Residents say they'll have to get used to officers who don't know them and their region's quirky roads - and some fear response times will be slower.
By Brian Joseph
The Sacramento Bee
January 15, 2006
Change isn't easy in a place where a curve in the road is named for a restaurant that closed there 20 years ago.
So it's no surprise that residents of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta were upset recently when they learned the California Highway Patrol was planning to eliminate the region's resident officer program.
For 60 years, the CHP officers who patrolled the Delta have also lived there. After their shifts, they'd return home with their squad cars and remain on call.
For the community, having officers nearby meant a quicker response in an emergency. Their familiarity with the terrain also meant precious minutes wouldn't be wasted while officers searched for addresses.
"We wish everything could stay the same. It's working," said Joey Sanchez, chief of the volunteer Walnut Grove Fire Department.
Sanchez often works with the Delta's two resident officers, brothers Dan and Matt Lawton. Matt has worked in the Delta for eight years, Dan for 13 years.
"These boys know (the Delta)," Sanchez said.
Matt Lawton agrees. "I think I do a better job because I live out here," he said.
CHP administrators say the Delta, with its rising number of fatal car crashes, has outgrown the resident program. Starting March 1, they are eliminating the two resident officer posts and making the Delta a regular beat.
This means the Delta region will be patrolled 24 hours a day by a pool of 10 officers, instead of, at most, 16 hours a day by two specific officers. There will be one squad car per shift.
Under the plan, the Lawton brothers will keep their jobs and could continue to patrol the Delta, but they won't be able to drive their squad cars home and won't be on call after their shifts.
The change also means strangers could be patrolling the Delta. That has residents worried.
"When you have resident officers, they fully understand the Delta and where to respond and where the problem is at," said John Baranek, a resident of Courtland. "The biggest problem is you have islands. And on the islands, you don't have normal road layouts. Nothing is square. You have rivers and sloughs (to deal with)."
Then there's the issue of community landmarks. Residents say addresses and street names are virtually worthless when giving directions in the Delta. So, instead, they use landmarks that don't show up on any map - "the Old Fruit Stand," "Glass Beach," "The Stink Plant." A bend just north of the Antioch Bridge is called the "Bean Pot" for a restaurant that closed there two decades ago.
Residents say the only way officers can pick up the local terrain is to live there. Craig Bettencourt of Rio Vista, whose wife Debbie helped collect 2,000 signatures protesting the CHP change, said the Delta needs an officer who is a local, "someone that's going to know the levee roads."
Dan and Matt Lawton also would like to see the resident program stay.
"If there's a way to keep the resident program, it's probably good for the Delta and for the Highway Patrol," Dan said.
River Delta Fire Chief Rick Carter said he thinks losing the resident officers will cause "mayhem." He said he's convinced CHP response times will go up with officers unfamiliar with the Delta.
"Nobody is able to fill their shoes," Carter said of the resident officers.
But CHP Assistant Chief John Rolin, who heads the division that covers Sacramento County, said the resident program has outlived its usefulness in the Delta. He said the program is designed for sparsely populated areas with little activity, places like Truckee or Death Valley.
The Delta, however, isn't a sleepy community anymore, thanks to Bay Area commuters.
The increase in traffic, combined with the Delta's winding roads, has fueled an increase in fatal highway accidents, Rolin said. In 1999, seven of the 50 fatal accidents in south Sacramento County were in the Delta - 14 percent. In 2005, it was 26 percent.
Capt. Andy Jones, who oversees the south Sacramento office, said the change will allow the CHP to provide more coverage in the Delta. As it is now, when one of the Lawton brothers goes on vacation, the Delta is covered by a patrolling officer only one shift a day.
And at nights, the brothers are on call, not out patrolling, Jones said.
"I really think the community is going to see a marked improvement in service," he said.
Jones said the Lawton brothers will be allowed to continue patrolling the Delta region, if they'd like. But they'll have to pick up and drop off their squad cars at a substation in Galt.
Both Lawton brothers say they might not want to continue patrolling the Delta if it means a commute to Galt. In fact, the brothers said they are thinking about moving from the Delta.
"I don't like the idea of commuting to work. I've enjoyed having a take-home car," Matt Lawton said.