New CHP commander brings fresh perspective to job
Quincy Area Highway Patrol Commander Joe Edwards shares a laugh with George Scheuchenzuber in front of Scheuchenzuber’s Downtown Barber Shop in Quincy last week. Lt. Edwards, who became the new CHP commander in May, said he is doing “walkabouts” in the county to meet local business owners and residents. “I’m working my way through Quincy,” Edwards said. “I’m headed to Greenville (this) week.” Photos by Dan McDonald
Joe Edwards spends a lot of his quality time on a bike.
So it’s fitting that the new local California Highway Patrol commander had an epiphany while pedaling a few years ago.
“Something clicked,” Edwards said. “And I realized ‘I think I get it now.’”
But the bicycle enthusiast wasn’t joy-riding during his moment of clarity. He was on the job as a member of the Truckee CHP bike unit, patrolling the congested roads around Lake Tahoe and chatting with tourists.
“That’s when I realized that my job was more than just police work,” Edwards said. “It was interacting with the very people who we want to protect and take care of.”
Lt. Edwards took over the Quincy CHP command in May. He replaced Lt. Bruce Carpenter, who transferred to the Willows office after two years in Plumas County. Edwards said he is applying the “bicycle style of policing” to his new job.
“I’m trying to be a bicycle officer here — without a bicycle,” the fresh-faced 49-year-old said with a smile. “That’s why I’m doing walkabouts in town.”
Some business owners react with a quick second look when the good-natured Edwards walks in their door.
“I just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m Joe. I’m the new commander here,’” he said. “Sometimes they are surprised, but then they are very appreciative.”
Edwards said getting to know the community is a top priority. He said he is working his way through Quincy. “I’m headed to Greenville (this) week. And I’m going to start hitting all of our other communities.”
Edwards, a Fallon, Nev., native who spent the last year working as an executive officer in El Centro, said he and his wife Debbie are “giddy” to be in Quincy. He and Debbie, the parents of three grown children, energetically lobbied to get here.
“I feel like I was given the greatest gift in the world to have this squad and to be in Quincy,” he said. “The reason I feel a kinship here is that Fallon sends a lot of athletes to be part of the baseball program and rodeo program at Feather River (College). We feel like, in Fallon, that (Quincy) is part of our regional community.”
Edwards, who has been with the CHP nearly 24 years, said he and Debbie, a retired teacher and ballroom dance instructor, lived in their RV when they arrived in Quincy. But it didn’t take them long to settle in.
Edwards said his first stop was The Bike Shop in Quincy.
“I met Paul (Mundorff), the owner, and I said, ‘I need your help, brother. I’ve got to find some trails.’”
After Mundorff turned him on to some good local trails, he hit the barber shop. Meanwhile, Debbie got a tip about a good house for rent while she was visiting a local beauty salon.
“Thanks to that tip, we were able to move out of the RV very quickly,” Edwards said. “We thought it would take most of the summer to find a place. So we were surprised when we found this place (on Quincy Junction), and it is awesome.”
Edwards, who is beginning his first CHP command, compared the Quincy office to Alturas, where he was stationed from 2009 until moving to El Centro in early 2012.
Edwards was a sergeant in Alturas, working for the Academy Enforcement Tactics Unit. The job included teaching cadets and doing refresher courses for officers. He was in charge of the department’s policies and reviewed shootings and use of force incidents for the entire state.
But he also helped run cattle drives. That’s because ranchers in the area often have to move their herds across, or even along, a highway for several miles. “That’s right,” he laughed. “Instead of escorting presidents, we escort cattle up in Alturas.”
But it was his work as a bicycle officer prior to Alturas that left a lasting impact. He said being on a bike made him realize the importance of interacting with the public.
Foreign visitors stuck in traffic were surprised to hear Edwards speak fluently in Korean and Portuguese — languages he learned as a member of military intelligence in the Army from 1985 to ’89.
Edwards loved the interaction. He said it’s something officers don’t get to do in a car.
“It’s just the nature of the beast. In the car, you are wrapped in steel and glass for safety,” he said. “The first thing I found was people were shocked to see a highway patrol officer on a bicycle.”
Plumas County motorists won’t be seeing CHP officers on bicycles — it simply isn’t practical. But Edwards said he hopes his officers can still have the bicycle cop attitude.
“That means we have to slow down a little bit and get out of the car,” Edwards said. “And I’m asking them to stop by and get a glass of water or a soda at an establishment. Or have a burger. Or just shake hands and ask how people are doing. I will give as much credit to officers for doing that as I will stopping someone for a citation.”
Edwards said he believes verbal warnings from officers can sometimes be as effective as citations.
“Maybe stop (a motorist) and talk to them about what’s going on and decide if they need a verbal warning, or a citation,” he said. “Obviously, if someone’s been driving DUI, we’d like to take them off the road and make our roads safe that way.”
Edwards said he is well aware of the public outcry against CHP that came to a head two summers ago. He said he is extremely impressed by the way local officers have handled the situation.
“I think they’ve come out of that showing their true nature,” he said. “And that is they want to be part of the community.
“The staff here is energized. They are committed to the community. They are parents. They are grandparents. Their kids are in school. They are coaches. … But they’re also police officers,” he said. “And I think they have acquired a lot of wisdom and experience over the past years.
“I think every officer has to come to that point in his career where he realizes there is more than just tickets and arrests,” he said. “We have a job that requires us to have a high level of human and social skills.”
Edwards explained that officers are taught in the academy to deal with the most extreme and dangerous situations. It’s like being trained to work in Baghdad and then being assigned to Mayberry.
“In the academy we mainly teach for those situations where we perceive the greatest danger. And that’s in the big city, where there’s so much activity,” he said. “How we handle that here is we have to have another level of training and explain that there is a difference. Why there is a difference.
“Here the officers are evaluated, not only by activity; it’s a small part of it. Another part is, ‘How well are you providing motorists services? How well are you offering assists to the sheriff’s department? How well are you at driving around our county roads and state highways to make sure there’s no one broken down — especially in an area without cell service?’
“It takes a transition. It’s an ongoing process and it’s something that needs to be brought up and talked about a lot ... and we do on our training days.”
As for Edwards, he wants to spend as much time as he can shaking hands and learning names. Oh, and riding his bike.
He finished second in the inaugural Patriot ride in Graeagle on July 7.
He’s also an avid drummer and has an amateur radio license.
“I’ve met several of the amateur radio operators here locally,” he said. “There’s a huge group here. I was surprised.”
Edwards is trying to walk the streets to meet as many residents as he can. He encourages those he misses to stop by his office.
“Come see the office so you can see how my wife decorated it,” he said proudly. “Come and bring suggestions you might have and how we can do better.
“But I don’t want to just say that and have it be empty words. I truly want people to come by. And some folks have taken me up on it.”