Policing the highways and byways in a state as big as Nevada has its own challenges, one of which is evidenced by Nevada Highway Patrol Chief Abney’s way of doing business.
Abney, 52, fills out the shoulders of his uniform, a radio perched on his left shoulder. He has no eye patch to accompany it, although he often rides along with the men and women who work for him, patrolling the vast former oceans of the Nevada desert.
He wears the radio, much like his bosses at the Department of Public Safety, because even the head honcho must sometimes answer calls for service in a state so geographically enormous, the population scattered across the vast rural expanses seems to evaporate into the thin mountain air, leaving dirt, rocks and sagebrush.
“On my trips to Las Vegas, I go on the radio and I’m available in the middle of the night,” Abney said. “I might be the only one out there. Quite honestly, if something did happen, I would be the one they would send. I come to work geared up and I go out geared up.”
Come April, Abney will have been in his new job for a year. By that time, he already will have his eye on the second year of his four-year plan — maintaining the first year’s achievements.
THE NEXT BEST THING
Abney is a native-Nevadan neighbor. He grew up in Daly City, outside of San Francisco, although he was born in the city by the bay. He graduated from El Camino High School “on Friday night and I left on Monday” for his service in the military, he said.
He came from a large family, and his parents didn’t have the funds to send him to college. He didn’t have enough scholarship funds to pay for the education himself.
“The military was an option for me. I don’t regret it one minute. I had a great time. I was fortunate, though, because we did not have an act of war at that time. Just after Vietnam and before things really started kicking up in the ’80s.”
The closest he came to wartime service was the Iran hostage crisis.
Abney didn’t want to become a trooper; his goal was to be on the other side of the first-responder fence.
“The strange thing about it was, I did not want to be in law enforcement when I got out of the Army and I was going to school,” he said. “I wanted to be a firefighter.
“In the early ’80s, it was extremely competitive and hard to get hired. I had actually been hired by the Burlingame, Calif., police department and sworn in when the Highway Patrol called me. Then again, too, I thought of only coming on for a few years. I wanted to be an attorney.
“I thought as a firefighter, hey, I can go to law school and that kind of transitioned and changed. I was involved in a shooting incident in 1984, which, I had less than a year on at the time, which really changed my motivation and I decided to stay with the Highway Patrol.”
By 45, Abney knew he was looking at an exit strategy. He knew he wanted to be chief, but California’s size presented a problem. The race to become the leader of the California Highway Patrol, should the position ever open up, seemed to be less worth it by the day.
He now preaches to those in law enforcement: be looking at an exit strategy even sooner — five years to be exact, at 40.
“Your law enforcement career with any entity will eventually end, and the goal is to be ready for that next step because there are so many people who retire and go, ‘Oh, I’ll just go out and get a job based on my skills’ and they don’t realize there are thousands of people with the same skill sets out there. ... You’ve got to stand apart,” Abney said.
With just under 28 years under his belt, Abney retired from the California Highway Patrol. That last year and a half, though, he made sure to polish his resume by involving himself with a new computer system that was being outfitted in CHP patrol cars, a system that since has been adopted. That extra flex on his seven-page resume was what he was missing, others told him.
Once he retired from the CHP, he worked in Oregon as the training director of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training and became a certified peace officer in Oregon before accepting the chief job at the Nevada Highway Patrol on April 1, 2012.
“I will stay until I’m no longer effective; then I’ll move on to do something else,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing — you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? I’m not getting things done anymore.’ That’s where I was in California. They encouraged me to stay, and I just felt that I contributed everything I could to the organization. I had to go on.”
Abney went to college after he finished his military service. However, once the need to be earning a living and the unavailability of firefighting jobs hit, he dropped out, letting go of his dream to be a law student by day, firefighter by night, or vice versa.
He went back to school and earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007 and his Master of Business Administration in 2011 from California Coast University.
A strong component of Abney’s succession plan is making sure the next person in line has the education needed to fill his shoes.
“In this day and age, you can’t have a single-dimensioned person,” Department of Public Safety Director Chris Perry said.
Perry, along with Deputy Director James Wright, helped choose Abney from more than 40 applicants. The group was winnowed to seven interviewees before Abney was offered the job.
When the pair looked at applications, they sought a “combination of work experience and formal education,” Perry said.
The critical-thinking skills earned with an undergraduate degree helped, he said. Abney also came in with a pair of fresh, objective eyes. The NHP had gone through a series of big changes and many of the internal processes — legacies of former traditions and rules, as well as outdated laws and regulations — were still in place, he said. Abney was able to look at the legacies and trim down the number of steps, leftover from bygone days.
Abney believes in using principles from the business world in the public sphere. Through objective reasoning and hard decision-making, he said, he has been able to save the state money in one of his three stated tasks when he came in: reforming the fleet.
By contracting the outfitting of police vehicles to the California Highway Patrol, an entity not allowed to make a profit, he was able to save Nevada three or four tax dollars for every dollar spent on the vehicles.
“The state cannot make a profit. So we’re getting the true value there where as going to a private vendor, we’re paying three to four times the cost,” he said.
A SMALL, SMALL WORLD (AFTER ALL)
While Abney served in the military, he slowly began to realize how small the world is. After a few chance encounters, while he was halfway across the world, with two brothers from his hometown, it started to click. He says he’s just a little surprised at how many Californians he worked with who are now in Nevada.
Those connections have turned out for the better for Abney. Wright, unknowingly at the time, worked multiple incidents with Abney when they were at CHP together. Wright only realized it years later — after Abney had the job of NHP chief.
Many of those whom Abney worked with in California are now in positions to further cooperate with Nevada, whether it be officers from California or Oregon or the federal government.
“You’ve got to have those solid relationships” with other agencies, Perry said, citing that Abney brought his connections and relationships with him when he came to the NHP.
The need for law enforcement to work together is quickly becoming a theme of the new American West, a place where people are spread thin across a changing geographic tapestry. Through much of Nevada, one can drive for hours or hundreds of miles and not encounter another soul, even another breathing being.
“There’s literally nothing for miles. You might see a light out in the distance. You have an obligation when you’re out there, you gotta check those vehicles, you gotta look for those people who need your help but I have to say, that’s something that NHP does very, very well, because they are brought into this culture, knowing, hey, that’s why you’re out there,” Abney said.
With the coming move of the Carson City NHP substation into the Carson City Sheriff’s Office, Abney is slowly but surely helping to codify the theory of doing more with less people over multiple agencies.
His department will even be taking an active shooter-training course out to rural Nevada so the first responders can continue to do their job and not leave a dangerous vacuum.
“I have to say the rural troopers are very impressive, not that the urban troopers are any less impressive but they go out there and they work miles and miles of highway and if they get a call, they have to go. And they should go, I mean, that’s (their) job,” Abney said.