ST. ANTHONY, Idaho (AP) – The man famous for his many years as a motorcycle cop on the hit '80s TV series "CHiPs" is now a reserve police officer in a small town in southern Idaho.
St. Anthony Mayor Neils Thueson swore Erik Estrada into office on Saturday at City Hall in this town of 3,500 people. Estrada plans to work with the police department in protecting children from internet predators.
Estrada arrived on Saturday where he spent the afternoon with police officers and their families at the city park. After Thueson swore Estrada in as a reserve police officer, Estrada spent the rest of the afternoon at the high school at a meet and greet where he had his picture taken with residents of all ages.
Estrada has spent the past decade working with various law enforcement departments in keeping kids safe online. Following his induction, Estrada said how important it is to teach children what not to do while on the web.
"Education is the best protection especially on the internet. Children should be educated in how to handle a chat room. Don't give out personal information. Certainly don't give out your mother's or father's name or what school you go to. Don't ever accept gifts," Estrada said. "Certainly don't ever go meet someone you've been chatting with. They're not who they are. If they send a picture, that isn't them."
Even in conservative and generally safe St. Anthony, there are still threats to children, Police Chief Terry Harris said.
"I think that this brings to the surface that (internet crime) happens in smaller communities. Everything that happens in the big cities, happens here," he said.
Estrada's team is developing various programs such as software that will record children's pictures at various angles. It will also provide other information such as a child's medical needs. The information will be readily available for police should a child come up missing.
"The first 72 hours is a very crucial time to recover a child," Estrada said.
Estrada chose St. Anthony as small rural communities prove more willing to quickly join forces with his organization. In larger cities, there is too much red tape and too many bureaucrats involved in trying to reach the mayor and police officials, he said.
"What happens in a big city — there is a tremendous amount of politics involved," he said.
In St. Anthony, after just a few emails and telephone calls, city officials quickly and eagerly welcomed Estrada into the police reserves.
"We got everybody on board immediately, so we don't waste his time. In a larger city, it could take weeks," Harris said.
Estrada and his organization made contact with Harris about six weeks ago via email. As Estrada has continually warned, you can't trust everybody on the web. Harris, having worked as a police officer for many years, thought the email was one big hoax. Before responding, he did some detective work and learned that the email was legitimate. He later got in touch with Estrada and told the city council about Estrada's plans.
Harris later met with the city council where he announced Estrada's visit. Of course, not everyone in town believed Harris. Social media lit up with many saying it was indeed a joke. More than once, Harris heard that he "was full of beans." In the meantime, he sallied forth making plans for Estrada's visit.
Estrada's addition to the city will prove beneficial to the city's police department, he said.
"We're talking a long-term partnership. I expect it will run for the next two or three years. He's a great guy. He's going to be a great part of the team," Harris said.
Estrada grew up wanting to become a police officer thanks to his mother's friendship with an exceptionally good police officer. Yet, during high school, he got the acting bug after he signed up for drama when he became interested in dating a young woman.
After Estrada told his mother of his change in plans, he promised her that, if acting didn't work out by the time he was 30, he would return to New York and become a police officer. The cutoff to do so was 32 years of age.
By the time Estrada was 27, he landed the role of California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello. He continued in that role from 1977 to 1983, making it possible to support his mother, who hasn't worked since that time.
"I've been taking care of her for 35 years," he said.
Following "CHiPs," Estrada continued acting, but later became a reserve officer in Muncie, Indiana. To avoid attention, he worked nights as an officer. He later came in contact with law enforcement officers who spent the day working against internet predators. What Estrada witnessed sickened him so much that he decided to form a foundation to help educate and protect children from internet enticement.
Estrada says that all his dreams — from crime fighting to acting — have all come true.
"I wanted to be a cop first and then I became an actor and then became a cop on TV. The TV thing allowed me to become a reserve officer in Indiana. I became a real cop," he said. "How many people have that kind of blessing? I've been blessed that way. I've been lucky."