First Sobriety Checkpoint System to Combat Drunk Driving

Burlingame Police Chief Fred Palmer stands 5-foot-8 and packs 160 firm pounds on a bantam body he keeps in shape with a regimen of running and other exercise.

He likes to joke that the chief’s job he’s held for 20 years has “beaten me down since I was 6-foot-4 and weighed 220 pounds.”

Palmer, 57, has been tossing that line around a lot in recent days, since he announced he’s retiring from the department he has served since 1963, when he was hired as a dispatcher after his discharge from the Army’s Military Police.

He’s best known in California law enforcement circles as the chief who in the late 1980s initiated the state’s first sobriety checkpoint system to combat drunk driving. He set it up in such a way that it withstood a constitutional challenge by civil liberties groups and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Palmer recalls, however, that the politicking behind the scenes was intense over whether Burlingame or the CHP should be the first department to go forward with such a program.

“Critics thought we were a podunk police department that was going to screw it up for everybody, but we did our homework,” boasts the chief.

Palmer, member of a marksman’s team in his Army days, fired his police revolver only once in the line of duty. He shot a fleeing felon in the leg who, in one of those split-second decisions cops are often called on to make, Palmer mistakenly had thought was about to draw a gun on him.

The man he shot, an ex-con who had a reputation for carrying a weapon, was happy that Palmer had a marksman’s eye. “He later thanked me for not killing him,” the chief recalls.

Palmer, popular both with police colleagues and news reporters, prides himself on a long-standing policy of getting out accurate and truthful information to the media and the public.

But there was one time, he confesses, that he flat-out lied to the press and he makes no apologies, because he believed a young kidnap victim’s life was at stake. The lie came only a few months after Palmer was named chief, during tense negotiations with the kidnapers of Niels Legallet, the 11-year-old scion of a wealthy pioneer California family. Palmer told the press there had been no phone contact with the kidnapers. “The kidnapers threatened to send the boy’s fingers back to us if I revealed we talked to them.”

Things turned out OK when Palmer’s newly created SWAT team rescued the youngster from a motel and arrested his captors. The amiable, gregarious chief was amused by a local newspaper’s article on his impending retirement in which it was noted that over the span of his career law enforcement, culture had largely switched from donuts to bagels and cappuccino. “Isn’t that something to be remembered for?” he laughs.

But the chief, who will be honored by the city at a June 13 retirement party, says the most significant change in police work since he started has been technological. For one thing, police have progressed from handwritten reports — sometimes a challenge to read — to laptop computers.

Palmer recalls that when Burlingame PD bought its first video camera 25 years ago, a two-way mirror was installed in a tiny closet next to the interrogation room.

One day, as then-Detective Palmer scrunched inside the closet taping an interview through the mirror, the detective questioning the suspect suddenly leaned back in his office chair “and just kept going until he hit the floor on his butt.”

The interrogation collapsed as well, when the suspect heard Palmer laughing uproariously inside the closet.

— Palmer’s retirement party is set for 6 p.m. June 13 at Burlingame’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. Tickets are $42 per person. Call 692-8440.

Friday, May 23, 1997 Page P1, 1997 San Francisco Chronicle

By Bill Workman

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