Life in the Fast Lane
It’s a graveyard shift, about 1:45 a.m. on a Thursday morning, when Michael Chitjian notices a swerving vehicle ahead of him. Traveling southbound on the 405 freeway, Chitjian observes this vehicle hitting the right side of the lane and then swerving back and hitting the left side. In an instant, Chitjian puts his lights and sirens on and pulls the driver over on the next exit.
“I can smell a strong and distinct odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from the vehicle,” says Chitjian. “I explain to the driver why I stopped him and ask him to meet me at the right side of my patrol vehicle.”
After a series of failed field sobriety tests from the driver, Chitjian places him under the arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol.
All in a day’s work for this California Highway Patrol officer.
At 34, Chitjian found his passion. The CHP officer keeps roads safe in his jurisdiction of north Orange County.
A career in law enforcement is a topic of controversy. With police brutality on the rise, police officers are scrutinized now more than ever. Nonetheless, Chitjian looks to his career as a means to keeping drivers safe.
“I really enjoy being a part of something that is for the greater good,” says Chitjian. “Whether that is stopping someone that’s on their cell phone and preventing a crash or pulling a drunk driver off the road. I enjoy helping people get home safe.”
Chitjian’s work days are very routine. He starts his days early at the gym or riding his bike. He gets to work almost two hours early everyday to prep his patrol vehicle and catch up on paperwork.Chitjian enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow officers, as well as keeping society safe.
Chitjian stays on top of his paperwork so that he can, as he says, “be out on the beat.” “Beat is used as a terminology to describe something alive like a city, so when you’re out patrolling it is live action,” says Chitjian. “The 5 freeway is like a beat — its live and moving.”
When in his uniform, he’s officer Chitjian: clean-cut, professional, assertive, a physically fit police officer focused on the task at hand. He wears his traditionally khaki-colored uniform, paired with his sunglasses and buzz-cut.
When he is not officer Chitjian, he’s Mikey: energetic, positive, motivated, friendly — the man to call up to play a round of pool. He likes to spend his time doing fitness, as cycling keeps him stress free. Riding his bike is, in his own words, “the key to longevity and what keeps the body going.”
A career as a CHP officer comes with a lot of bad. “You see a lot of ugliness when you’re on the road,” says Chitjian. So for Chitjian to look for the good, he goes for a ride in the mountains.
“Riding my bike is like peace, freedom and freshness.” says Chitjian. “It’s something you can’t buy, you have to just be there and appreciate it.”
Chitjian didn’t always want to be a CHP officer. Born and raised in Monterey Park, California, Chitjian studied psychology at East Los Angeles College. During this time, he searched for ways to rely less on his family. He didn’t want to use his parents and looked at the military as a means for independence.
In 2001, he decided to join the navy. For the next four years, he was stationed overseas in Japan. Through this experience, Chitjian traveled the world. The navy discharged him in 2006.
Chitjian’s turning point in life happened four months after he came home from the navy. At 22, his father passed away. He grew up with a family full of women — four sisters and six nieces, and was put in the spotlight as the man of the house.
“It brought me down real fast, but at the same time it made me look at the bigger picture,” says Chitjian. “It made me realize I have to figure things out. I’m not going to have someone to back me up on my decisions in that father-son type of sense.”
After the military, Chitjian wanted to be apart of something similar. He decided to look into law enforcement.
“I wanted that camaraderie,” says Chitjian. “I wanted to be a part of a group that took care of each other like family.”
In 2008, Chitjian applied into the Los Angeles Police Department. Only to find out he was disqualified for not being responsible enough. This discouraged Chitjian from going into law enforcement, until his close friend David Corona, a CHP sergeant, encouraged Chitjian to apply for the CHP.
After an extensive year and a half application process of tests, interviews, background investigations, polygraph tests and a psychological evaluation, Chitjian was finally accepted into the academy in May 2016.
Chitjian spent the next seven months in Sacramento at the CHP Academy away from family and friends.
“There were lots of times where I questioned myself,” says Chitjian. “I asked myself, ‘why am I doing this?’ ‘do i want to do this?’.” “It was an emotional rollercoaster.”
Chitjian woke up at 3:45 a.m. everyday to get ready for physical fitness. It is an hour and a half long starting at 4:30 a.m.
“The whole time you’re being yelled at in your face,” says Chitjian.
At 8 a.m. the academics start. During this time, Chitjian would get pulled out of class to do driving tests, shooting practices, DUI investigations, report writing and a lot of hands-on-scenario-role-playing.
Chitjian said the military helped him prepare for the academy.
“It’s a culture shock for those who didn’t have that experience,” says Chitjian. “A lot couldn’t deal with it.”
When graduation day arrived, Chitjian described it as “the best day of your life.”
Chitjian’s mother Diane, says she is so happy for her son. “I’m the proudest mother a son could have,” says Diane. “I wanted him to be a police officer more than he wanted to be a police officer.”
Emily Shea, a friend of Chitjian, says she couldn’t be prouder of him. “I never doubted he could achieve whatever he put his mind to,” says Shea. “I’m so happy he found something he is passionate about.”
Life outside of work is different for Chitjian now. He says he is more responsible in a lot of ways.
“Even when I’m outside of uniform I still have to act like I am,” says Chitjian. “I’m always representing the CHP.”
He says the CHP opened his eyes to some ugly things in society.
“I appreciate living because I’ve seen death,” says Chitjian. “When you see death right in front of you and how ugly it is, it makes you glad to breathe everyday, to be walking and to have your health.”