Riding shotgun

—and breaking presumptions about the California Highway Patrol

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Added duty: In 1995 the California State Police merged with the CHP, which makes the agency also responsible for state officers and dignitaries, protecting the grounds of the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building and the state’s Supreme and appellate courts throughout the state

Just after 6 on a cold, dark January morning, I sit a bit nervous in the front passenger seat of a California Highway Patrol car, parked, engine running, behind the Chico CHP office on Fir Street.

I’m not here against my will. I’ve volunteered for a civilian ride-along, a chance to see what it’s like on the other side of those infamous mirrored sunglasses that reflect your frightened face when pulled over on the highway for a possible moving violation.

Seated next to me, going through his ritual morning checklist, is my host and, I’d like to think, partner for the day, Tom Nickell, a 20-year veteran of the CHP.

Nickell does not wear mirrored sunglasses; he prefers John Lennon-style wire-rims, which are photosensitive and darken in the sunlight. In fact, there are a lot of things about Nickell that don’t fit the stereotype of the CHP officer most of us have.

A gregarious and generous man, Nickell spends occasional Fridays with the crowd that gathers at Duffy’s Tavern in Chico for happy hour. He’s one of those people who seems to be in a perpetual good mood—the kind who should be trusted to carry a gun and watch out for the rest of us.

The low rumble of the Crown Victoria’s engine is interrupted sporadically by the chatter of the police radio—calm voices routinely reciting code words and numbers of an in-house language I don’t fully understand. Besides the CHP transmissions, I can also hear the Butte County Sheriff’s Department, California Department of Fire and the Chico and Paradise police departments.

“OK remember this number: 11-99,” Nickell tells me over the clicks, static and chatter of the radio. “If I’m on a stop and I get taken out by a car or I’m in a shoot out and I’m down, just grab this radio and press [the button] down.”

He demonstrates, but in the pre-dawn darkness, I can’t really see what he’s doing.

“If you press up,” he continues, “this is car to car. So press down.”

I nod like I understand, and as I do so, choppy scenes of violence and mayhem flash in my mind like the grainy memories of a terrifying nightmare.

He presses the button and speaks: “Chico 104, Victor 1-10 A.”

“That just went to dispatch,” he explains.

The Chico CHP dispatch is housed in a gray wooden building located just behind the main office. Two dispatchers sitting at terminals and wearing headsets, serve five Northstate CHP substations, from Chico to Marysville, Willows to Williams. They also receive all area 911 calls.

The Chico office is part of the 16-area Valley Division that employs more than 800 uniformed officers and nearly 3,000 non-uniformed personnel. Statewide there are 6,000 CHP officers with 25 working out of the Chico office. The officers in this region say their numbers are dwarfed by the huge geographic area they must cover.

But they are loath to give specifics like how many are on duty at any one time and covering what areas—they don’t want to encourage criminals or discourage the rest of us; the people they are sworn to protect. And like every other agency in the state, the CHP’s budget—$1.2 billion in the current fiscal year—is on the chopping block.

Back out in Nickell’s patrol car, I get my final instructions: “The number, 11-99, means I’m down so say it and then give our location. You’ve got to remember that.”

“Okay,” I respond with something decidedly less than total conviction.

Tom Nickell grew up in Southern California and still looks the part. His boyish good looks would belie his age if it weren’t for the shock of gray hair on his head that he keeps in a stylish cut. His hazel eyes, alert behind his wire-rims, exhibit a mischievous glimmer; for a guy in this line of work, Nickell seems awfully good-natured.

Though not big, he carries himself with the confidence common to CHP officers that suggests he could handle himself should a physical altercation arise.

On the day I rode with him, he had chipped his front tooth—a crown actually—the night before, leaving a hole in his smile. The crown was the result of getting hit by a drunk driver 15 years ago while on the side of the highway, handing out a ticket. It broke, he said, while eating his dinner of chicken and rice.

The morning of our ride his fellow officers gave him a hard time.

“You’re supposed to cook the rice first,” said one.

“Geez,” said another, “I just figured you were getting ready to patrol down in Palermo,” referring to the rural foothill community southeast of Oroville.

STUDENT DANCE Officer Tom Nickell of the California Highway Patrol directs traffic coming off of Highway 99 onto Pentz Road—Butte College students mostly, hurrying on their way to school.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Nickell is the son of a former University of Southern California vice president who raised money for the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. His father now sits on the board of directors for the Scripps Institute in San Diego. Nickell has a master’s degree in psychology from USC, with an emphasis in counseling.

