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CHP Officers Take Spin in the Spotlight

Broadcasting traffic reports turns them into celebrities, complete with autograph seekers and fan mail.

June 14, 1996|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're the polar opposite of undercover cops. Celebrity CHiPs.

Gawking fans pester them for autographs. As with movie stars, their presence at public gatherings gets announced. People see them on television and seek their counsel.

It's a split-personality life, being one of those California Highway Patrol officers who broadcast radio and TV reports of traffic conditions and other highway news.

To their fans, they're broadcast celebrities who rescue commuters from traffic hell. To themselves, they're officers first.

"It's a lot of fun and I enjoy doing it," said CHP Officer Rhett S. Price, who does weekday morning traffic reports for KABC-TV Channel 7. "But the truth is I didn't join the Highway Patrol to become a traffic reporter.

"We are CHP officers and not broadcasters," added Price's boss, Sgt. Ernie Garcia.

Still, not since actors Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox mounted their motorcycles as Ponch and Jon in the '70s action series "CHiPs" has the California Highway Patrol uniform been such a big draw on TV. The CHP public affairs office now provides regular traffic reports to 11 radio stations and one television station in the Los Angeles area.

Putting officers on the air, instead of just feeding the information to reporters, began in 1980.

"We figured, 'Hey, we're the horse's mouth, we are the ones who provide these folks with the information. Why don't we do the same thing that they do with the traffic reports?' " Garcia recalled.

Having a public information officer give traffic reports also helped reduce the burden of reporters' phone calls on the CHP's communication center.

Soon the CHP was providing voice-only traffic reports free of charge, because the reports are considered a public service.

The CHP reports are even greeted warmly by local traffic reporting services, which bear the tax-supported competitors no resentment.

"I think it's cool that they do it," said Rhonda Kramer, an anchor with Shadow Traffic, which sells traffic reports to radio stations. "There's no conflict at all. We work well with the CHP." Also, the commercial services point out, the CHP is only on the air during the day on weekdays.

The evolution of highway cops to television stars began eight years ago when KABC-TV installed a camera at the CHP Southern Division headquarters in Glendale, Garcia said.

Since then, more than a dozen CHP public information officers have made the transition to television broadcaster, including Garcia, Lt. Jill Angel and Officer Glen Dominguez.

To be chosen for the spots, the officers must land a CHP public relations assignment, then either voice an interest in going on the air or be selected by CHP brass. A KABC producer and news director are also in on the decisions.

"They're basically looking for officers with on-air charisma, personality and the ability to think fast on their feet," Price said.

When they're not on the air, the officers respond to media questions and write press releases and correspondence for the chief's office.

Price and Officer Pablo L. Torres currently share the KABC duties, Price covering the hectic morning shift and Torres the afternoon rush hour.

So just how difficult is it to learn how to talk to a camera?

"Actually it was pretty easy," Torres said. "I had to get over the initial shock of being on TV. I was thinking about those millions of viewers looking back at me."

Torres and his colleagues hope that their friendly and professional reports have improved their department's image. And if the public's reaction to the officers is an indicator, they can rest easy.

The phone calls and fan mail, including letters from viewers who ask traffic-related questions, flow in regularly. More than one viewer has written asking whether they are in fact real CHP officers or professional broadcasters masquerading in law enforcement uniforms.

Price learned how well known he has become when he was recognized by a ride operator at Disneyland who "broadcast to the entire line of people that I was there," Price recalled with a laugh. "It was kind of embarrassing."

Then there was the time he was recognized by a motorist he had pulled over for speeding.

"He said to me, 'Hey, you're the guy on TV--wait till I tell my wife who I got a ticket from,' " Price recalled.

Torres said viewers regularly stop him on the street to chat.

"A lot of times they ask for my autograph, which I'm not used to and tends to make me blush," he said.

*

Glamour aside, all of the officers said it is their ability to serve the public that they enjoy most about their high-profile jobs. But the pull of the two very different worlds is strong.

Angel, who took a leave of absence three years ago to become a full-time traffic and weather reporter, returned to the CHP about 10 months later, in part because she missed police work.

Now she finds she misses broadcasting too. "I could go on air and say something that would be heard from San Diego to Santa Barbara," she said. "I felt like I could impact a lot of people by reminding them to wear their seat belts and to check their tire pressure. I miss that."

But her broadcasting days are probably over. Promoted to lieutenant earlier this year, she now works at CHP headquarters in Sacramento, aiming for a promotion to captain.

Yet she says she will always cherish memories of her days as a reporter.

"I loved being on the air," Angel said. "I guess I'm a bit of a ham, but it was fun to do--even on the rainy days when I was inundated with phone calls. It was intense, but I loved it."

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