenny explained that CHP officers are responsible for dragging roadkill off of the freeway, where Animal Services can pick it up later.
It is obviously not her favorite thing to do -- "I pretty much gag the entire time" -- but Jenny stressed that the CHP's primary obligation is keeping the roadways clear and safe. The caller had told the dispatcher that the dead animal was "near a lottery sign," but after a diligent search, Jenny called in a UTL (unable to locate) and we continued our sweep.
We drove south as the sun peeked up over the cement horizon. Traffic was light for us, but the northbound side was bumper to bumper. We soon spotted a car stopped on the shoulder next to the center divide. Jenny stopped on our side of the divide and told the driver the FSP would come give him a tow. She called it in, he smiled gratefully, thanked us, and we moved on. I looked at Jenny and raised an eyebrow: "FSP?"
Freeway Service Patrol, she explained, is free in California; giving the CHP sweepers a hand, tow-truck drivers cruise the freeway at rush hour in search of broken-down cars. The FSP can help motorists change tires or, if necessary, tow their cars to designated areas called "drop spots" located safely off the road. Some drivers sit in their car for hours after breaking down, waiting for help to come, oblivious to the fact that a call box may be just feet away.
I was mulling over the surprising utility of our tax dollars when Jenny suddenly floored it. A motorcycle was ahead of us, moving very, very fast. Jenny accelerated until we were behind the bike, explaining that she was using "bumper pace" instead of radar. "Right here, we're not losing or gaining any distance, and my speedometer is staying at about 88 or 90 miles per hour." The motorcycle driver clearly had no idea we were behind him. "See that?" Jenny asked. "If I can't see his rearview mirrors, he can't see me. With that girl on the back, at this speed, all she has to do is lean one way or the other. That's how they lose their balance."
She reached over and pressed a blue button located at the top right of two rows of colorful squares set in a black box on the dashboard where the car stereo usually is. Our front lights came on, but the biker did not slow down -- Jenny was right, this guy couldn't see us at all. Then she pressed a red button. The sharp, high-pitched "WOO, WOO!" of the siren finally hipped the driver to the situation, and he pulled off onto the shoulder.
I waited in the patrol car while Jenny spoke to the bikers. The car smelled of leather and vinyl, clean but for the faint odor of exhaust wafting through my window. If it weren't for the metal cage in back and all the tech-geek equipment up front, I'd have thought the Crown Vic was a rental car, devoid as it was of personal effects. The traffic stop seemed to take forever, and I found the temptation to push all those seductive buttons excruciating. Red, blue, yellow, green! I somehow managed to keep my fingers to myself until Jenny got back in the car and said she needed to find a restroom. Officers need to pee too! I was ecstatic, especially since she seemed to know all of the cleanest bathrooms in town. We made a pit stop and resumed our patrol.
Jenny wrote three speeding tickets that morning, and each person had the same excuse: "I'm late for work."
"They're so focused on being late for work," she said, "they're already distracted, then add driving too fast and you have a dangerous condition. They're just not paying attention."
I brought up the popular belief that cops have quotas to fill, but Jenny assured me they do not. If officers are on the road driving their beat, chances are they will catch someone doing something wrong. "It's like dealing with a kid -- how long do you let them get away with something before you follow through?" She told me about one particularly difficult woman who refused to sign her ticket, arguing with three officers who had to threaten her with jail before she finally gave in.
Jenny does not enjoy writing tickets. She understands that people make mistakes, that we're all human, but it's her job to ensure that the laws of the road are obeyed. "This is not a job where you make friends," she said with resignation. "We rarely get thanked for what we do."
Danger on the Highway
Waiting for a tow truck to collect an unregistered car abandoned just north of the border, we received a call from the dispatcher telling us we were needed to help clear an accident on the 805. The dispatcher then reported a second collision at the same location -- a patrol car had been hit -- and we hurried to the scene once the tow truck had finally arrived.
"The dispatcher is your lifeline," Jenny said on the way. "If you're out on something like a traffic stop and it goes bad, your dispatcher is the only person who can get someone to you." I'd discover that for myself a few hours later.
