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CHP leaders stress communication during townhall meeting

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

In its ongoing effort to mend fences with Plumas County drivers, the California Highway Patrol hosted a townhall meeting Oct. 22 in Graeagle.

The forum at the Graeagle Fire Hall was the first open public meeting by the CHP to address mounting complaints about officer conduct on county roads.

Moderated by Assemblyman Dan Logue, the informal two-hour discussion was civil yet serious.

Many of the approximately 80 residents in the room shared their concerns with Quincy Area CHP Commander Bruce Carpenter and his boss, Northern Division Assistant Chief Todd Chadd.

While people were critical of the CHP, nearly as many were complimentary. Some of the comments were even humorous.

As the two-hour exchange was ending, Logue emphasized the significance of the meeting.

“The best thing that came out of this tonight is I see the highway patrol and the people of this community coming together,” Logue said. “This is just the first step forward.”

But not everyone shared Logue’s optimism. Resident Roddy Mac thought the crowd was “dancing around the issues” with the CHP.

“I think this has been a very mild, respectful audience … which is very disingenuous,” Mac said about halfway through the meeting. “Because among people I know, the level of confidence and trust in (the CHP) has sunk terribly.”

Carpenter and Chadd emphasized that they are aware of the problems. Carpenter asked the audience members to call him immediately (283-1100) if they have a problem with one of his officers.

Carpenter and Chadd thoughtfully answered every complaint from the audience. They said the CHP wants to regain county residents’ trust and confidence.

Chadd addressed Mac’s concerns.

“We have never denied that we have had issues,” Chadd said. “There have been allegations that we’ve had officers sitting on bars. There have been allegations that we have had overzealous enforcement tactics. For example, a lot of stops for license plate lamps.”

Mac responded, “So you have accepted that there were complaints? Or you accepted that it was your fault?”

“Both,” Chadd said. “In fact, in every newspaper article we’ve come out and said, ‘It’s on us.’

“The district attorney (David Hollister) should get no scrutiny. The sheriff (Greg Hagwood) should get no scrutiny. These were the people who had the courage to come to us and let us handle it.”

Carpenter, who has been the Quincy area commander for just over a year, said it is harder for the CHP to address complaints if they don’t hear about them as soon as they happen.

Resident Carol Miller agreed. She said a CHP officer tailgated her for more than a mile after he drove up behind her “very quickly.”

“Unfortunately I waited a year to report it,” Miller said.

She said despite the time lapse, Carpenter took her concern seriously and even invited her and her husband to a meeting in Quincy.

“I was afraid to come forward, just like a whole bunch of other people were,” Miller said. “But nothing’s happened to me. I even put my sock monkey back in the back window that I took out because I didn’t want to be identified so easily.”

After the laughter in the hall subsided, Miller finished her thought.

“So put on your brave face and write the letter if you have to come forward. Without it, they can’t do anything,” Miller said. “And I think I’ve seen an improvement. At least I haven’t noticed the same practices as we saw before.”

“She’s right. Timeliness is important,” Carpenter said. “The other issue that’s changed since her incident is we now have recording devices in our patrol cars. Every single sedan has one. It records everything that the officer does.”

A common complaint during the meeting was the number of CHP cars patrolling the county roads.

“A lot of the folks I talk to kind of feel like we are living in occupied territory,” East Quincy resident Calvin Moss said. “It’s such an overwhelming presence.”

Moss said he still sees the CHP “sitting on the side of the road in the dark.”

“Is this one of your patrol techniques?” Moss asked Carpenter.

“It is not,” Carpenter replied. “We expect our guys to be out in the open, clearly visible. That has been reinforced. If those types of instances are still happening, then I need to know about that.”

There are more CHP officers in the county than there were a few years ago. In 2009, five patrolmen were added in the Quincy area when the department began doing 24-hour coverage.

Carpenter said the Quincy CHP has three sergeants, 22 officers and three non-uniform officers. There is a sergeant and seven officers in the Portola resident post, and two officers in Indian Valley.

He said there are three 12-hour shifts, beginning at 6 a.m., noon and 5:30 p.m.

“There are typically four officers on duty at any given time,” Carpenter said. “After midnight, we have one unit with two officers.

“Sometimes it may appear that we have more (officers), because there are shift changes and some overlapping.”

One elderly county resident in the back of the room stood and asked Carpenter if he felt he had enough officers.

“I have enough to staff the shifts that I have, yes,” Carpenter replied.

After a pause, the man continued light-heartedly, “Do you have enough to send some to other counties?”

The comment caused nearly everyone to laugh out loud. Even Carpenter smiled.

“I was just hoping that some other parts of the state could enjoy you as much as we have over the years,” the man concluded.

The father of a local CHP officer said he hoped the number of patrolmen would not be reduced.

“Our son works on the east end. And there are times when he’s out there in Sierra County, (Highway) 395, where he has zero backup. None,” he said. “For you who are here, I can understand their (CHP) presence on the road can be disconcerting. But for me, as a father, I want him to have backup.

“I don’t want to quiet the complaints. I want to honor what you said, Commander Carpenter. The complaints need to come. And they are thoroughly investigated. But, you know, I want my son safe out there. Please don’t send anybody out of here and leave him out there by himself.”

The wife of a CHP officer was critical of the public complaints about DUI citations. There were 179 DUI arrests in the Quincy area in 2010. There have been 164 so far this year, according to Carpenter.

“It seems like it’s a witch hunt,” the officer’s wife said strongly. “You never hear about the five or 10 or 15 people who got pulled over and warned and don’t get a citation.

“And doggonit, if you are in a bar and you’re drinking and you get behind the wheel, I don’t care if the officer is watching you get in your car. Because my kid’s on the road and I’m on the road. And I want the drunks off the road.

“Stop crucifying the officers who strap on the badge every day and go out and take the crap from the public because they are trying to save your life, or keep you safe, or keep someone else safe.”

Her passionate statement drew loud applause. It also prompted more comments.

“We very much respect what all of the officers do,” Carol Miller said. “But something has changed over the last four or five years … in predatory practices, like what happened to me … for absolutely no probable cause. Something has changed, and this is why we are all here.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Carpenter offered those in attendance an opportunity to do a “ride-along” with the CHP.

“That’s one of the best ways to see what we do out there every day,” he said.

The forum was the biggest public meeting with the CHP since the problems came to a head last summer.

“I just want to thank everybody for coming out,” Carpenter said. “Because this is important.”

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