December 13, 2017

Meet the Canyon's C.O.P.S.

 



By the time I stroll into the West Valley station of the California Highway Patrol shortly after 8 a.m., Officer Ray Abramian and his colleagues have been hard at work for more than an hour, sorting their way through never-ending piles of paperwork and putting the finishing touches on the parking and traffic plans for a holiday open house at an area hospice.

Abramian ushers me behind the desk and introduces me to an elite four-member Highway Patrol Team whose job it is to respond to the special needs of the Topanga community. They proudly call themselves “COPS.” The acronym stands for “Community Outreach and Partnership Section,” according to the CHP Public Affairs Officer Leland Tang.

It’s a program Topanga is lucky to have.

Once fully funded by the CHP throughout the state, Tang says the COPS program has fallen victim in most neighborhoods, as CHP commanders have found themselves forced to make tough decisions to assign officers to other duties. Today Topanga, as part of the unincorporated Santa Monica Mountain area, and Baldwin Park are the only two communities in Southern California that retain their COPS programs, according to Tang.

Officer Ray Abramian and the three fellow Highway Patrolmen that make up Topanga’s COPS team—Officers Kevin James, Rich Langford, and John Mueller—are true believers in the value of the program, especially for a community like Topanga. All of them volunteered for the job, and all of them say they’re happy to have earned the special assignment, despite the extra evening meetings and other duties it entails.

“If the COPS program weren’t here, Topanga would be serviced by only by beat officers. The COPS approach lets us provide a much higher level of service to Topanga and the surrounding community,” says Officer Kevin James, the senior member of the Topanga COPS team, with more than 12 years CHP experience patrolling the state’s highways under his belt. “To understand why, you need to understand how the beat assignment system works.”

Beat assignments are handed out during roll call at the various station houses on a daily basis. The most senior officer present that shift gets his or her choice of assignment, and so forth down the line on the basis of seniority, says James. A beat officer may find himself “in Topanga Canyon one day, on the 118 the next,” James says.

In contrast, says Captain Craig Klein, commander of the West Valley District that includes Topanga, the COPS program enables the CHP to provide a higher level of service and greater consistency to law enforcement in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“We assign patrol units to Topanga every shift. But these units supplement our COPS team of four individuals who really know the area and its needs. They are able to attend fire meetings and participate in emergency preparedness planning. They know the Pat Mac Neills and Allen Emersons in the community,” says Captain Klein. The officers involved in the COPS program feel it allows them to bring a “more personal slant on law enforcement” in Topanga. For example, a beat officer assigned to the Canyon for just one day might be limited to issuing tickets to violators. In contrast, as a member of Topanga’s COPS Team, Officer James, who looks like a modern-day Jon Baker straight off a CHiPs TV set in his highly polished, knee-length boots and motorcycle jacket, has become a familiar fixture at the Topanga Traffic Safety Committee and other community groups.

James and his fellow officers say they relish the opportunity to work with the community to determine the source of actual and potential traffic problems and develop solutions, rather than simply citing violators.

“It’s far more efficient in the long-term to address problems at their root,” says COPS Team member Officer Rich Langford. Langford, a strapping young man with an engaging sense of humor, has nearly ten years experience as a CHP officer.

Like his fellow COPS Team members, Officer John Mueller, another ten-year CHP veteran, says he went into law enforcement to help people and to make a difference in his community.

“We go to town hall meetings all over the West Valley District,” he says, “and you’d be surprised. People’s number one quality of life complaint is traffic. It’s not loud parties at night. It’s not dogs barking. It’s traffic.

“When we go out to public meetings, we are not just listening to the issues that deal with us directly, we are also thinking about who could solve the problems that are being raised,” says Mueller.

PHOTOS BY LEE MICHAELSON

Meet the Canyon

CHP officer Ray Abramian, one of the four-man COPS team, is looking out for Topanga.



Officer Abramian, the youngest member of the Topanga COPS Team, agrees. “One of the big advantages of the COPS program is that when people call with a problem, it may not be something the CHP can address directly. But I can usually put people in touch with someone who can do something about it.”

For the COPS program to succeed, however, the officers rely on the community to do its part. At times, that has proved a bit frustrating.

For example, August 10 was Officer Abramian’s birthday. Instead of taking the night off to celebrate this summer, he joined his fellow COPS officers, firefighters, and representatives of other public safety agencies at a fire preparedness meeting in Topanga.

“We sent out letters to the whole community,” says Mueller, “but only 25 people showed up. Most of them were from the public agencies.”

“The sad thing about it is,” says Langford, “all the cars we’ve towed since then could have been avoided if people had simply shown up and participated at the meeting. Instead, now we’re getting all kinds of complaints—‘Why are you towing me?’ ‘Why are you hassling us?’”

Langford says the stepped up enforcement isn’t arbitrary, but came in direct response to Engine 69’s call for improved road access in event of a fire, an issue discussed at length at the August 10 meeting. “We really want people’s input at the front end of the process. The people at the meeting had some really good suggestions.”

To a man, however, the officers say the rapport they share with Topanga’s citizens is one of the most enjoyable parts of their job. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why Captain Klein has saved the program in the Santa Mountains even though it is no longer budgeted by the state.

When the state cut the funds for the program, Klein made the decision to continue to dedicate four of his officers to keep a community outreach program running in the unincorporated county area. Klein’s deep-seated commitment to Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains was born as a young officer who spent six years stationed out of the old Malibu station, patrolling the back roads of the mountains and getting to know the people of Topanga. Klein recalls with a smile one dark and rainy night in 1985 when he was stranded outside Brano’s (today marked by the pink flying pig), his patrol car stuck deep in the mud with a flat. A Topangan in an old International pick-up came to his rescue with a heavy-duty jack—a definite role reversal. “I’d have been stuck there ‘til New Year’s if he hadn’t helped me out,” says Klein. “I guess you can say I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Topanga.”

Though Klein modestly declines special credit for the program, PAO Officer Tang points out the sacrifices Klein and his predecessor Deputy Chief Mike Brown have made to keep the program alive. “Chief Brown and Captain Klein did a lot of things in the office to defer purchases of officer furniture and non-essential equipment to keep the program going. This furniture is older than I am—the desks predate the ’60s,

says Tang.

Officer Abramian has invited me to ride along with him to experience a typical shift patrolling Topanga in his slick-top radio car.

As we buckle up, an alarm sounds reminding us that this is no joy ride. It is a signal reminding Abramian to check his firearms. Abramian carefully unloads, inspects, and reloads his shotgun and a military-style Colt semi-automatic rifle, then locks them into the