An Interview With...

What's New

Our Team

Our Friends




Ask Experts

Our Mission


Chuck Magdalena

Police Officer, retired
California, USA

How long were you a police officer and what was your typical day/week like?

I was a cop in Santa Ana (California) for 30 years.  Starting as a patrol officer where a typical shift involved 70% responding to "calls for service", which could include handling gang shootings, traffic accidents, robberies, domestic violence cases, looking for lost kids, arresting shoplifters, to rounding up stray dogs.  The other 30% was "observed activities", or self-initiated stuff.  This encompassed traffic violators, narcotics investigations, in-progress burglaries and the like.  We like to call this 30% "snoopin and poopin". (Cops affix nicknames to almost everything.)  Some shifts, usually Friday and Saturday nights, were always extremely busy with no time for observed activities.  Surprisingly to many, Mother's Day is always a busy day.  A lot of sons and daughters enjoy drinking in Mom's honor, which evolves into a lot of fights and drunk driving later in the evening.

After a few years, I tested for detective and became an investigator.  I first worked burglaries and then moved to major frauds.  Unlike TV where the detectives spend all their time on one case and wrap it all up in 60 minutes, each detective worked a "caseload" sometimes balancing 30-50 open cases at a time.  Moreover, the television shows like CSI are really giving a false impression of how forensic investigations are handled.  In most police departments, the CSI's do not carry guns, or make arrests or tell the detectives what to do.  Nevertheless, their services are vital and they serve a great purpose in law enforcement.

Promoted to sergeant a few years later, I went back "in the field" and enjoyed what many consider the best job in the department – supervising a team of six patrol officers.

I was promoted to lieutenant in 1990 and was assigned as a watch commander.  That's the guy who runs an entire patrol shift and is the one available 24/7 for complaints and tactical decisions for a shift of about 25 sergeants and officers.  Two years later, I became one of four district commanders and was responsible for uniformed patrol services (24/7) for the Southeast District of Santa Ana – some 85,000 people.  This job was like being a mini-police chief for one quarter of the city.  It was my job to handle deployment, special enforcement activities, public relations community policing and citizen complaints for the district's residents.  The beauty of it was that, even though it was primarily a desk job, I did get out in the field frequently to manage the officers and to attend a lot of community meetings.  This was my final assignment and by far the most rewarding.

Where did you grow up as a child and what is your ancestry?

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan until moving to California when I was 14.  I'm Scots-Irish by ancestry but got my Italian surname from my adoptive father.  Once in California, I never looked back at the mid-west and never even visited my brother (who stayed there) for 20 years.  Since it snows in Michigan, one of my favorite games was street hockey.  We would get our garden hoses out and freeze the street so we could skate on it.  Needless to say, the police and fire departments didn't appreciate the effort.  I didn't play "cops & robbers" but we played "war" a lot. (I was always the heroic soldier who killed a million of the "enemy" all by myself).  That was probably due to the Korean War going on in the early 1950's and the fact that World War II was less than a decade old.  Movies and the newsreels were very influential on kids in those days.  I never dreamed of becoming a police officer.  Because I was rather short, I assumed I could never meet the height requirement.  So I opted instead for the military and joined the Army right out of high school.  Their height requirement was lower.  Turned out, the Army and I were made for each other.  I appreciated the order, discipline and security the service provided and, in return, I gave it my best.  I spent 12 years in the "Green Machine" traveling the world, eating strange food, meeting great people, the best of whom I later married, and appreciating what a great country we have here.  After a second tour in Vietnam (what we called the "Far East Asian Martial Olympics"), I left active duty and went to college.  The US government paid for most of my education under the "GI Bill".  It was at Cal State, Fullerton that a classmate, who was also a Santa Ana policeman, took me on a "ridealong" one graveyard shift.  The excitement and variety hooked me and I put in my application the next day.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

In school, I really enjoyed History.  Most kids thought it boring and couldn't see the point of it but I saw it as a series of inter-related stories that didn't always end the way it was supposed to.  There were almost always the good guys and the bad guys and often the bad guys won.  Later in high school, I became fascinated by Journalism.  Writing a small column for the school paper showed how powerful a writer could be.  To this day, I enjoy writing.  Who knows, there may be a future in it.

Were any subjects difficult for you?

