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Everything for a purpose: one day as a CHP cadet


Giuseppe Ricapito / The Union Democrat The California Highway Patrol Memorial Fountain marks the heart of the 457-acre Academy campus, and features the names of the 226 CHP officers killed in the line of duty since the inception of the agency in 1929. The 227th officer will be memorialized in May, 2018.

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a soldier.

It was the sort of life that would befit the son of 30-year Marine Corps Reserve veteran — rigid discipline, incessant drilling, and the structured regimentation of your daily schedule.

But as it so often happens, childhood aspirations wane.

So it was a familiar, and perhaps even comforting, reminder of that upbringing when I jogged around a quarter-mile track at the California Highway Patrol Academy in West Sacramento at about 9 a.m. Wednesday, feeling little of the frigid morning haze puncture through my father’s olive-green Marine Corps fleece pullover.

California Highway Patrol Sgt. Austin Matulonis quickened his pace, maintained a sidelong stare at the procession of a dozen Media Boot Camp participants, and bellowed from the precipice of his throat, “Right! Left! Right! Double-time — March!”

I strained my face to remain expressionless.

Less than a half hour before, the journalists learned that impersonating a CHP cadet, even for just a half-day, was not an invitation for even incidental mockery of the training apparatus undertaken daily at the academy.

We would be expected to perform under duress.

“Everything here has a purpose and a plan,” Sgt. Damien Blue barked as he prowled the grounds with clenched fists, casting an unyielding glare over the guests from beneath his tan campaign cover.

All of us received the message loud and clear — we were here for a reason.

CHP mission and the sacred ceremony

Many might conceive of the CHP as road-bound AAA, a highway assistance service whose officers are incidentally equipped with a badge and a firearm.

But Wednesday it became clear that their state mandate has taken on a far more expansive role.

With an annual budget of about $2.3 billion, the agency has confronted a litany of California law enforcement crises, like homelessness, mental health and racial profiling, said CHP Acting Commissioner Warren Stanley.

“We’ve had more responsibilities handed to us as time has gone on,” he said. “We’re just asked to do so much more to help people out.”

All the augmented obligations were reflected in cadet training: from hours-long textbook learning in tiered, alphabetically-organized classrooms, to facsimile vehicle collision scenarios and bouts of target practice at the academy shooting range.

But the mental conditioning of cadets always came first. A culture of history and a dogma of professional composure underwrites instruction.

The most-sacred of CHP traditions was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon when all 217 CHP cadets enrolled in the academy marched with practiced precision around the perimeter of the CHP Memorial Fountain.

“Company!” reverberated five times throughout the campus’ central quad, as each cadet commander announced the arrival of their unit.

Sonora-area CHP Public Information Officer Faustino Pulido and Officer Avery Jones, 23, a Summerville High School graduate, bowed their heads in respect. Behind them, more than 30 additional CHP officers stood, sullen-faced, in rapt attention.

A single senior company, with each cadet clutching a polishing cloth, surrounded the circular fountain set with the CHP monogram and a bronze eagle, its wings outstretched.

Bending forward in unison, they burnished a series of small plaques commemorating the 226 CHP officers killed in the line of duty since the inception of the agency in 1929.

During the 15 minute ceremony, the cadets had undertaken a fraternal oath to a reminder of their own mortality and to a testament to the implicit dangers in law enforcement.

“The CHP is really big on tradition,” Pulido said, standing astride the fountain. “Almost everything we do here has to do with tradition.”

Pulido pointed to one plaque affixed to the fountain's edge, to his Academy classmate, Justin McGrory, killed June 27, 2010, in San Bernardino County.

“He was killed by an impaired driver who fell asleep at the wheel,” he said. “He was on the side of the road performing a traffic stop.”

Pulido’s voice trailed off as he gazed at the reflection of the pool. In CHP careers that span more than a decade, some recollections were too difficult to relive.

Jones, though reverent to the ceremony, had not yet forged memories of professional trauma. Instead, standing outside of the senior cadet south dorms, he cringed to remember his more than six-month training, which concluded in June.

