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Jack Brown stared across the table and gave the California Highway Patrol a piece of his mind.
“People in Plumas County are afraid of the highway patrol. They’re scared to death of you,” the Quincy businessman said. “They are afraid to go out to dinner. They are afraid to have a glass of wine. There’s un-called-for stops.”
Brown’s criticism summarized the sentiment of many community leaders who gathered in Quincy for a July 15 meeting with CHP Commander Bruce Carpenter and his boss Todd Chadd.
The two-hour session, conducted by State Assemblyman Dan Logue, took the local CHP to task over the way it has been doing business.
“I am very concerned about the future and the reputation that the CHP has in this county,” Logue said. “This is an oppressed area by law enforcement. It has to change. I will do whatever it takes. I will pay whatever price I have to pay to make sure it happens.”
Carpenter listened intently as community members, including Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood, shared specifics about their troubling encounters with CHP officers.
Carpenter, who has been commander for just under a year, said he is aware of the negative public perceptions. He said he wants to change that.
“I would implore all of you (in the community), if you have a problem with one of my officers … call me,” Carpenter said. “Call me, so I can deal with it. If you don’t call me, the cases you are talking about, I cannot do anything about it.”
The meeting ended with Logue praising Carpenter for taking the community’s criticism seriously. The group pledged to meet again in 60 days.
“We are not going to solve it all in the first 60 days. But we are going to head in the right direction and make sure it gets fixed,” Logue said.
And the people of Plumas County said there is a lot that needs to be fixed.
Hagwood said the CHP’s credibility problem affects the sheriff’s office as well.
“For a while my attitude was, ‘well that’s the CHP. If their credibility gets damaged that’s not my problem,’” Hagwood said. “But it is my problem. Because it’s a reflection on all of law enforcement.”
In general, the problems reported during the meeting concerned CHP officers being overly aggressive. Some told Carpenter they felt patrolmen were looking for any excuse at all to pull people over.
“Part of it is the mentality where you have young (CHP officers) talking about going hunting, or having to be creative to pull people over,” Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister said. “And you really get this ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
Carpenter said he is working to change that mentality.
“We want to try to close that us-versus-you-guys gap. And we are really working hard to try to do that,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes it takes a little time to get there.”
CHP by the numbers
Carpenter said there are 23 CHP officers under his command in the county. He said 12 of the officers are based in Quincy (two more work in the office), seven in Portola and two in Indian Valley.
Logue and Hagwood said the number of CHP officers in Plumas County is actually 32 when you include Chester, which is in the CHP’s Susanville service area. Those officers patrol Lassen County as well.
Carpenter said the officers work 12-hour shifts beginning at 6 a.m., noon and 5:30 p.m. Two officers work each shift.
In 2009, the CHP expanded to 24-hour coverage, which brought in five additional officers.
Plumas County has a population of 20,000. Logue said Grass Valley (Nevada County) has 23 CHP officers for 100,000 residents.
Logue said that despite Plumas having a fifth of the population of Nevada County, the number of citations issued – including DUI arrests – by the CHP was almost identical in both counties.
According to those statistics, Plumas County drivers are five-times more likely to be cited by the CHP.
Hagwood and Logue said Plumas County probably has too many CHP officers.
“It’s (the county) a real small barrel of fish. And we’ve got a lot of fishing poles hanging in there,” Hagwood said. “And the people’s sense is that they are almost under siege. And that it’s difficult to get in your car and travel from point A to point B without getting stopped.”
CHP officers are younger
“In 1987 it took (CHP officers) 22 years of service to get into this county,” Brown said. “This is where guys came to retire, kick back, and not worry about too much crime.”
Carpenter said that isn’t the case now. Many of his officers are young guys – some of them straight out of the academy. Some were sent here without a choice.
“Now we are not having the seasoned veterans putting the transfers in to come up here,” Carpenter said. “For whatever reason, whether it’s the economy or they can’t sell homes. … But it’s just not happening right now.”
Carpenter said the five officers added – when the 24-hour patrols began in 2009 – were all rookies.
He said the three officers that joined his force July 1 “are all younger guys. But they have worked in larger areas.”
He said those three chose to move here.
“The last five people I’ve gotten in here were all voluntary transfers. … People who wanted to come here,” Carpenter said. “Some of them are returning to the area who grew up here.”
But he said there is still a learning curve for new patrolmen.
“For a lot of the guys who come from other areas, or young guys, there’s an adjustment period,” Carpenter said. “We are trying to bridge that gap as best we can. And it will take a little time to get that done.”
Hollister said he understands how many of the young officers feel.
“I think the influx of the youthful officers has presented a challenge to the CHP. And it’s just inherent,” Hollister said. “You get these guys coming out of the academy, and instead of going to Los Angeles or Oakland they are coming to Plumas County. And they are looking for work.”
Plumas County Assistant Sheriff Gerry Hendrick said the influx of young CHP officers in 2009 caught former commander Paul Davis off guard.
“This meeting should have happened two years ago,” Hendrick said. “Paul Davis is a great guy and I respect him tremendously … But he didn’t know how to work with rookies.”
Hendrick said officers who arrive straight from the academy have to go through an on-the-job field training program.
“To get everything signed off on the field training program, we need to make sure they are proficient in arrests and this and that. So five guys stopped everybody and their brother so they can get off the field training program. That leaves a really bitter taste in this community.”
