Interview: Warren Stanley reflects on his historic tenure as CHP commissioner

In an interview before his retirement, the first Black commissioner of the California Highway Patrol talks about efforts to boost road safety and workforce diversity.

After Warren Stanley became the California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) first Black commissioner in 2018, he launched a renewed effort to help the force better reflect the communities it serves. The organization employed social media and other outreach tools to recruit more minorities and women. Still, Stanley says the agency has work to do. He retired in November and is succeeded by 30-year CHP veteran Amanda Ray (pictured in the illustration above), who after becoming the first Black woman to be deputy commissioner is now the organization’s first female commissioner.

To gain more insight into Stanley’s efforts during his tenure as commissioner, Herman Jenkins, who serves in the Auto Club’s new role of Group Manager for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, interviewed him on Zoom in September. In addition to talking about workforce diversity, they discussed community relations, road safety, and distracted driving, a major concern shared by both the Auto Club and the CHP.

Jenkins: AAA and the CHP have a long history of working together to serve motorists and to improve traffic safety. Can you recall an experience that the CHP had working with AAA?

Commissioner Stanley: We’ve worked with AAA for a long, long time on roadway safety legislation [including the establishment of California’s graduated driver’s license law and expanding the use of child passenger seats]. Our missions are to provide traffic safety to the people who we serve.

Jenkins: Tell us about your journey from officer to commissioner.

Commissioner Stanley: As a young boy, I always had an interest in law enforcement. I always had a passion for service. A close family friend became a CHP officer and he ended up recruiting my oldest brother, who retired as a captain in 2005. I began to learn more about the CHP, from my brother, his friends, and our family friend and I said, “This is an organization I want to work for.” The CHP was the only law enforcement agency that I applied for. I took the written test on August 15, 1981. When I came on in 1982 and started in central Los Angeles, all I wanted to do was go out to help people out whose car had broken down on the freeway, get drunk drivers off the road, investigate collisions, and just be a good CHP officer. After about 10 years, I thought that I’d like to have a little bit more impact. I was promoted to sergeant and just started moving up the ranks.

“Putting in the hard work”

Jenkins: What obstacles did you face along the way?

Commissioner Stanley: For me, there weren't really any obstacles. It was just putting in the hard work to learn more about the department, becoming a better leader, and becoming a better communicator. But along the way, there was a lot of hard work, challenges, and sacrifices: working a lot of holidays, doing special projects, and working special assignments. I had people who mentored me, who pointed me in the right direction, or who said, “Hey, if you work on this project, you’ll learn something from it,” or, “If you do this special assignment, there are things that you can learn that will not only make you a better person, but make you a better leader.” But in my wildest dreams, when I came on 38-plus years ago, I never had any dreams of becoming a commissioner. I’m one of the few people who has held every rank in the department from cadet all the way to commissioner. It’s been a great experience along the way. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been able to help a lot of people, both within the department and the public that uses our roadways. It’s been very, very gratifying.

Jenkins: The CHP’s motto is “Safety, service, and security.” Please explain what that entails.

Commissioner Stanley: Safety is keeping the roadway safe and reducing property damage, injuries, and fatal collisions. The service aspect is being there when people break down and need service, getting them off the freeway, and calling them a tow truck to help. It also means documenting and thoroughly investigating collisions to find out why they happened and determine fault. We also keep the roadways open and traffic moving. Security is providing security services for the state of California, its employees, buildings, facilities, and other infrastructure. That’s the trifecta.

Retired California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley | Photo courtesy California Highway Patrol
Retired California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley | Photo courtesy California Highway Patrol

Jenkins: A CHP officer once helped me when I had a flat tire. He came up behind me, put his flashers on, and stayed until I was done. As an African American, I felt so good about the highway patrol because the officer made sure that I was safe.

Commissioner Stanley: When I was a young officer out there on the road, I can’t tell you how many flat tires I changed for people. We put water in their radiator or helped them with minor vehicle repair. It is the little things that count. I think the CHP does a good job of that, but we’re always looking for ways to do things better. A professional organization always looks for ways to get better and listens to what people say about the services it provides to them.

Jenkins: What are your thoughts on the importance of a diverse workforce within the CHP?

Commissioner Stanley: Diversifying the CHP helps the department get closer to our communities. We want people in California to understand that we’re their highway patrol, and as much as we want to be part of the community, we want them to be part of us. That ongoing dialogue, working together, is how to have a significant impact on making our roadways and California safer.

“A level of trust”

Jenkins: How do we begin repairing relationships between law enforcement and the community, specifically communities of color?

Commissioner Stanley: It’s something you must do on a daily basis: Continue to meet and have significant dialogue with people from the communities you’re responsible for about what they expect of us as far as traffic safety or law enforcement. You have to put yourself in their shoes and be engaged. From their standpoint, what is the community looking for as far as traffic safety or public safety? We have to know them, they have to know us, and we have to develop a level of trust. And then it has to be a unified vision: It just can’t be me or a small portion of the department. Everyone in the department has to be part of that unified vision in how we provide the services to the communities, how we engage with our communities.

Jenkins: How do you measure the CHP’s success in terms of roadway safety?

Commissioner Stanley: Are we doing enough? Are we preventing collisions? Are we seeing reductions in distracted and impaired driving? That’s one way to measure it. Another way is the mileage death rate, the number of persons killed in California per a hundred million miles driven.

Jenkins: What are some of the major changes that you've seen through the years at CHP that have improved roadway safety?

Commissioner Stanley: From a technological standpoint, our radio and communication systems have improved so our dispatchers can get information to our patrol officers more quickly. We also have tools like radar and lidar for speed enforcement. The DRE (drug recognition expert) program for impaired people driving under the influence of drugs. Social media platforms help get our message out about traffic safety, impaired driving, and distracted driving. Those platforms can both provide information to and get information from the public. We also use social media for recruitment and hiring, both for uniformed and nonuniformed personnel. From a personnel standpoint, the educational level is much better. More of the people who are joining the CHP have a college education.

Jenkins: What message would you like to give our readers?

Commissioner Stanley: Continue driving safely. Obviously, don’t drink and drive. Don’t do drugs and drive. One of our big concerns is getting people to put mobile devices down while they’re driving. When you get into your vehicle, leave [your phone] on the seat, throw it in the backseat, put it in your purse or briefcase, and stay focused on the road. Because if you’re alert, you can avoid becoming involved in a collision. Most crashes are preventable.

Jenkins: What would you like your legacy to be as CHP Commissioner?

Commissioner Stanley: Someone who did his best to make our roadways safer. Someone who continued to move the department forward. Someone who tried to make the department more professional and enhance public trust. And someone who, with a passion for public safety and traffic safety, tried to make the state of California a little safer than it was the day before.