During our ride Nickell didn’t volunteer much about his personal life and I didn’t pry. I learned he was married for a few years after moving here in 1995, has no children and that his former brother-in-law owns the fish farm off Highway 99 near the 149 turnoff south of Pentz Road. The divorce, he said, was amicable.

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, he’s been with the CHP for 20 years and moved to Chico from the Los Banos office in Merced County, where he worked the infamous Interstate 5.

“I came up here to get the hell out of Dodge,” he said. “I got tired of the traffic and the bullshit. It was just too dangerous, man.

“I did a lot of hunting and fishing up in Quincy with my friend who is a sergeant up there. So I was coming up through here all the time. That was too much snow for me but I liked Chico and it has a college. I’m going to get my teaching credential and, hopefully, start teaching down in Durham—do some counseling.”

He’s a big USC football fan and when he was a kid he used go to the team’s two-a-day practices.

“I got to carry O.J. Simpson’s helmet,” he told me, “and I met [running backs] Mike Bell and Sam ‘The Bam’ Cunningham.”

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the California Highway Patrol, the state agency charged with patrolling our vast network of highways, expressways and country roads. Its officers provide backup to local law enforcement agencies during emergencies and natural disasters, escort the famous and the infamous, the celebrated and despised and protect our civil servants in Sacramento.

They are also strapped with the grim task of responding to and investigating the twisted-metal, blood-and-guts results of our poor driving decisions. Little surprise, therefore, when CHP officers don’t take too well to lip from the drivers they pull over for moving violations.

It’s a dangerous occupation. More than 200 CHP officers have been killed in the line of duty since 1929. They’ve crashed on their motorcycles, been ambushed by the insane on lonely highways, shot with their own firearms, crushed by drunken drivers while helping the stranded and caught in shootouts with fleeing criminals.

One officer died after he was asked to put down a show horse, gravely injured when the trailer it was riding in broke loose from the truck pulling it. The officer obliged the unpleasant request but his third shot missed, ricocheted off the side of the horse trailer and struck him dead.

Then there’s the Newhall Incident, the tragic affair that every CHP officer is made aware of soon after joining the ranks.

On April 6, 1970 four CHP officers were killed in a four-and-one-half-minute shootout north of Los Angeles, near Santa Clarita. Acting on a radio alert of a vehicle carrying a passenger brandishing a weapon, Officers Walt Frago and Roger Gore pulled in behind, called for backup and initiated a stop. Gore approached the driver, Bobby Davis, and told him to get out and put his hands on the hood.

Fargo walked to the right side of the car where passenger Jack Twinning jumped out and shot him dead. Twinning then shot at Gore, who returned fire but was killed by a shot from Davis.

The back-up officers, George Alleyn and James Pencem arrived moments later and immediately came under fire. Pence put out the 11-99 call, but both officers were mortally wounded by the gunmen, who escaped and then split up. Nine hours later Twinning was located in a house where he’d taken a hostage. The official line is he shot himself with the shotgun he’d taken from Gore as officers closed in. But insiders say the officers who surrounded the house may have played a more active role in Twinning’s demise.

Davis was later captured, convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. He escaped that fate when the state Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. His sentence was changed to life and he is reportedly still alive and serving his time in Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County.

That incident changed the agency’s firearm procedure and methods of arrest. The CHP officer unofficial code of conduct says there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop.

Back in Nickell’s car, I’m harboring serious doubts about my ability to respond under the kind of pressure that would be exerted by the scenarios he’s suggested. But I say nothing.

I’m not completely unfamiliar with the cop world. My father started as rookie officer in 1941 and retired as chief 40 years later. I remember riding in his unmarked vehicle as a kid and listening to the same dispatch prattle crackling on the radio. But that was a different time and far, far away.

“OK,” Nickell says, snapping me back to the present. He nods toward the two long guns bolted into an upright position and lodged between our seats.

“I have an AR-15 and a 12-gauge here. If you get into a situation where it’s gonna be needed, say we go to a hot call,” he stops and considers what he’s saying.

“More than likely I’ll probably drop you off so I don’t bring you into it—you’re not wearing body armor.”

I feel an odd mixture of relief and disappointment at these words.

“But it could be a situation where I might have to hit the button and give you a 12-gauge to cover me and protect ourselves. All right?”

LISTEN UP Officer Nickell explains the importance of paying attention to a driver he pulled over for wearing headphones while at the wheel, which is illegal. Car phones, he said, also pose a danger, but their use behind the wheel remains legal in California.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

I nod, feeling like part of the team again.