The entire city of San Diego is served by only one dispatcher at any given time. One person handles all calls to 911 made from a cell phone (it is assumed that mobile callers are on the road -- 911 calls made from landlines are tracked and routed to the local police department), and that same person is responsible for managing all the communication among the officers on patrol. "One? Only one?" I kept asking in disbelief. Apparently they're hiring. "We need more bodies," she said. "We can use all the help we can get."
We pulled over north of the E Street exit on the 805 South. Jenny said I could step outside, but she warned me to stand as far off the shoulder as possible. Two women stood chatting on the dirt next to a light pole. On the shoulder were two slightly dented cars, innocuous-looking white and blue sedans that I assumed belonged to the ladies. A white sports car was in front of the first two (I could just make out the dark hair of a man sitting in the driver's seat), and last in line was a patrol car whose left side was so bashed in that it clearly wouldn't be going anywhere for a while.
Apparently there had been a minor collision involving the two women, and when the officer arrived he parked behind them. He was leaning on the hood of his car filling out a TCR (traffic collision report) when he heard a skid and then felt the impact in his hands as another vehicle slammed into his patrol car. The officer could have been seriously injured or killed. Earlier Jenny had confessed to me that "I am more afraid of getting run over or hit by a car than I am of getting in a physical altercation or getting shot at."
Fortunately no one was badly injured, but I asked Jenny how she handles the gore when a really bad accident occurs. She never gets queasy at the scene, she said: "You have a job to do, and you have to get that done." Though bloodshed seems "surreal," officers are much too busy trying to clear the road and transport the injured to a hospital to ponder the cruel whims of fate.
"My adrenaline keeps me going. When I first arrive at an accident, my actions are automatic." But afterward, when the work is done, she starts to wonder: who is the mother who just lost a child? Who is the child who just lost a mother or father? "The worst part is when I put myself in the situation and I think, what if that was someone I loved? What if my children lost me?"
Sometimes the tragedies do touch painfully close to home. We had pulled over to talk, and turning toward me Jenny sniffled as she wedged a finger beneath her sunglasses to wipe away a hidden tear. Two years ago, she had just finished making lunch plans with her husband when she heard the dispatcher say there was a motorcycle down on the 163. She initially assumed it was a civilian. Scott was on a motorcycle, but she didn't think he could have reached the location the dispatcher had mentioned, given where he had been when they spoke. When the dispatcher announced it was a CHP officer that was down, Jenny raced to the scene. Frantic, she racked her brain wondering who it could be as the dispatcher ran through a roll call of all the officers on duty.
"I remember pulling up on the southbound side -- the accident was on the northbound -- and stopping in the center divide. I couldn't get over the wall, couldn't bring myself to do it." Jenny no longer bothered to wipe away her tears now. "Scott walked over to me and I asked who it was. When he told me it was Dean, the first thing I thought of was his family, his kids, who's going to tell his wife?" Officer Dean Beattie had been on the verge of retiring. "He talked about his family constantly, and then just like that -- gone.... He was so close to spending the rest of his life not worrying."
At the funeral, "sturdy and strong" men who rarely show emotion, men Jenny spent most of her time with, cried when the bagpipes played. "Death is something you're never prepared to deal with," she said again. Jenny pulled a uniformed sleeve across her cheek. "The reality of life and how fast it can come and go really hits you when you realize that you're not invincible."
By one in the afternoon, when we headed back to the ranch, this diva was withering away from hunger. At headquarters Jenny introduced me to Officer John Nevarez, who I'd be riding with that afternoon. While John was busy finishing a memo, I gulped down a cold Lipton Brisk, enjoying the lighthearted banter that officers indulge in as they go about their business. Schedules were posted on a wall next to a tall stack of internal mailboxes. I wrote an obscenity-filled note on my flower-stamped stationery and dropped it in Brad's box.
John stood up when he was ready to go. He had brought his lunch (why didn't I think of that?), but he offered to save his sandwich and dine with me instead, so we headed for Panda Express. An hour later, with food and caffeine working their magic on my weary body, I was ready to hit the road again. We climbed into the patrol car and were immediately summoned to an accident on the ramp leading to Interstate 8 from 15 South. That wasn't on our beat -- at the afternoon briefing John had chosen Beat 11, covering the 805 freeway from the 94 to the 163 -- but when there's an accident, officers from all beats come to help.
