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Highway Patrol Officers in Middle of the Action

Times Staff Writer

There’s no escape from the traffic jam that surrounds Melanie Weaver when she goes to work.

And it’s not just because she spends most of her day on the road as a California Highway Patrol officer.

It’s because she works out of a CHP office that sits squarely in the middle of one of the world’s busiest freeway interchanges: where the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways meet south of downtown Los Angeles.

Overhead onramps, offramps and travel lanes for the two freeways used by 576,500 vehicles a day completely encircle the CHP’s Central Los Angeles Area headquarters.

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There’s a constant whoosh from cars and the roar and rumble of trucks heading every direction 50 feet above the station.

Some visitors who find themselves circling the interchange several times before locating the headquarters’ entrance consider it the most obscure CHP office in the state. To millions of others, however, it’s a familiar symbol of the Highway Patrol.

For six years during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the office was used as the setting for “CHiPs,” a television series featuring two CHP motorcycle officers who solved crimes and mended broken hearts as easily as they untangled traffic tie- ups.

Reruns of the show still appear on cable, prompting fans from all over to search out the office when they visit Los Angeles.

The CHP site, which uses the confusing address of 777 W. Washington Blvd., opened as a temporary post in 1969. The portable prefabricated buildings were bolted together on surplus California Department of Transportation land and designed to last no more than 10 years.

But being ground zero beneath the interchange turned out to be convenient for officers, who brag that they are at the center of “the busiest 52 miles of roadways in the world.”

Last year, officials built a $4.5-million, heavily soundproofed headquarters under the freeway lanes and tore down the old one. The CHP leases the site for $16,000 a month from Caltrans.

The old station’s 34-year-old briefing-room tables and sergeant’s lectern were recycled for the new facility. It’s the same furniture used in the pilot and initial episodes of “CHiPs” and later duplicated on a sound stage.

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The blur of traffic circling above the office is the same, too. There are frequent overhead crashes. And naturally, the officers down below have to investigate.

“You never get used to the crunching sound from a collision,” said Weaver, who has worked at the station eight years. “Sometimes you can’t see the crash because of the angle of the overhead lanes, but you hear the screeching tires. You’ll hear a truck screech and look up and see the cloud of smoke from the tires, and you see the top of the truck jolt when it hits something.”

Officers at the station writing reports or readying patrol-car equipment for a shift on the freeways will jump in their cars or motorcycles and race to the top of the interchange if the crash sounds serious. Otherwise, they report it to their dispatch center in Hollywood.

They watch for stalled cars and trucks overhead too.

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“You look up and hope nothing hits it while you’re calling things in,” said Officer Angela Buchanan. “There’s no other CHP office this close to the action.”

It’s almost too close for rookie officers who draw the central area as their first assignment.

“It was shocking. It was nothing I’d ever experienced before,” Officer Josh Kolstad said of his deployment there from the Highway Patrol Academy two years ago. Where he’s from, in Washington state, freeway interchanges are landscaped and quiet, he said.

“I’d never imagined you’d hear cars spinning out and crashing when you walk into work,” he said. “They warned me I was moving to the concrete jungle. It was true.”

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Officer Brandy Aquiniga agrees. “In some ways, it’s overwhelming. You wonder about trucks dropping in on us,” said the 15-month veteran.

That has never happened, although a public transit bus careening down the transition road from the eastbound Santa Monica to the southbound Harbor Freeway came close earlier this month.

“It rammed the wall and loosened some concrete and railing” above the CHP parking lot, said Officer Alex Delgadillo, a 20-year veteran and the station’s public affairs officer.

Caltrans workers watch for deteriorating or loose concrete and chisel it from the overhead bridges before it can fall on patrol cars or other vehicles parked below, he said.

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And although ricocheting wheels or other car parts have never tumbled onto the building or the parking lot, bottles are occasionally lobbed over the freeway railing -- perhaps by motorists unhappy about being ticketed by the station’s 168 patrol officers.

“Every time I go to my car, I have a pot I put on my head in case somebody throws a shoe,” joked Delgadillo.

“CHiPs” co-star Erik Estrada was a guest at the rededication of the office earlier this month. One of the station’s motorcycle officers, the now-retired Bob Wilson of Mentone in San Bernardino County, remembers teaching Estrada and co-star Larry Wilcox how to ride the program’s trademark motorcycles.

In “CHiPs” reruns, former officers Bruce Weidmer and Bob Hayden from the station are the pair seen riding at the start of the show, said Delgadillo.

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The CHP motorcycles depicted in the series had a major impact on one viewer. Show fan Jaret Paulson grew up to become a real CHP motorcycle officer working out of the “CHiPs” station. Now 29, he has been assigned to freeway patrol duty there for nearly six years.

The station’s front-seat freeway location “is true to the environment” that CHP officers face, he said. But “CHiPs” wasn’t.

“Half the stuff they did at the beach and on city streets would get a real CHP officer fired in a heartbeat,” Paulson said of the rule-bending, happy-go-lucky characters portrayed by Estrada and Wilcox.

In other words, it’s the highway if you do it the “CHiPs” way instead of the CHP’s way beneath the freeway.

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