Nickell continues his morning check and hits the button that turns on the bar of lights secured across the top of the car; the ones that get a driver’s attention.

“Oh,” I say, “These are the ones that make your stomach drop when you see them in the rearview mirror.”

“Yep,” he answers with a smile.

Nickell’s beat includes Highway 99 south of Chico and the Durham area, the town he plans to live and work in one day as a teacher at the high school.

His mission, he said, is simple: “It’s to keep accidents from happening and that is by being in view patrol; when they see us they slow down and that helps prevent traffic accidents.

“We have three ways to do our job,” he told me. “We do a verbal warning, a ticket or a physical arrest. I don’t have to write tickets to everything I see. Sometimes a verbal warning will do more than a ticket.”

The CHP also backs up local police and sheriff departments.

“We can go anywhere we want,” he explained. “The only area of jurisdiction we don’t have is federal land. There are agreements to help traffic enforcement in national parks but I can’t go into something like the veterans’ administration and enforce any laws.

“We can pursue all roads; all codes. That is what we say. You’ll see us downtown at night and people get surprised. When we are working graveyard and we swing downtown to help out we always hear, ‘Hey what’s the Highway Patrol doing down here?’ Our uniforms are different and they are not used to seeing us.”

On this, the second day of Spring Semester at Butte Community College, his duties included directing the long line of late-running and impatient students exiting the Pentz Road off-ramp of Highway 99.

One of the first things I asked him, after my morning briefing about the importance of memorizing the 11-99 “officer down” code, was his philosophy about pulling his gun.

“In 20 years I’ve pulled out my gun a lot and stuck it in a lot of people’s faces, but I’ve never, you know, fired it,” he said.

“What does it take to pull a gun?” I asked him.

“The defense of myself or another person being attacked; that is when the gun comes out. Or when we have a high-risk or felony situation—if we have a guy who’s known to be armed and dangerous something like that.

“It’s hard to say because we are trained for this type of work, but each situation is different. I might walk up to a car and my seventh sense says, ‘Hold on a second.’ I might just unsnap and prepare myself. It just gives you that extra edge in case…”

With that we headed across Ninth Street as the light turned yellow and accelerated onto 99. The mighty engine of the patrol car revved and I was pushed back into my seat as the automatic transmission shifted into high.

“Let’s get this thing warmed up,” Nickell said and we pulled onto the relatively light flow of traffic headed south at this hour. By contrast, the northbound lane was a river of headlights, commuters from Oroville and towns south headed to their Chico jobs.

“When I came up here in ‘95 it wasn’t like this,” he said looking at the stream of cars moving the opposite direction.

His car has a radar gun mounted on the dashboard that can calculate the speed of other vehicles, including those in the northbound lane.

“We estimate who’s speeding. All the radar does is verify our estimation. The radar can’t be [calibrated at] more than 5 mph off or we’re not certified. I’m within 2.

“I’m going south, they are going north so I’m looking for the fastest car right now. It’s probably this one here,” he said, referring to a gray subcompact that was passing a group of about five vehicles in the slow lane.

The radar, he noted, is tougher to use on cars emerging from a pocket of traffic.

It was only 7 a.m., too early to start directing traffic at Pentz Road. The first classes at Butte College don’t start until 8. So we headed to Durham.

TOP COP Capt. Al Smith is the Chico-area CHP commander. He said with pending budget cuts, he is hoping attrition through officer retirement will help him avoid making lay-offs. Currently, he said, CHP employees are retiring at a rate of about 28 per month.

Photo By Tom Angel

“When you work down here you get to know the people and they get to know you,” he told me as we passed the limits sign of the little town, population 3,260.

He was assigned early on by his commander to start patrolling the area.

“No one was really working Durham when I got up here, but traffic has increased as the population of the college has grown. They had trouble with people speeding in front of schools and Commander [Al] Smith told me to come down here and do what you have to do to get the situation back in line. I sort of adopted this town. I like the people. And they have the best school district here. You’re looking at hometown America.

“If I don’t get down here for a few days, they’ll call the office and ask where their highway patrolman is.”

Getting people to wear seatbelts in Durham is still a problem, even though the law’s been on the books for several years.

“It’s funny,” Nickell said, “the farmers won’t put them on here. I’ll pull them over and warn them. ‘I’m sorry, Tom,’ they’ll say. “'It won’t happen again.'”

We wanted some coffee so we headed to Terry Ann’s Kitchen & Pizza on Midway.