It was after 2:00 p.m. and southbound traffic was crawling. Stuck heading north on the 15, we made an unorthodox U-turn across the center divide, a narrow dirt strip between two cement curbs. As we headed back southbound, I nervously waited to get pulled over for our stunt before I remembered where I was. We weaved insouciantly through the traffic, John tapping the siren on and off while I smiled at all the drivers who stopped to let us by. (I'm gonna need one of those noisemakers for the Barbmobile. They're so much more effective than my horn!)
At the scene of the accident, officers had already closed off the ramp and were directing traffic down the 15. I stepped out of the car to get a better look at a crushed truck whose bed was folded like an accordion. The afternoon heat, mixed with the exhaust from the idling engines of patrol cars, was oppressive. Caltrans workers were cleaning up the rubble, and officers were directing the congested traffic to a detour, jotting down information and speaking with each other. "Do you have a camera?" John asked me. He thought the truck would make for an interesting picture. Unfortunately the only camera I had on me was the one on my Treo 600 -- not the best quality. Both drivers involved in the collision were being taken away in ambulances when we arrived, and I was relieved to hear they sustained only minor injuries. I got back in the cool car, wondering how the officers could stand there fully dressed and wearing bulletproof vests in that thick blanket of hot, turgid air. John finished assisting the other units and returned to the driver's seat.
Throughout that afternoon I heard the dispatcher say "boy" several times. Shifts overlap, so when two officers are on the same beat, a simple code helps clarify things. Officers on A-watch are referred to as "Adam," on B-watch they're "Boy," and on C-watch, "Charles." A motorcycle officer is "Mary" in the morning and "Nora" in the evening. There are no motorcycle officers on the graveyard shift because officers have to ride in pairs in the wee hours.
We were called to another accident not a mile north of us. It was a fender bender involving two large vehicles, one with a trailer. John hopped out of the car while I stared at the dry, flame-ready brush reaching up to the window. I braced myself for a blast of superheated air and stepped out of the car to watch John and another officer question the drivers. Traffic was still backed up from the first wreck. Suddenly tired, I leaned against the patrol car, my arms clasped behind my back, until I noticed that many of the people I watched slowly driving by seemed in turn to be watching me. It occurred to me that it might appear as though I were handcuffed, and with reddening cheeks, I got back into the air-conditioned car to consult the Scrabble game I had going with my Treo.
John returned to the car and said that one of the drivers had been severely embellishing when giving his account of the incident. I asked him how he could tell, and John told me he couldn't really explain it, he just knew. After so many years on the force, officers develop a sixth sense about things.
Heading north to yet another accident (it seems that Friday afternoons are treacherous!), John noticed an SUV taking pains to stay behind us. He pulled off to the shoulder, and when the SUV passed us, John spotted the 2003 registration tag -- long expired -- and stopped the car at the top of the next off-ramp. He opened the door and removed his shades. "I always try to take off my glasses when I'm going to talk to someone," he said, "so as not to seem impersonal." As he walked away, I thought of how I've been less than diligent about the upkeep of the Barbmobile's paperwork. There was a time I earned a ticket every few days for my expired tags. By the time I had taken care of my shit, I owed over $1000 -- procrastination is pricey. I sat there, brimming with sympathetic dread, watching John talk to the poor sap.
John sauntered back to the patrol car. While the man in front of us waited, John showed me how to use the CHP computer to look up the perpetrator's DMV record. According to the screen that sat between us, this guy hadn't registered his car in years. I continued to search the system for information while John stepped out again to bring the guy up to speed (no pun intended). When he returned a second time to write the ticket, John explained that he could have had the car towed. The man was cooperative, though, so John spared him.
"I think of these people as clients," he said. "A sergeant once told me that on average a person has a total of only ten minutes' contact with law enforcement in their lifetime. I try to make those minutes the best experience possible. I give them the respect I would wish to have if I were in their place."
