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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Cathedral City Police Chief Travis Walker stood tall—he’s 6 foot 4, after all—in December when he dedicated the Fallen Police Officer Memorial next to the police department building.

Among the speakers honoring the ultimate sacrifice by Officers David Vasquez and Jermaine Gibson—who lost their lives in 1988 and 2011, respectively—was Rep. Raul Ruiz. He was joined by representatives of other nearby law-enforcement agencies.

Walker unveiled the memorial along with the officers’ families. “We pray we’ll never have to add any new names to this memorial,” he said.

The memorial’s unveiling was the latest event in a busy first year as police chief for Walker, an accomplished law-enforcement veteran with 23 years in service—including a stint as the tactical commander during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino.

During a recent interview with Chief Walker, we discussed topics ranging from the city’s recent removal of red-light cameras to his favorite basketball player, Magic Johnson.

“Magic was the best team player ever,” Walker said. “The game was not about him, but the team.”

Walker—the first black police chief in Cathedral City—said recent data shows the city has not been the site of any hate crimes since 2012.

“This is a very tolerant community for as diverse it is,” he said “… People may feel that there was a hate crime, but there are specific criteria that define truly what a hate crime is.”

Walker joined the Cathedral City Police Department as deputy police chief in 2016.

“I led a very blessed career that prepared me for making some decisions that you have to make from this office,” he said. “As law enforcement pros, we spend our careers preparing for different positions.”

One of the most buzzed-about ideas Walker implemented in his first year is the “police cab”—a decommissioned police cruiser painted as a half-police car, half-taxi cab that can be found on the streets of Cathedral City, sometimes parked in front of prominent local bars.

“We’re trying to give that final message. No matter how drunk you are, you still recognize the police car, and on the side of it is a statement: Chose your ride! Think before you drink!” Walker said. “You can get an Uber drive home for $10 to $15, or you can pick up a DUI that can cost $10,000 to $15,000!

“Sadly, the DUI drivers often don’t kill themselves; they kill innocent people.”

Walker said he’s proud of the fact that the city’s done so well at discouraging accidents that it did not receive extra grant money for DUI checkpoints this year.

“We did an effective job and work very hard, and we have reduced our traffic fatalities, so the funding is converted to another community,” he said.

That does not mean, however, that people are no longer driving drunk.

“No matter how much education you put out there about DUI … it’s still a struggle here in the community, and you still have drivers crashing under the influence,” Walker said.

Walker said he recommended the removal of the notorious and controversial red-light cameras that had been at three of Cathedral City’s busiest intersections

“I had motor officers who were sitting down and reviewing hundreds of images. For me, that’s not a good use of an officer’s time,” he said. “There is more going on throughout the city than at those intersections, and it was my recommendation to the City Council to remove the cameras—and we removed them.”

While Cathedral City has a reputation for gang violence, Walker said the city of 54,000—with a police force of 52 sworn officers—is heading in the right direction.

“Public safety has been a priority for the City Council and the city manager in recent years,” he said. “Year to date, we are already at (crime being) 10 percent down from last year.”

When I mentioned the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack, Walker said good training helped the police do their jobs. Sixteen people (including the two perpetrators) were killed, and 24 were injured in the mass shooting and attempted bombing.

“Dec. 2, 2015, was a tragic day that I wish had never happened … and I don’t think that day defines who I am today,” Walker said. “What made a difference that day was that I had good people who worked for me, and the training we received in dealing with an active shooter.”

Walker is a big believer in community engagement, including the use of social media.

“I’m big on marketing the work that the men and women of this organization do,” he said. “If you have a Twitter account or a Facebook account or an Instagram account, you can see that we’re very active, and we’re very engaged with the community. Social media … allows us to tell the story of the Cathedral City Police Department.”

Walker said it’s important the police department touts the positive—because it’s the negative that receives the vast majority of attention.

“There are many positive, comical, heartwarming stories that are not reported publicly—hence the department’s social media campaign,” he said. “… My Twitter feed (@CCPDWALKER) is my own feed; my Facebook (CCPDChiefWalker) and my Instagram (ccpdchiefwalker) are my own, but I have a staffer that does the social media for the department. It’s a sergeant, who as a part of his duty puts the department’s pics and stories out there on social media. He’s extremely engaging, extremely funny and extremely clever.”

Published in Local Issues

Many drivers loathe DUI checkpoints—especially drivers who have had a drink or two.

And that’s exactly the point: Drivers shouldn’t be behind the wheel when intoxicated. Arrests for driving under the influence can cost people more than $10,000 in fees and fines, plus jail time.

