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CHP Officer Has Experienced It All, but Worst Part Is ‘Seeing Death’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He’s met presidents and prime ministers and been spit on and attacked by irate motorists.

It’s all part of the job for Alvin Yamaguchi, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer who tries to keep the peace on Orange County freeways. After 15 years on the job, the 40-year-old resident of Orange says it’s never been harder.

“You see a lot of stress out there, especially on the 91 Freeway. People are just so sick and tired of making this commute every day. You see bumper stickers out there that say, ‘I survived the 91,’ ” Yamaguchi said.

“And when something happens out there like an accident that boxes up the freeway, some motorists just blow a fuse. Instead of pulling off the road, going to a coffee shop, relaxing, letting the commute go for a while, they fight their way through it. You can see them pounding on their steering wheels. Then they resort to breaking the law, passing on the shoulder or driving illegally over the yellow delineators into the express lane. They don’t care.”

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When Yamaguchi joined the California Highway Patrol in 1982, working out of the Santa Fe Springs station, motorists generally were respectful of the officers who stopped them, he said. No more.

“I had my thumb nearly ripped off fighting with a drunk in Mission Viejo who didn’t want to be arrested. The guy was driving on the shoulder at 70 mph while traffic was stopped. I had to have reconstructive surgery to put my thumb back together. I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, spit on--you name it.

“They vent all their anger by yelling and screaming at me, saying, ‘Haven’t you got anything better to do? You should be out there catching criminals.’ Then you tell them, ‘Well, you’re the one who broke the law. That’s why I pulled you over.’ Somebody who’s driving on the shoulder can kill a Caltrans worker. It happens all the time.”

Record levels of traffic congestion, Yamaguchi said, are to blame for an epidemic of road rage on Southern California freeways.

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“You do see people out there shooting out each other’s windows, but they’re mostly throwing objects at each other. They use whatever is at hand. I’ve seen a guy throwing a bunch of pennies at a guy, denting up his car. I saw one guy throwing a large Coke, a Big Gulp, through his window at this other guy in a Lexus. We’ve seen fights where the drivers will pull over on the shoulder and one guy will pull out a crowbar and start stabbing the other guy with it.

“The worst-case scenario is where somebody pulls out a gun. And we have those calls on a daily basis here, where somebody’s brandishing a weapon. And it’s usually caused by something real stupid, like somebody didn’t use their signal and cut somebody else off.

“Or they were in the fast lane and somebody who wanted to go faster swings around them real close. Instead of just letting that person go, they have to make their statement, so they do something in retaliation, and it escalates.”

At least work is never dull. Yamaguchi has delivered two babies, nabbed carpool violators trying to pass mannequins off as passengers, and once caught a 35-pound carp with his bare hands while directing traffic at a flooded intersection in Irvine.

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Yamaguchi has been patrolling Orange County freeways since 1985; he has been on a motorcycle since 1988.

When not on traffic duty, he escorts visiting politicians and foreign dignitaries as a member of the CHP’s protective services division.

The sight of a CHP officer in the rear-view mirror may seem intimidating to the average motorist, but Yamaguchi says it is often the officers who feel intimidated by the hordes of unruly motorists they monitor. On an average day, there are only 30 to 40 officers patrolling Orange County’s freeways and unincorporated areas.

“We’re only a very small minority out there. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of cars on a freeway, sometimes with just one officer. I was patrolling the 91 by myself today.

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“On a motorcycle, you don’t have the protection of the doors and the body around you. You’re basically a target. So here you are in a uniform, riding on a marked motorcycle unit for anybody to take potshots at you or run you over. I wear a bulletproof vest--always.”

Yamaguchi wants motorists to understand that his job is to help keep the roads safe, not to wantonly harass drivers. And though he’s been attacked by motorists and injured in collisions, he said the hardest part of the job is witnessing the carnage on Southern California freeways.

“I don’t want people to see everything that we see out there, but if more of them knew about what can happen--the people being sprawled out after an accident, whole families that are killed when the whole thing could have been so easily avoided--maybe they’d be more careful.

“Sometimes I think about all the hundreds and hundreds of fatalities I’ve seen. I can still remember every single one of them.

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“Some people say, ‘You’re made of stone; you’re just a cop.’ But I’m a human being, and this stuff sticks to you. It wears on you. You can get real tired of seeing death. But this is still one of the most rewarding jobs out there because you’re actually doing something for people. It’s definitely a high-stress job, but overall, there’s more satisfaction out there than bad times.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Alvin Yamaguchi

Age: 40

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Hometown: Anaheim

Residence: Orange

Family: Wife, LaVerne; two school-age children

Education: Graduated from Katella High School in Anaheim; studied art and public relations at Fullerton and Cypress colleges; graduated from the California Highway Patrol Academy in Sacramento; advanced instruction in drug recognition, officer training, traffic accident reconstruction and protective services

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Background: Customer representative for ICEE-USA, an Anaheim shaved-ice soft drink company, 1976-82; became a California Highway Patrol officer in 1982, working out of the Santa Fe Springs station; transferred to San Juan Capistrano in 1985; motorcycle officer since 1988, working out of Santa Ana; trains other officers in fieldwork and motorcycle patrol; worked on protective services duty for more than 10 years, guarding and escorting high-profile political leaders

On road rage: “I’ve had people righteously cut me off when I’m driving my personal car and do things that made me wish I was on duty at the time. You blow it off. And that’s what I tell a lot of the people that I stop: Don’t take it personally.”

Source: Alvin Yamaguchi; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times

Los Angeles Times

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