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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.

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