John invited me to come up and watch the next time he had to issue a ticket or question someone. I was eager to, but I said I'd hang back until he could gauge the situation. If I was getting a ticket, I couldn't bear the added humiliation of being studied by some random observer. But I admit that I found the idea of being a not-so-small fly on the shoulder of a CHiP in the midst of a lecture about the dangers of aggressive driving to be quite appealing. Over the officer's shoulder, I imagined, I would punctuate each sage sentence with "Yeah!" or "That's right, buddy, you heard the man!"
Lying to the Man
I once worked for a personal injury law firm where I learned up close how very common it is for people to lie to authority figures. I encountered one client who repeatedly contradicted himself, and I found it impossible to be polite to him. When it comes to saving our asses or getting more money, some of us are shameless. Many accidents end up in court, where both judges and cops stumble over the holes in people's stories all the time. John was about to fall right into a doozy of a ditch.
Two cars had crashed on the 805. We pulled up next to one of the cars, which had come to a stop in the center lane on the northbound side, and John got out to talk to the driver, Ms. L. When John returned, he started the car and we began to weave woozily back and forth across the lanes. We were doing a "traffic break," and with the help of a motorcycle officer it didn't take long for drivers on the freeway to get the idea and slow down. I relished the wandlike magic of the lights on our roof -- their unmatched ability to make people stop and go with a blink of red and blue. When we'd finished with the traffic break, Ms. L hopped in her van and scooted over to the shoulder next to Ms. S, just as John had instructed her.
Ms. L had told John that a third woman, who had since fled, had cut in front of her, causing her to swerve, and then "Ms. S hit me." John told Ms. L that it seemed odd that Ms. S could have "hit" her car, when Ms. L said she was the one who swerved in front of Ms. S. A mystery indeed.
We pulled up behind them, and the two officers interviewed the women while I played with the computer and lightly fondled the colorful buttons. When John returned, he told me that Ms. L had changed her story since he'd last spoken to her. Now she maintained that she never swerved at all, and she was demanding a traffic report. The damage to the vehicles supported her first story, as did Ms. S's account of the incident. It amazed me that the woman so clearly at fault, the one who had offered contradictory accounts, was the one especially adamant about having a report written.
Brad had once told me that getting used to people lying was one of the most difficult things about the job. "Nice soccer moms, brownie-baking AYSO moms will look me right in the eye and bald-faced lie. When it comes to self-preservation, some people will lie through their teeth." He eventually learned not to take the lies personally -- people are just trying to stay out of trouble -- and he came to appreciate the comic possibilities in such all-too-human foibles. Brad described the rhetorical acrobatics some lone riders perform trying to explain what they were doing in the carpool lane. "One person said with a straight face that he thought his dog counted because it was over 100 pounds." Another man repeatedly insisted that his wife was in the back of the camper until he finally admitted that he was hoping he could bullshit his way out of a ticket. Like many officers, Brad understands what causes people to lie so badly, but he appreciates honesty above all else. "It's unsettling to me how many people preach integrity and have none."
Little Guy in a Big Truck
Once the pertinent information was recorded -- "If she wants a report, I'll give her one," John said, "though it won't be what she's hoping for" -- we got on the freeway in time to see, speeding by, a truck whose body was lifted so high above its wheels you'd need a grappling hook to get into the driver's seat. Other drivers on the road looked at John and pointed their fingers as it flew past -- concerned citizens, I'm sure. That truck had to be going over 90. We caught up to him with lights flashing (John let me push the button -- this must have been my karmic reward for being so patient in Jenny Panfil's patrol car earlier that day), and the driver stopped on the shoulder before the Mission Valley exit.
Confession: I hate high-riding trucks. They're in the way, they obstruct my vision, they look ugly, and there's no good reason for them to be that high. And why is it that the shorter the man the higher the truck? I was glad that this smarmy little Napoleon got pulled over. Now, I can understand why if you are a 5´2´´ man you might want to experience the pleasure of a higher vantage point, but climbing ten feet into a big truck does not make you taller, it does not mean you've got a big dick, and it does not make you more attractive than you would be if you simply accepted your height, as I've accepted my weight, as God's gift to personality enhancement.
