Older police recruits successfully fight stereotype to capture their dream job
Timothy Hughes, Times Staff Writer
(OXNARD, Calif.) -- After suffering a heart attack at age 41, Robin "Bob" Brunson felt his dream of becoming a police officer was all but over.
Several years passed, but Brunson refused to give up. After obtaining medical clearance, he was hired as an Oxnard police officer in 1986. He was 50.
Now, the 65-year-old Brunson is a beat cop, working the night shift, trolling for crooks on some of the toughest streets in the county's largest city. "I wanted to be a cop on the beat," he said. "I wanted to be No. 1."
Brunson is among a small group of officers across the county who started police work after age 40. They are a confident and passionate bunch who look forward to long careers in law enforcement.
"I've always looked at life as a challenge," said Patricia Romero, a county sheriff's deputy who joined the department in her early 40s more than a decade ago. "I don't think about retirement. That's not me."
But at 5-foot-2, Romero acknowledged that the job poses a number of physical challenges with which she still wrestles.
"I'm just as aggressive as anybody, but I know my limitations," said Romero, who is currently assigned to the Ventura County courthouse. "Because I am older and small and a female I have to handle it the best way I can. I won't back down from a fight and, if my partner is in trouble, I'm right there. . . . If I can sweet-talk someone into the patrol car, I'll do that too."
Sheriff Bob Brooks said his department saw an increase in recruits in their 30s and older after the recession of the early 1990s, and with another economic slump underway, more such applicants are expected in the future.
"For the most part, it's a very good thing for us when you pick up someone with some life experience," Brooks said. "But they certainly have some disadvantages and perceptions to overcome ."
The Sheriff's Department has several deputies who started after age 40 and one such cadet is currently going through its academy. Police departments in Oxnard, Simi Valley and Santa Paula each have one officer on the street who started after 40.
The small number of older recruits doesn't surprise Capt. Kenton Rainey, who oversees the sheriff's Camarillo-based training academy. Twice a year, recruits from the sheriff's and local police departments spend six months in rigorous physical training and classroom instruction to earn the right to wear a badge.
Academy training is a challenge for even the most gung-ho 21-year-old recruit. Tack on 20 years and it can be twice as hard, Rainey said.
"They stand out because you notice the gray hair," he said of the few older cadets. "It's always more comfortable for someone younger, but the academy does not always stress physical prowess."
Hiring older people for the job has its advantages, Rainey said. More mature applicants tend to be more serious about their commitment for what can be a very demanding job, he said.
"They have prepared for this process," he said. "Just because they started in their 40s doesn't mean we aren't going to get 20 or 25 years out of them."
To boost its candidate pool, the Los Angeles Police Department will soon hike the maximum age from 35 to 40 for new officers. Maximum age requirements have ensured that the department gets a "reasonable career out of an individual," said Robert Cramer, an assistant city attorney.
He said officers who begin their careers late typically call in sick more, leave the department earlier and have a higher chance of filing for disability leave.
"Mature people make better judgments, but the price is that you are not going to get as much out of them," Cramer said. "It's frustrating to see an individual leave after five years because they didn't think it was what they expected."
Studies conducted by the LAPD have put the turnover rate of officers joining the department by age 34 as low as 10%. Officers signing on at age 40 and above had turnover rates as high as 39%.
The chance that a new police officer would leave the department early "dramatically increased as the officer's age at the time of hire increased," according to one LAPD study.
Brooks said asking every deputy to give 20 years is not the standard his department uses. "It's really not a consideration," he said. "If someone puts in a good 10 or 12 years, that's more than enough return."
When they were classmates at Thousand Oaks High School, Brooks was headed toward a career in law enforcement while Mark Boltinhouse was moving closer to his goal of owning a local bicycle shop.
Almost 30 years later, Boltinhouse sold his popular and prosperous shop and finally gave in to a desire that had tugged at him for years.
In 1997, Boltinhouse was sworn in as a sheriff's deputy. Nearly four years later, he works the graveyard shift out of the east county sheriff's station in Thousand Oaks.
Why did he do it?
"I had rocking-chair syndrome," said Boltinhouse, 50. "Now I want to go a full 20 years."
Brunson is proof that it can be done.
Five nights a week, he patrols a section of Oxnard that is known for gang activity and high crime. Last fall, the streets he patrols were the focus of an anti-gang crackdown prompted by a series of shootings.
It's a dangerous shift, but nothing that Brunson, a Vietnam veteran, can't handle. For all its challenges, Brunson enjoys his job and realizes how close he came to never realizing his dream.
A blood clot in his heart nearly killed him in 1977. But the experience only fueled his motivation to become a cop.
"I had to keep proving and proving I could do the job and they kept saying I was too old," Brunson said.
He finally got his chance after persuading the brass at the Oxnard Police Department.
"I get this guy and I said, 'Jesus, he's older than I am,' " said Dick Staniland, a retired Oxnard police lieutenant who was given the task of evaluating Brunson's application. "I told him that I didn't hold out a lot of hope."
Despite his doubts, Staniland encouraged Brunson, who had fully recovered from his heart attack, to go through the hiring process. "I didn't have personal concerns," said Staniland, who retired in 1990. "Brunson had his head screwed on right. The average kid you hire is 22 going on 19."
Factoring in training, equipment, and the entire hiring and screening process, it can cost taxpayers as much as $ 100,000 before an officer hits the street, officials said.
Even with a damaged heart, hiring Brunson was a risk that he is now glad he took, Staniland said.
"He was working under some police officers " who were young enough to be his sons, said Staniland, 63. "I was proud of him. I could relate to him because we were both old."
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