The patrol car ranged past the river of traffic along San Francisco’s southern edge, the easy mechanical rumble of the freeway belying the roadway’s ever-present — sometimes fatal — dangers.
“I’ve seen a lot of crashes,” said the California Highway Patrol officer as his car groaned along Interstate 280, somewhere just past City College of San Francisco’s hillside perch. “I never really realized how dangerous [the highway] was.”
An affable former car mechanic and vegan with thinning blond hair, Officer T.J. Shively is one of approximately 80 CHP officers who work out of the Golden Gate Division’s bunker-like South of Market headquarters, a block from the former San Francisco Police Department headquarters at 850 Bryant St.
From it’s edge-of-freeway home, the state’s main law enforcement presence in The City is manned every day by a small band of officers who patrol the highways, bridges and roads from foggy Pacifica to the traffic-filled Bay Bridge’s eastern span, looking for broken down cars, speeders, drunk drivers and protesters.
On Thursday night, the 10-man crew assigned to the St. Patrick’s Day’s late shift began its work day in collegial high spirits as the acting commander read out assignments. On the walls behind him were aerial photos of the The City’s Central Freeway. On the floor nearby, boxes of recovered stolen license plates sat beside thick stacks of blue 2016 penal code books.
“The goal is to get drunk drivers off the road,” Shively said of the St. Patrick’s Day shift as he downed one of several clementines and threw the rinds into a nearby trash can.
“Before they crash,” quipped Officer Jake Johnson, dressed in the CHP’s ubiquitous tan uniform.
ALONG FOR THE RIDE
Around 6 p.m., after pushing through SoMa’s end-of-day commuter traffic, Shively’s patrol car rolled onto I-280, passing a giant billboard with red letters reading: “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.”
Shively’s beat for the night was a stretch of I-280 from north of Daly City to San Bruno.
“Golden Gate 3221,” he said minutes later into the microphone as he passed into Daly City, noting his call sign.
Shively never imagined he’d be working in law enforcement, but now can’t imagine doing much else.
“It feels good to be out on the road all the time,” he said, noting he spends most of his hours alone on the open highway. “Anything you can think of, we’ve seen it on the highway.”
Along a dull section of highway in San Bruno, the seven-year veteran came upon his first stop of the shift: a small Honda sedan with chipped paint and bubbling rear window tint job. The driver, a woman from South San Francisco, had been using her cellphone.
Shively approached the vehicle with one hand on his Smith & Wesson and leaned into the passenger side window, simultaneously smelling for alcohol or marijuana and getting a good look at the driver’s eyes and demeanor.
“She knew she was busted,” he said as he filled out her ticket along the side of the road. Five minutes later, the driver was on her way, and Shively was driving north, looking for speeding drivers on their commute home.
But the job of a CHP officer isn’t all speeders and cellphone users.
The gore of the very dangerous place that is a freeway is an unwelcome but inescapable constant.
As Shively eased across the line from San Francisco into San Mateo County, he recalled things he’s seen on the road. He’s seen a man who’d drunkenly wandered onto a freeway and was struck by a car. It knocked his head off; brain matter splattered across the car and its passengers. He’s seen motorcycle wrecks and pedestrians jump from bridges.
“We see people at their worst,” he said. “It helps to have compassion.”
But one accident in particular sticks in Shively head: A 52-year-old drunken man was driving on state Highway 1 near Devil’s Slide when he rear ended another car. One of the passengers, a tourist from Italy who was wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car and was killed.
As Shively continued into Pacifica, the fog-grayed surf rumpled the coast, and he came upon a broken down car near an on-ramp. “Hi there,” he said, waving at the car’s driver and leaning in to find out what had happened. Shively was driving back toward Daly City within minutes of the tow truck’s arrival.
Not all stops are so simple or safe.
The Smith & Wesson on Shively’s hip has never be fired on the job. But he has come close to using it more than once.
In 2013, he pulled over a drunken driver with his partner. When he asked the driver to get out of the car, the man reached to place his registration back in the glove box.
“No, get out of the car,” Shively remembered telling the driver. Then, as the man reached for his waist, Shively saw a pistol. He quickly grabbed the man’s arm as his partner did the same.
“I could have pulled my gun and shot him,” he recalled. Now when he thinks of pulling his gun and shooting someone, Shively thinks less of his own safety and more of other consequences.
The recent media focus on misconduct scandals at the SFPD and San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has mostly bypassed the state’s roughly 7,000-person San Francisco-based unit. But doesn’t mean scandals haven’t touched the agency.
In 2014, for instance, officers with the CHP’s Dublin office were part of a scandal that involved sharing naked images from the cellphones of female detainees. Additionally, the Golden Gate Division, which covers nine Bay Area Counties, has been scrutinized for its handling of Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland. With activists specifically targeting freeways and bridges — the Bay Bridge blockade in January as the most recent example — the CHP may not stay out of future headlines.
Still, such problems haven’t changed the daily routine on local roads.
By 8:15 p.m., Shively was back in San Francisco, at the scene of a fight one of his colleagues had spotted in the Bayview. A shirtless man stood near his unregistered trailer in a garbage-strewn side street and explained his situation to a group of bemused SFPD officers and CHP.
“I am a victim,” said the man. “This guy just came at me.”
Within an hour, Shively was on the Bay Bridge — the scene of many of the more strange incidents to which he‘s responded. He was on the search team when a woman jumped from the eastern span after an officer tried to detain her. He also once came upon a naked man running on the eastern span of the bridge before he swan dived into the Bay to his death.
The radio crackled. A motorist was broken down on the western span. Shively found one of his colleagues helping a man whose unlicensed scooter had conked out. After lighting a line of flares to guide traffic, Shively and the other officer followed the man as he pumped his leg along the side of the scooter and coasted the best he could toward the first San Francisco exit. He’d have waited, but there were apparently no tow trucks available.
The white-helmeted scooter driver rolled down the Fremont Street exit along with his CHP escort and waved to them as he hefted the two- wheeler onto the curb.
The scooter turned out to be the night’s highlight. By the end of Shively’s shift at 10:30 p.m., there were no DUIs, wrecks or speeders. It had been a quiet night.