Bad for business
Suzi Brakken is the director of the Plumas County Visitors Bureau.
She said she warns visitors about the CHP.
“I’ve heard from lodging industry people who tell me their guests say they are never coming back because of the experiences they’ve had,” Brakken said. “We held a media tour two years ago. And two of the people who put on that media tour were pulled over in the same evening. Again, it was in the Graeagle area.”
Hagwood said he gets “a tremendous amount” of CHP complaints from the Graeagle area.
Plumas County Supervisor Jon Kennedy said he witnessed two CHP officers in one car patrolling the Longboards parking lot during a July 2 golf tournament at Plumas Pines.
Kennedy said the CHP presence that day probably resulted in lost bar revenue.
“Our county is closing in on itself as a ghost town. OK? That little visit seriously cost that business money. I can guarantee it,” Kennedy said. “So that’s the part I’m concerned about.
“I didn’t see that that was a fruitful utilization of taxpayer dollars to patrol the Longboards parking lot.”
Hollister emphasized that “Just so everyone knows … they are not supposed to be sitting on bars and restaurants.”
Carpenter said he would look into that incident.
“I have adamantly expressed to my people that they are not supposed to be sitting in one location for an extended period of time,” Carpenter said. “That’s not what we want them doing. We want them out there in view, driving around.”
Retired county resident Mo Ragusa said he has interviewed residents and business owners.
“I’ve heard stories that the car rental places in Reno say to people: Take (Interstate) 80. Do not go through Highway 70 because most likely you will get a ticket,” Ragusa said. “The short of it, is that it has taken the vitality and the spirit out of this county.”
“They are bored”
“I personally know many of your officers – young ones. We sit together at church. I’ve been to their homes. Our kids are friends,” Brakken told Carpenter. “I really think they’re bored here. I’ve talked to them. I hear what they are saying.
“A friend (CHP officer) just left. He transferred, and here’s what he said: I’m tired of pulling over soccer moms. I want to get back to the city where there’s some better action.
“I really feel that these younger guys are not suited for the culture that we have here.”
Following are excepts from the July 15 meeting with CHP Commander Bruce Carpenter and community leaders from Plumas County:
“We honestly believe that we are here to provide a service. And being out there 24 hours a day, we provide the service that we are paid to provide.
“And along with the service part of it, of course, comes the enforcement side of things, which we consider a service to the community as well. … Because, in our minds, we are saving lives.
“We can’t really apologize for taking drunk drivers off the road. We are mandated to do that.
“When new officers come here, I think they understand, but it’s still my job to explain to them: This isn’t South LA. And there is a different way of doing things. And I think we do our best to tell our people that. And to treat people with respect and courtesy.
“Our people are trained a certain way. And that’s everywhere — statewide. And maybe that, at times, will put people off. Our people are trained to keep it short, sweet and to the point when they make contact with people.
“But there’s a reason for that. We don’t want our people out there on the side of the road arguing with people, getting into confrontations. But we also want them to be sensitive to the local population.
“Is there are learning curve? Absolutely.
“The guys are told: You act on what you see out there. And that’s it. There’s no (citation quota) numbers.
—Bruce Carpenter, CHP Commander
“That’s the problem. If you act on what you see, these officers with less than three years experience … they see everything. They pull over every (vehicle) mechanical (issue), whether it’s safety or not — especially if it’s by a bar. They are going to hammer those.
“In my office, we see as many stops for mechanical as we do for bad driving or DUIs. And maybe that’s OK. But are we seeing all these mechanicals in downtown Quincy? And if so, is that the right approach?”
—David Hollister, Plumas County District Attorney
“When I see 32 officers covering 30,000 people, and I go into downtown Sacramento on Broadway — and you’ve got some rough areas — I can tell you I would sure love to have half of those (CHP officers) down there instead of up here.
“Because this is not a crime-wave center up here. This is senior citizens.
“I get calls (complaining about our CHP) from Stockton, Yuba City and Redding from people driving through here. And it’s always the same area.
“It’s important to me that the people in this county feel safe, not from law enforcement, but because of law enforcement. That’s the only thing that I care about.
“If I had a business, and I was serving wine at my business … I’ve been told that there are restaurants thinking about closing because — they use the word oppression — this is an oppressed area by law enforcement. It has to change.”“Bruce, I want to commend you for sitting here and listening to this today. I know it hasn’t been easy.
“And I think everyone here at the table realizes that you just came here recently. We know that you are doing your best and you care about the community. I want you to know that we get that.”
—Dan Logue, State Assemblyman
“I do not want my staff going to work with the idea of ‘How many people can I arrest today? How many people can I cite today?’
“I want my staff going to work with the idea of ‘How many problems can I solve today?’
“I am not going to recognize, nor am I going to reward, those officers who write the most citations or make the most arrests.
“The whole reason we are in these communities is we are public servants and we are here to solve problems.
“I think the CHP comes into small communities at an automatic disadvantage.
“Citizens of Plumas County look at the sheriff’s department as their sheriff’s department. And I am their sheriff. They have a sense of ownership.
“The CHP, through no fault of their own, doesn’t enjoy that relationship with the citizens of this county. Because, as a state agency, you are not their CHP.”
—Greg Hagwood, Plumas County Sheriff
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