“It’s like PTSD,” he said. “That was my room up there.”

The academy compound, which covers 457 acres, had felt like a prison, he added.

Fall leaves fluttered from reddening maple trees that dotted the wide, shorn grasslands. And despite an occasional yell or clatter of gunfire, the landscape rippled with a sensation of scenic solitude. Even the squat stone structures, unadorned and utilitarian, had a clarity of uniformity.

The wind rose to a torrent, and I realized I had, for a moment, lost track of my selected group.

Jones appeared from behind a pillar at an outdoor gazebo and called on me to hurry, they were all leaving.

“The schedule is rigid,” I muttered.

“This is loose,” he responded, bolting ahead of me along the concrete pathway.

Loaded guns and fast cars: the thrills

Hans Peter, a reporter at the Woodland Daily Democrat, took the wheel of a sputtering 2007 Dodge Charger and accelerated into the slick, water-lined “skid pan” during the emergency vehicles operations course.

Peter conducted the vehicle with ease, drifting and gliding through each twisting S-curve.

He had grown up in Minnesota, he said, so this test course, well, it wasn’t such a challenge.

“Dirt roads and snow and a Jeep. Totally used to it.”

The Charger skidded to the right, and the backseat passenger’s stomach seemed as if it had been left behind somewhere on the road.

And that was all while a driver was traversing the course correctly.

CHP officer Josh Hawkins, who served five years at the San Andreas-area CHP from 2009 to 2014, performed vehicular acrobatics behind the wheel, pirouetting and surging a Durango like a rollercoaster.

“Turn and burst,” he said, instructing maneuvers from the passenger seat.

I modulated the throttle, but couldn’t catch the wheel on the counter steer. One erratic 180 degree later, the vehicle was dead in the center of the skid pan.

“I think I’m going to burst,” said Michael Adams, a videographer and reporter for ABC10 Sacramento affiliate KXTV.

“You have to get over that hurdle,” Hawkins cautioned me.

“I thought you said hurl,” said Lilia Luciano, ABC10 investigative reporter.

The intention of the water-laden skid pan instruction for cadets, Hawkins explained, was to develop proficiency in vehicle operation despite dynamic or fluid circumstances which could require inventive driving tactics.

Hawkins always kept his eyes at least one corner ahead. I killed the car two more times after more haphazard and manic half-turns. The twisting of the vehicle was no doubt exhilarating, but sitting in the driver’s seat, clutching the wheel, I realized I was keeping my eyes a few corners behind.

Most of us managed a few controlled skids, but even those brief respites of vehicular weightlessness could not match the ascendant sensation of shooting a Smith & Wesson 40 M&P pistol.

“Clack! Clack! Clack!”

Forty caliber bullets ripped through the eye of the target.

“Everything shot out here is real,” announced Sgt. Wulf Corrington of the Weapons Training Unit, pacing in front of a firearm display of more than 30 weapons.

Pistols, rifles and shotguns on the left side were all issued by the state, he said. The firearms on the right, among them an Uzi, a refurbished World War II rifle, a .50 caliber revolver, and a gun seemingly constructed from scrap metal and industrial waste, were confiscated on the street.

It was worth the “training value for cadets” to be aware of the wide range of firearms they may encounter in the field, he said.

The danger and damage of those firearms were made evident by the bullet-riddled windshield of a CHP - Oakland area vehicle positioned just to the side of the shooting range. The destruction had been wrought by Byron Williams, a Groveland resident, who on July 18, 2010, had apparently been traveling to San Francisco to inflict a mass shooting.

Officer Vince Herrick, present at the shooting range Wednesday, conducted a traffic stop on Williams on the westbound 580 Freeway that July night, and in the 17-minute armed confrontation that ensued, hundreds of rounds had been fired.

It would be too gut-wrenching and difficult, he related, to fully recall the terror of that day.

“Clack! Clack! Clack!”