John asked Napoleon, who was in his mid-twenties, for photo identification. Napoleon said he didn't have any on him. John told him that without picture ID, he'd have to take him in to find out who he was. The kid suddenly "found" his passport. I ran the plates through the computer and discovered several priors: accidents he'd caused (in the same truck, naturally), failures to appear, speeding tickets, and more. No wonder he couldn't find his license, he was probably afraid we'd run it, unaware that license plates provide enough information to go on. John could have taken him to jail, but he chose to write Napoleon a ticket after giving him a stern lecture.
All those hours on the road were taking a toll on me, and I was fading fast. I let John know, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn't get caffeine soon, I was going to pass out on the shotgun I had been mistaking for an armrest between us. All of those accidents meant hours of paperwork for John; he was happy to get the basics down on his laptop while I refreshed myself. I offered to type up his reports but he politely refused. When I told him I could type more than 90 words per minute, he rethought his position and politely accepted.
Having worked as a paralegal, I was already familiar with traffic collision reports, and with my data-entry experience I quickly figured out the software. We blazed through the reports -- every officer should have a secretary to take care of his administrative duties. "If you don't see us on the roads," John said, "it's because we're in the office writing reports."
I have to admit I got off on sharing a coffee break with the man in uniform -- I felt as though I had breached some sort of social barrier by making light with the arm of the law. Not long after we'd finished the skeleton reports, we were called to another accident. I licked the straw clean of the last of my Java Chip Frappuccino, and off we went.
I was on my fourth or fifth caffeine-powered wind when we pulled up to the scene of the accident, which had already nearly been cleared. The sun was no longer visible, but the sky was still light. I hopped out of the car and walked toward three young blondes (two girls and a guy) milling about while a tow truck hoisted one of the two sedans at the scene. I approached a tall brunette who was standing apart from the rest, and I asked if she was okay. It turned out she hadn't been in the accident but had arrived in a patrol car.
Her name was Mindy Wilson, a dispatcher on a routine ride-along. It's common for new dispatchers to accompany officers on the beat in order to familiarize themselves with the areas they'll be dispatching for. We spoke for a while, but the Frappuccino really wouldn't let go -- I was talking a mile a minute and rubbing my head like an itchy crack whore, but I managed to get in a few practical questions, like: why did she choose this profession? I discovered for the umpteenth time that it's a very small world and an even smaller city. Months ago, Brad was on KUSI with Mike Turko of the "Turko Files." Mindy watched the brief ride-along and thought that working for the CHP might be fulfilling.
I struggled to stay with her, distracted as I was by the buzzing of my overworked brain, but I gathered that soon she'd be heading to Sacramento for a four-week training session. My caffeine kick felt much too similar to being high on coca, which was unsettling since I was surrounded by the fuzz. I felt defensive and continually fought the urge to explain that I had just downed a HUGE coffee.
Mindy didn't seem to notice; we chatted until two of the blondes took off in the tow truck, their car hitched behind them. The third blonde drove her white sedan away in one piece while Mindy and I bid each other adieu and reported back to our respective patrol cars to be taken on different adventures.
A Promise Lost
We spotted two speeding cars, and John let me choose which one to pull over ("you can't get 'em all"). The caffeine had lost its edge after about an hour, and I was a little less jumpy now. I had asked John what his most tragic experience had been as a CHP. He was quick to answer, and matter-of-fact about it. He had been working a graveyard shift with another officer elsewhere in California when they spotted a white Honda parked on the shoulder of the highway with its hazard lights blinking. They were about to pull over when a call came through telling them to report to the scene of an accident. It turned out to be a minor fender bender, and when the officers had almost cleared it they got a call to check out another "major" accident -- the dispatcher reported cars blocking the roadway in the same area they had seen the Honda. They sped back.
