David Sorbie, 44, a retired New York City Police officer, went to the San Diego Police Department in January to get recruitment information for his 21-year-old son, Andrew. He was amazed when he was asked to apply instead.
"I didn't think they would hire a guy my age," Sorbie said. "I thought it was great." He went home to ask permission from his wife, Kathie. "You did it for 20 years, you can do it for another," she told him.
Wednesday morning Sorbie, of South San Diego, was the eldest among the 64 new recruits that Police Chief Bob Burgreen congratulated as they were sworn in and prepared to enter the Police Academy. The class of recruits, the largest in a year and a half, is unusual because of the high number of minority members, women and recruits over 40.
"You ought to be proud of yourselves," Burgreen told the class. "You made it. It was tough; you know it was tough. We've never screened applicants like we do now. (Being a police officer) is the most difficult job . . . in a multi-ethnic culture."
The diversity of the class is the result of the department's massive effort to recruit women and minorities, as well as older recruits, to try to strike a balance between the community and the Police Department. The class is made up of 58% minority members and 25% women. Six of the recruits, just under 10%, are over 40.
"Our goal is to have a fair representation of the community," Sgt. Joe Markwell said. "We also want to hire retired military" personnel.
"We've had people in their 40s before, but this is the most that our recruiting people can remember," Dave Cohen, a department spokesman, said. "We certainly don't want to overlook people at this age. They have more life experience and more experience in handling some situations than someone younger."
Bridget Barnett, a recruiter with the Police Department, said, "We let them know they're not too old to do this. Some men, especially those retired from military service, are attracted to law enforcement. They like this quasi-military environment. Some are in the reserves . . . so they're already in the system."
Gordon Lau of Oceanside was one such person. Lau, 45, has been a reserve officer with the department since 1985, when he retired from the Marine Corps. Now he wants to become a full-time officer.
Lau, a Hong Kong native who is fluent in Korean and Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, said the best part of being an officer is dealing with people.
"My experience in the field is that you meet a variety of people," Lau said. "That's the hottest part--and the most difficult part. You have to master a relationship with people and uphold the law. No classroom can teach you how to do it."
Lau said he has no worries about the physical demands of being a police officer. "I don't foresee it being too hard," he said. "It was part of my job in the Marines. I might not be as strong as a young guy, but I'll make it through. It's just a matter of conditioning."
William Day, 42, agreed: "The physical part is hard but, if you work out, you can do it." Day, who lives in Paradise Hills, retired from the Marine Corps in 1985 and came to San Diego. He did quite a bit of searching before he was able to find a law enforcement agency that would hire him at his age, he said.
"I looked for a government job. I really wanted a federal job, but I was too old," Day said. He said the Border Patrol, the federal prison downtown and the U. S. Marshal's Office all told him: "You can't be over 35."
"I began thinking that everything was like that," Day said. "I figured, if the federal government had an age limit, then everything else followed suit. Then I looked at state corrections, where there was no age limit, but I found they could assign me anywhere, like San Quentin."
Day became interested in police work in the wake of the Sagon Penn case and the subsequent plea in minority communities for more minority officers. Day decided he could help by joining the department.
Penn was charged with murder in the March, 1985, slaying of Police Agent Thomas Riggs after he snatched another officer's gun during a confrontation in Encanto. Penn also wounded officer Donovan Jacobs and a civilian ride-along. In two trials, juries found that Penn had acted in self-defense in a tragedy marked with racial overtones.
"I think that people may react differently to a police officer of their (race)," Day said. "They need minority participation (in the department)."
But mostly, Day said, "I missed the camaraderie from the Marine Corps. The Police Department is paramilitary and had everything I was looking for. I found civilian jobs to be very dull. It was an opportunity to have a second career."
The department's recruitment of minorities, women and older people is not just a one-shot deal, Cohen emphasized.
"This is going to be continuing, to make the department representative of the city as a whole," Cohen said. "The city has a large minority population. As the diversity grows, we need to reflect that diversity on the police force."