But that’s a small price to pay compared to the cost in lives due to DUI accidents. In 2014, nearly 10,000 people were killed by impaired drivers in the United States—with more than 800 of those deaths here in California.

On Friday, Aug. 12, I was allowed to tag along while the Palm Springs Police Department conducted a DUI checkpoint in the 2900 block of North Indian Canyon Drive. Sgt. Mike Villegas, the lead officer of the Traffic Division, was my host.

The night started with a 7 p.m. briefing at the police station. Villegas introduced me to his team of 11 detectives, officers, dispatchers and community officers.

“Be professional; be courteous; and be safe!” Villegas told his team before they embarked on what was, for most of them, their second shift that day. Funding for the checkpoints comes from a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Two hours later, the DUI checkpoint was completely set up, with a primary screening area, traffic cones, reflectors, generators, a DUI enforcement trailer, and a secondary screening area with tables, chairs, another trailer and several police cruisers.

By 9 p.m., Officer Art Enderle, Officer Barron Lane and Det. Miguel Torres had spread out at the path created by the traffic cones. The cops would introduce themselves, ask for the proper documents, and check to see if drivers were drinking that night.

It took only about 15 to 20 seconds to screen a car and its driver, so the line moved fast. Some of the drivers already had their licenses in hand before they were stopped at the checkpoint. 

Villegas came over and half-jokingly blamed Facebook for a quiet night so far. “Right now, friends tells friends on social media where our checkpoint is and how to avoid it,” he said.

At 9:26 p.m., Enderle, after checking the documents of a driver, yelled out: “Runner!” “Runner,” in the jargon, means a driver who’s going to the secondary screening area.

The protocol requires a community officer to drive the car there while the driver is escorted on foot. However, this does not necessarily mean the driver is suspected of driving under the influence; in this case, the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license. 

Enderle issued him a citation, while Torres called the man’s relatives to come and pick up him and his car. Torres spoke in Spanish to the driver, who quietly sat a chair, seemingly remorseful. Torres is bilingual; his parents came from Mexico.

“My papa was working as a gardener; my mom was cleaning houses, and I always wanted to be a cop,” Torres said. He’s on his second shift for the day, working the DUI checkpoint as overtime—eventually working 17 hours that day.

At 10:45 p.m., Enderle stopped another driver without a valid driver’s license. This time, the screening approach was more rigorous—because the driver had a prior DUI.

Enderle gave him a blood-alcohol breath test. “Blow, and blow again,” Enderle said as the driver sat in a chair. The driver took the test without complaint and passed.

Standing by is Jamie Webber, of American Forensic Nurses, Inc. She’s a phlebotomist who has worked for 26 years with law enforcement, doing everything from blood draws to Taser-dart removals to DNA collections.

“Some time ago, we were on Tahquitz (Canyon Way), and a drunk driver actually crashed into a car in front of him at the DUI checkpoint,” she said. “He was so drunk and didn’t even see the checkpoint. After we pulled him out of the car he asked, ‘What happened?!’”

Back on Indian Canyon, well past midnight on what had become Saturday, Aug. 13, a driver of a luxurious Porsche Panamera nearly drove through the checkpoint.

“Stop! Stop!” officer Lane yelled. When the car finally stopped, Lane determined that the car reeked of marijuana. Both the driver, a woman, and the passenger, her son, were escorted to the secondary screening area on foot and then separated.

PSPD veterans Lane and Enderle conducted a DUI screening on the woman. Lane moved his point finger left and right in front of her face, asking her to follow his finger with her eyes. Lane then asked the woman to walk along a straight line, while Enderle stood behind her. The woman was unstable—but it appeared that the instability was because of a physical disability rather than intoxication. The woman was not arrested.

Villegas said the male passenger, a juvenile, admitted having a small amount of marijuana in the car. The minimal amount of marijuana was located during a search, and the young man was issued a citation for marijuana possession.

I briefly talked to the driver of the car. “I was so embarrassed by it,” she said about her son’s citation.

Around 1 a.m., Villegas and his team began to close down the checkpoint before gathering everyone and reciting the night’s data: “All 527 vehicles that passed through the checkpoint were screened. Eight cars were sent to secondary screening for further investigation. There were four citations issued, but no DUIs.”

Villegas said it’s a good sign that there were no DUI arrests that night: It means drivers were obeying the law.

But obviously, not everybody obeys. Villegas later tells me that from January through June of this year, Palm Springs police had arrested 132 drivers for driving under the influence, and there had been 46 DUI-related traffic collisions.

In those collisions, two people lost their lives.

Published in Features