Math was not my favorite subject.  I avoided it whenever I could.  Even today, I can't see the rationale behind learning algebraic formulas or the practical applications of the rhombic trapezoid.  Isn't that why calculators, and later computers, were invented?  But, in all fairness, a working knowledge of basic geometry really comes in handy if you consider yourself a good pool player and knowing how to figure interest and percentages is a must if you want to take out a loan or buy a house.  A grasp of math and algebra is necessary as a police officer in investigating traffic accidents when you take measurements of tire skid marks and can pinpoint the actual speed of a vehicle prior to its impact by figuring the "co-efficient of friction".  Surprisingly, we even employed geometry when we were learning high speed pursuit driving and had to anticipate "clipping points" (tangents) approaching a curve at 80 MPH.  But what school subjects served me best in police work was English and Journalism.  English, because it allowed me to write better police reports.  There is a saying in law enforcement that an officer is known by the quality of his or her reports.  You never see it on "Law and Order" or in the movies, but a very large part of a patrol officer's work day consists of writing.  There is a form and a report for everything.  And Journalism, because it served me well as a sergeant and a lieutenant when the writing is more original or creative.  Here's a soap box minute: if anyone who reads this is planning to be a police officer, remember that the ability to express yourself on paper – clearly and concisely – is vital!!

What path did you take towards becoming a police officer?

As mentioned earlier I did serve in the US Army – 12 years on active duty and then 23 years in the active Army Reserve.  This combined 35 years allowed me to retire from the military.  The self-discipline and organizational skills I learned there helped when I applied to be a police officer.  Employers respect most former military people for their reliability and work ethic.  I was hired by the Santa Ana PD before being trained.  Then I attended the police academy for the basic skills and knowledge to be a cop.  After passing a year on probation, my status became permanent and further training and education occurred while employed.  Most police departments encourage officers to continue their formal education while fully employed.  A BA is now required for promotion to lieutenant and it's not unusual for officers and sergeants to have Master's degrees.  In many counties and cities, employees are offered incentives to return to school.  It's a great opportunity but working full time and going to college at night can be a stressful challenge.

What did you like best about being a police officer?

No two days as a patrol officer are alike.  You never know if you'll be handling a homicide scene or speaking at a local school or spending a day in a training class.  The variety of tasks is what I enjoyed most about being a patrol officer.  Another attraction to police work is the camaraderie and the close bond you form with your fellow officers.  Law enforcement is a tight fraternity and often results in friendships that last a lifetime.

What did you like the least about your job?  Do you miss it now that you are retired?

Probably the least enjoyable thing about police work is the unusual work hours and conditions.  For the first few years on the job you can be sure of working on weekends and holidays, usually on the graveyard shift.  I can remember many Christmases and Thanksgivings away from my family and friends.  And you worked in all kinds of weather, so cold or rain or wind didn't matter.  Your reward came after you got seniority and the newer officers got the lousy shifts.

What are your favorite retirement activities?  Do you get to do things now that you didn't have time for when you were working?

Retirement is still a new experience for me and I haven't yet fully become used to it.  It has given me an opportunity to finish projects around the house that have been waiting years for attention.  My wife and I enjoy traveling so now is the time to do that.  We plan at least one mini-vacation a quarter whether it be a four day driving trip to Arizona or northern California, or a three week vacation to Europe or South America.  I see where I'll start looking for something productive to do such as volunteering or getting a part-time job just to stay busy.  One thing I've discovered is that, if you're married, both you and your spouse need time away from one another.

Have you lived in other countries, learned other languages or been influenced by other cultures?

While in the service I was stationed in Korea, Germany, Panama and Vietnam.  Except for Panama, I was living on a military base each time.  In Panama I lived in Panama City so I had a chance to experience the Latin American culture and lifestyle.  Since my wife is Hispanic and Chinese I get a lot of cross cultural experiences.  It helps if you like Asian food and like to dance.

Do you have any advice for children who wish to enter law enforcement?

For youngsters wanting to become police officers I offer this advice: 1) Get into good physical condition.  The job requires running, climbing over fences and walls, carrying things and people, standing for long periods of time, and occasionally fighting with people who are drunk or on drugs or who just don't want to go to jail.  But these bursts of physical activity are rare and usually happen unexpectedly.  An officer actually spends far more time sitting in a patrol car or writing police reports than he does chasing suspects or pulling people from wrecked cars.  When you see a fat police officer it's probably because he/she let his condition slide after having been hired – not to mention too many doughnuts!  But you must be fit and ready for anything at any time.  2) Concentrate on your reading and writing skills.  This will help in writing reports and interviewing suspects, victims and witnesses in crimes.

Do you have a favorite quote?

Actually I have two favorite quotes.  One is "Experience is what you have when you recognize your prior mistakes, before making them again." (My apologies to Mark Twain)  The second one is a Latin phrase, "Semper ubi, sub ubi."  I'll let the reader work on translating that one.

- 31 May 2005


  Español Français Português
Last Updated:
12 June 2005

| Home | Contact Us | Credits | Sitemap |

© 2005 - Imagiverse Educational Consortium