Peter was set up under Row 8, I was at 11, and Luciano had just finished a few rows to my right.

“When you’re not shooting, I want you to keep your right pointer finger along the barrel,” said Academy Rangemaster Mike Melton. “Now keep the pistol in your line of sight, finger on the trigger, pull the trigger slowly…”

“Clack!”

Right through the 10-spot, bullseye.

Now I felt like a soldier. Clad in a martial uniform, and my arms taut in the direction of the target. The first shots had gone awry, but each successive round clipped closer to the center.

“It ranges from one to 100 percent,” Corrington said, on the possibility of a CHP officer being involved in a combat shooting.

“It’s like getting hit by lightning.”

Looking through the glasses

Corrugated metal, twisted plastic, and shards of broken glass bent together on the ends of two vehicles, disavowed like morbid sculpture at the site of the traffic collision reconstruction scene.

This was the bread and butter of the CHP mandate, roadways incidents of accidents, injury, and driving under the influence.

“1179 VC,” one of the officers said aloud, a traffic collision with an ambulance also on its way. Luciano approached the passenger window of a wrecked sedan, while Adams, his video camera in hand, filmed through the window on the other side.

With the guidance of a CHP officer, she determined that the driver of the sedan, struck in the rear bumper by the driver of an SUV, had sustained at least moderate injuries.

“You can detect the smell of burnt marijuana on the driver,” Officer Paul Budrow said.

Then came the investigation interview, balance tests and an evaluation of the eyes, the “windows to the soul,” Budrow said.

But you could draw shades over those windows with an instructional pair of “drunk goggles.”

The striated, translucent goggles, meant to represent a .07 to .10 blood alcohol content, was unlike any sort of inebriation I had ever experienced.

“About four to five drinks probably,” Pulido said, adding that instead of just simulating visual impairment, the goggles additionally distorted a person’s sense of balance and coordination.

I could barely see ahead, and each step with my left foot emerged from somewhere far off in my periphery.

Toe to heel, toe to heel. But the lights were getting brighter, and even the instructional voices began to take on a guttural drawl.

“How many steps were you supposed to take?” asked Sgt. Glen Glaser, Jr.

“Nine.”

“How many did you take?”

“Ten.”

“Yeah, and in both directions. And you’re not even impaired.”

Right. But the goggles sure did a fine job of making you think you were, I thought.

I was on the other side now, playing the suspect, while for the better part of the day I had been playing the role of a cadet. The soldier’s dream from the morning had outlived itself. The purpose of our being here began to take form and shape, rather than just a reconstruction of imagination.

This was the entire process of the CHP field work, I realized, the systematic development of an investigation. The boot camp was a look into the CHP toolbox, which constructed accident and arrest reports all of the journalists dealt with daily.

Through the looking glass of the impairment goggles, I saw that there was more to a story than what has been condensed into a single paragraph. A collection of words from an official release or in newsprint is a reproduction of the human toll that brought an incident to life.

At the end of the day, CHP Cadet Anthony Joseph Sterrett, 26, of Angels Camp, was seated in the cafeteria, his hands folded.

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir.”

“It’s OK, sir.”

We were only in the academy for the better part of the day, I asked, so how much could we really understand your journey as a cadet?

“For what you got, it is very representative. I’d say the only difference for us is we know if we do something wrong or don’t train hard enough, it could be our last day here,” he said. “I expected it to be difficult, but there are definitely some parts that are more difficult than I expected. I’m just keeping my eye out for the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

The California Highway Patrol: Academy and Agency Stats

  • The average age of a CHP cadet is 27 years old, and about 25 to 30 percent have prior military experience.

  • About 400-600 cadets are recruited to the academy each year, but more than 22,000 applied between March 2016 and May 2017.

  • Construction of the CHP Academy in West Sacramento began in July 1973 at a cost of $16 million. The compound was completed in 1976.

  • The CHP is made up of about 11,000 total employees and, as of a February 2017 tally, 7,608 are sworn officers.