The Honda had been crushed by an El Camino traveling 75 miles per hour. The driver of the El Camino was dead. John walked up to what was left of the Honda and peeked inside. A woman in the driver's seat was pinned between the back end of the car and the steering wheel, but she was still alive. John told her the fire department was on its way and that everything was going to be fine. A man in the passenger's seat was harmed the least, as the rear left of the car had taken the brunt of the impact. Another woman was "flopping around" in the back seat. I assumed he meant she was dying, but I didn't ask.
The driver kept repeating, "I'm not going to make it," and each time she said this, John would counter, "Don't worry. You'll make it, I promise.
"Just before the ambulance got there," John continued, "the woman was in my arms, and she took her last breath and slumped over the wheel." I saw in John's face the regret and guilt he shouldered. "The totality of it really bothered me," he said. "If we had known, I mean... I couldn't keep my promise."
John relayed more tragedies, more people dying in his arms, gruesome stories all too common to the job. "Stuff that doesn't need to happen, caused by the stupidity of people who don't think ahead," he said, describing a man with a .35 alcohol level who had killed a family of four. John believes everything happens for a reason. In the face of so much sudden death, such conviction must be the only way to stave off despair.
Haunted by the images he described, I wanted to hear something positive. "What makes you feel good about being a California Highway Patrol officer?" This seemed to engage him. John pulled onto the shoulder in order to give me his full attention, and he launched into a story. Then he suddenly stopped.
"Someone just pulled up behind us." A look of considerable agitation crossed his face. "This isn't good."
John jumped out of the car in a hurry, forgetting to close his door. I turned around in my seat. A giant of a man was out in front of a black Suburban, pointing and screaming at John as he approached. John stayed perfectly calm as he led the man toward the back of the passenger's side. The man was visibly unhinged, his arms windmilling, his lips fluttering angrily, his head bobbing in violent emphasis.
I eyed the radio. Jenny Panfil had explained earlier that day how to use it to contact the dispatcher. "If anything were to happen, say if I was suddenly attacked while apprehending someone, you press this button and tell them what's going on. Help will come." What are the chances, I'd wondered at the time. Now I considered my options.
Looking back again, I spotted a woman in the passenger's seat of the Suburban. At first I thought she was staring at me, but when I focused I could see that she was looking around blankly, occasionally turning to watch her companion scream at John. I lowered my head closer to the police radio, listening intently for John's voice. I had forgotten that an officer's voice can't be heard in his own patrol car -- something about proximity to his antenna. When I had finally decided what I'd say to the dispatcher, I heard the gritty echo of the dispatcher's voice: "11-Boy requesting backup -- he's on the shoulder of 805 southbound just north of Balboa Avenue, dealing with an irate citizen." John had already taken care of it.
It was dark now. Occasionally the light of passing cars illuminated the interior of the patrol car. The message breaking through the radio static made me nervous for the first time that day, and I wondered if I could figure out how to use the shotgun. Irate Citizen was not becoming less of one -- his energy seemed limitless. PCP, I thought. That can make a man stupid enough to pull up behind a parked patrol car to yell and scream at an unsuspecting officer.
I had learned from Brad that if you're driving on the road and you see a police car, never pull up behind it, whether or not you think you have a legitimate question or are in need of help. He told me about a time he'd had to make a "high-risk stop," meaning he'd pulled someone over who was "more than likely in a stolen car, with a high likelihood of having a weapon." In such encounters, officers keep a gun at their side. While Brad stood there, gun in hand, a second car pulled up behind him. A young woman got out and started walking toward him. He doesn't remember exactly what she wanted, but it was something inconsequential, like asking for directions or hoping he'd sign off on a fix-it ticket. If the subject Brad was about to apprehend had had a weapon, he could have seized that moment of distraction to shoot both Brad and the woman.
Minutes after John's call for help -- it seemed like an eternity -- I saw blue and red lights whirling behind the Suburban -- backup! I watched as four uniformed men joined John to quickly surround Irate Citizen. The woman who had been in the passenger's seat got out of the car and approached the circle of officers as the man in the middle shouted at all of them; she piped in when she could, and the circle widened to include her.