“Whoa, the Exchange Club is here,” he said as we wheeled into the gravel parking lot. We walked to the front door, which was locked with a sign announcing the Exchange Club pancake breakfast. Inside guys with gray flattops and flannel shirts were eating pancakes and drinking coffee.

Nickell tried the door; a couple of the breakfast eaters looked up and then went back to their pancakes. Nickell laughed and we headed back to the car.

“Did you watch CHiPs as a kid?” I asked, referring to the late-'70s cop show.

“Oh man, I knew you were gonna ask that,” he replied shaking his head.

He sang the opening notes of the theme song.

“We get that from the other agencies,” he said. “You know: ‘Hey Ponch, hey John.'”

When he worked in the L.A. area, he said, he on occasion ran into Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada, the show’s stars.

“Larry Wilcox’s car used to break down all the time in our area and he’d make these demands on us,” Nickell recalled. “We’d tell him, ‘You don’t demand anything from us. We’ll make arrangements to get you off this freeway, but you don’t demand us to do that.'”

In L.A., he said, he provided protective services and motorcades for presidents, candidates for office, TV and movies stars and once the king of Sweden.

He met Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr. and Al Gore.

“I’ve got a lot of stories, but most of them can’t be recorded,” he told me.

We got our coffee at the French Gourmet Bakery. In the parking lot we ran into a pretty young woman with long blond hair getting into a small blue sports car. She knew Nickell and they struck up a short conversation involving mutual acquaintances, Durham folk. Inside the café, he was greeted warmly by the woman behind the counter and two guys sitting at a table, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

He smiled and revealed the gap in his front teeth, which initiated another round of teasing and good-natured heckling.

“I was just eating chicken,” he said to more howls of laughter.

We left and headed back toward the Pentz exit of Highway 99. First, though, we visited the Durham Fire Station and shot the shit with local firefighters and then stopped at the Post Office where a local heating and air-conditioning worker with a circular-saw blade in his hand told Nickell about a recent driving experience he had with “a crazy woman.”

“Yep,” Nickel told the man, “you gotta be ready for anything.”

We drove through town and he pointed out various houses, where a troubled kid lived, the home of a sheriff’s deputy, and couple of houses, either of which he’d like to purchase some day.

ONLY SLEEPING A man in a broken-down truck waits for a friend’s help to arrive while Officer Nickell does a welfare check on Highway 99.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

He also pointed out a couple of roadside memorials marking spots where people had been killed in accidents.

He knew the victims by name and added details—"Her brother just got sent to Iraq,” or “They are a really nice family.”

On the way out of town we came to a four-way stop. It’s odd sitting inside a Highway Patrol car, watching the nervous reactions of the other drivers and assuming what is going through their minds as they wait to negotiate the intersection with a CHP: “If I go, will it be too soon? If I wait, will I look suspicious?”

I mentioned it to Nickell as we waited our turn. He just smiled and shook his head.

Then we saw a woman driver in a gray Buick sedan with only half of a nameplate on the trunk lid.

“Is she wearing headphones?” he asked.

She was, which is illegal. We pull in behind her and he notes there is something hanging from her rearview mirror, which is also illegal and enough to pull her over. We follow her and she reaches 48 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone. He turns on his lights. She continues to drive, oblivious of what is behind her. He turns on the siren. Nothing. He flashes his headlights and she finally looks into her rearview and pulls over.

He could have issued a speeding ticket, but instead gets her for wearing the headphones, a lesser infraction.

Right after that we came to a spot on Pentz where Caltrans was doing some roadside work. We saw a guy in a mini-truck coming the other way. He was not wearing his seatbelt and when he saw us he started to fumble for it and his vehicle weaved slightly.

“Geez,” Nickell said as we passed. “Don’t crash putting your seatbelt on, buddy. Did you see that?”

When we got to 99, it was a few minutes before 8 o’clock. The exit was full and there was a long line of traffic coming in from Durham.

“OK, I’m going to try to keep my ass from getting run over,” he said as he parked. “It’s been run over once and that sucks, man.”

The sun was just coming up, shining pink through the misty southeast horizon. Nickell took his place in the middle of Pentz and rubbed his hands together to warm them up as cars knifed past. A young woman driver coming from Durham yelled out and waved: “Hey Tom!”

But other drivers, who’ve obviously had encounters with Nickell, flipped him off. He just sort of smiled and shook his head and waved the traffic through. Once things were back under control, we headed east on Pentz toward the school.

He expressed some disappointment that he wasn’t getting his usual number of stops.

I asked him if there’s a quota.

“No,” he said, “there’s no quota for handing out tickets. That’s a myth. There are goals in different areas and trust me, you could be busy giving out tickets all day.

