"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."