John walked back to the patrol car, leaned in the window, and told me it was safe to get out now if I wanted to. "What the hell is going on back there?" I asked. But he was already heading back to what was now a substantial crowd of people. Three CHP officers and one SDPD officer had arrived. I followed after John, and by the time I got there, Irate Citizen had finally stopped screaming, but his speech was still animated. While background checks were being run, an officer filled me in, explaining that the couple lived in their vehicle. Their trailer, along with most of their possessions, had recently been towed, and they decided to express their displeasure to the first lawman they came across.
John later told me the man was mostly yelling things like "YOU FUCKING PIGS, YOU TOWED MY CAR!!!" Jenny Panfil had said that such tirades are not at all uncommon. She's been called any number of colorful names, and officers are not allowed to arrest people for verbal harassment. Call it a job privilege.
I listened as the man tried to explain himself. "We're not out there doing crack and causing trouble," he shouted. "There are different types of homeless people!" His girlfriend was dancing now, though she wore her headphones above her ears, high up on a pink bandanna. She interrupted her odd jig and asked me, "Why you ain't wearing no uniform?" I told her I left it at home.
When the background checks didn't turn anything up, John bade the fine citizens good-bye, and the officers all returned to their respective beats. In the car, John said, "In all my time [here], I've never called for backup before."
Smoking Gave Him Away
Back on the road, John tried once again to explain what he loved about his work. He was in the middle of a story as we were getting off the Adams Avenue exit on the 805 when we noticed the orange cherry of a cigarette creating a sparkly little fuss as it landed on the road in front of us. "That's a $271 fine, you know." Gesturing at the red truck in front of us, he added, "I could pull him over, but there are two people in that car. I couldn't write one a ticket if there's a possibility that the other one threw the cigarette. But I could give him a scolding."
We flashed our lights and the truck pulled over. It was almost 9:00, and I was fading. While John was talking to the driver, I debated whether to ask him to drop me at home a few blocks away or take me back to my car at the station. It soon became clear, though, that we weren't going anywhere anytime soon. I watched as John led the driver out of his truck and over to the curb. I cracked the window and heard John explaining the tests he was about to give the man. Well, well, I thought. Caught driving drunk by your own cigarette-flipping hand.
I could hear him answering John's questions -- the number of drinks he said he'd imbibed changed each time he was asked. I looked on surreptitiously, not wanting to embarrass the poor guy -- he had enough to worry about. He aced many of the dexterity tests, but balance was a problem. John explained to the man that he was going to take him down to the jail and asked if he was willing to take a Breathalyzer test.
I'm not sure about the rules when it comes to what is required when facing that honest little machine, but the guy agreed to take it. His blood alcohol level was .17. He then requested a blood test "because it takes longer." Another officer had arrived and was going to park the truck on the street -- the second man in the truck had also been drinking and would be walking home. John put his hand over the driver's head and eased him into the patrol car. Once our guest was seated, the car filled with a pungent stench -- a noxious mix of beer breath and stale, ashy cigarettes.
The man complained that the cuffs were uncomfortable, to which John buoyantly replied, "Then we'll hurry up and get down there!" He was fairly coherent and seriously bummed out. We had been alone for a brief moment after John shut the back door and walked around to the driver's side. I had turned to look through the holes of the cage. "Hey," I'd said. The man giggled and said hello. Then he tried to talk me into convincing John to let him go. I said, "Sorry, man. Your situation sucks right now, but it ain't my gig."
Time to Crash
John took me back to the station. I got out of the car and said good luck to the drunk in the back, who was on his way to detox and booking. John got out as well, and I gave him a hug. I had come to care for him and his safety in the few hours we'd spent together, as I had come to care for Jenny that morning.
The tickets, the accidents, the stories...my head was swimming with it all as I drove home, mindful of my speed. I was ready to crash (meaning my head on a pillow, not my car on the road). The sky was as dark as it had been when I'd started out that day, but the ride was much different. Close to my exit, some asshole cut me off and I instinctively reached for the buttons that would flip on the colorful lights and siren. To my bafflement, the only high-pitched sound I heard was the caterwaul of that tacky tramp Britney. No lights on my hood, no siren attached, no authority to do anything but flip on my brights and scowl at the receding brake lights before me. Which is exactly what I did.