Summer driving season is almost here, which means you'll soon be on the lookout for a great roadside stand, a pretty rest stop—and that eagle-eyed cop on the side of the highway. We asked Keith Dittimus, a 30-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol—"CHiP"—what it's like on the other side of the flashing light.
I grew up in the era of theCHiPsTV show, and for five and a half years I couldn't believe I got paid to ride a motorcycle—it was so much fun. A lot of the parades and a lot of the motorcade processions are done exclusively with motorcycles, so you get to do things that officers in a car don't.
In Japan and in many Asian countries, the CHiP is very, very popular, so when the tourists see the Highway Patrol officers at, say, Vista Point near the Golden Gate Bridge, they all want to take your picture. They'll point and go, "CHiP!" So you let them take a picture sitting on top of the motorcycle. It builds goodwill for the department, and you start to spend an inordinate amount of time—delightfully so—taking pictures with tourists. I'm probably on a couple thousand mantles.
During my 13 years in the Protective Services Division-PSD-I worked details for presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and their vice presidents. I had a funny experience with Nancy Reagan. We were in the Secret Service command room at a hotel. There was a knock. I opened the door, and she was standing there with a tin of cookies for the Secret Service guys. I'm just standing there, staring at her, like, "This is Nancy Reagan!" And she's like, "Well... would you take the cookies?"
Hollywood has done a lot to make the public believe that we live for high-speed chases. That couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who's ever put on a badge and been in a close, hairy chase doesn't like them. Your adrenaline does go through the roof, but then you realize that there's a lot at stake. A close friend was in a pursuit years ago, and an innocent lady—a mother-was killed. He was torn up over it. That's the part the public has to realize—we're people just like everybody else. We have feelings.
So many people try to make excuses. One time I stopped a doctor in Marin County, and he said he'd been called to the local hospital to perform an emergency surgery. I was skeptical, but I didn't want to chance jeopardizing someone's life. I took his driver's license and told him I'd have CHiP dispatch confirm with the hospital while I followed him to the ER. We got about a mile down the highway before he pulled over and confessed that he was late for a dinner date. I can assure you, that was one expensive date! When a highway patrolman pulls you over, they're pulling you over because they observed you doing something. Just be honest and straightforward. A lot of times, you can walk away with a verbal warning and not get a ticket. We see so many dishonest people, when somebody finally is honest with you, it's gratifying enough to give them a break!