We spent the next few hours on Pentz and 99, trolling for violators. On northbound 99 we came upon a blue Nissan pickup pulled over to the side. The person inside was slumped against the passenger door.

“He could be sleeping because he’s tired, passed out from being drunk, we don’t know,” Nickell said as he pulled over behind the truck.

Traffic whizzed by at a frightening speed. He approached the passenger side and knocked on the window. The person inside jerked and looked up. He rolled the window down and spoke briefly with Nickell, who then returned to his patrol car.

“He broke down and is waiting for his buddy to come and help him,” Nickell said simply.

We pulled back on the road and were passed by a young woman driving a blue Saturn. Nickell saw that she had a radar detector attached to her sun visor.

“Hey, that’s cheating,” he said. “That’s not right.”

He pulled her over. She told him she was doing 70 and showed him her license, which is a provisional. She is 17. She got her ticket for speeding, signed it and thanked Nickell.

ROADSIDE REST This memorial to two Biggs High School students killed in an accident July 26, 2001 sits on the north side of Pentz Road, about a half mile from Highway 99. It is one of many in the area stretching from here west to Durham, and north along the Midway and Hegan Lane.

Photo By Tom Angel

That gratitude, surprisingly, happens quite often. And Nickell will cut a driver slack—attitude is important—if he feels the case warrants it.

(As a side-note, your occupation can play into your fate, as well. Let’s just say being an ER nurse who sometimes helps CHP officers in the field by drawing blood on DUI suspects doesn’t hurt your chances of catching a break.)

A short time later we were back on Pentz headed west when something I didn’t see caught Nickell’s eye.

“I’m giving this one a ticket,” he said as we wheeled into a u-turn.

We pulled in behind a black Honda Accord, lowered and tricked out. It was missing its front license plate, which is illegal in California and reason enough to make the stop. Two Butte College students were inside on their way to school.

Why would he pull over a vehicle for a missing license plate? I wondered. That is a fairly common thing.

Because of all the radio traffic, he had trouble getting through to the dispatcher back in Chico. As he waited he told me that in Los Angeles at times it is nearly impossible to get your information in a timely manner because of all the transmission traffic on the radio.

While we waited, other college students running late for class whizzed past, craning their heads to see what was going on.

“The longer we wait the better the chances of getting taken out by a car,” Nickell said.

He finally got through to dispatch. As it turned out the driver had two outstanding driving-on-suspended-license violations. The license had been suspended for DUI. Nickell’s instinct paid off.

He then called for backup and a tow truck. The car would be impounded, but not for the 10-day period he could have imposed.

“He told me right away what was going on,” Nickell explained. “He didn’t try to lie to me and that saves the kid about $1,000.”

While we were waiting his backup, Officer Barry Sbragia, arrived. Sbragia comes closer to the physical stereotype for the CHP officer. He has the glasses and the serious-looking face. He reminds me of the late actor David Janssen from The Fugitive. Nickell told me to ask Sbragia about out-of-state license plates.

Sbragia says there are any number of California residents illegally driving vehicles that are registered out of state. People move here, take up residency, start working but don’t bother to get California plates.

In his opinion, the state loses up to a quarter-billion dollars per year to these folks.

“If I could pull over every out-of-state plate I see, two out of three would be illegal,” he told me. “Just drive through the Mission Ranch Apartments and see how many out-of-state plates you see.”

Sbragia can’t pull a driver over simply for out-of-state plates. That does not meet the standard of probable cause.

“If I did, I’d be out of a job,” he said.

Suspicious vehicles with out-of-state plates, he said, include motor homes, clean trucks with Alaska plates and any car from Hawaii.

“Who ships their car over here from Hawaii just while visiting?” he asked.

For me the day was over. Nickell drove me back to the CHP office and dropped me off, a bit disappointed with the lack of tickets issued and stops made on the day the press was along for the ride. I saw him a week later and he told me he’d made 18 stops that day.

“You should have been with me,” he said.

“Yeah,” I told him. “Especially now that your teeth are fixed.”

I drive around now noticing things like missing front license plates and out-of-state cars. There are more than I would have suspected. I also have a new respect—genuine as opposed to forced by fear—for the CHP officer.

On the walls of the break room back in the Chico-area office, newspaper clippings about local CHP officers are taped up with smart-ass writings scrawled next to them.

“This is how we deal,” Nickell told me. “We sit around and joke. A little levity. It’s our way of de-stressing; nothing is sacred.”

I have a strong suspicion this article will end up on that break room wall.