Older recruits bring life experience, passion to law enforcement

By Lou Ponsi

Eric Velazquez grew up with a respect for law enforcement. But as far as actually wearing the badge?

“I was always the guy who said, ‘No, thanks. Not for me,’ ” Velazquez said.

It took a few years. Ok, several years, before Velazquez changed his mind. Now 40, Velazquez is a rookie police officer at the Orange Police Department.

With help from Orange Police Officer Jordan Uemura, right, Officer Eric Velazquez talks to a homeless women in front of the police station after a dispute with a man that got physical when she said she was hit.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I’m upset with myself that I didn’t do it sooner,” Velazquez said, not because he’s one of the oldest rookies to ever wear the Orange Police Department uniform, and not because he can’t perform the more physically demanding parts of the job the way his younger colleagues can. It’s because he loves the job.

“There is a little bit of everything,” he said. “No two days are alike. No two calls are alike. So in that way, you don’t really get bored.”

Orange Police Officer Eric Velazquez interviews a witness after a suspect the police were looking for was found.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Velazquez grew up in Compton and Paramount, where crime in the neighborhood wasn’t exactly a rarity, he said. That’s when he began to develop a positive feeling for law enforcement.

“Whenever I saw the police coming down the street, that was kind of like a warm blanket,” Velazquez recalls.

Orange Police Officers Casandra Roldan and Eric Velazquez interview a man found sleeping in his vehicle after responding to a report of a person passed out in a car.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

After graduating from Concordia University in Irvine, Velazquez worked as a sports writer for the Irvine World News.

In 2000, he got a job in sports information for USA Water Polo and attended the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the 2004 summer games in Athens, Greece.

“That was really, really cool,” Velasquez said.

Orange Police Officers Casandra Roldan and Eric Velazquez administer a sobriety field test to a man found sleeping in his car. The man was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant for for drunk driving.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

When Velazquez got married, he suddenly became part of a law enforcement family.

His father-in-law is Steve Ames, former coordinator and current consultant for the Golden West Criminal Justice Training Center and retired Orange Police Department captain.

“He was a heavy influence on me,” Velazquez said. “He is one of the best men that I know. He tried to get me to switch careers much, much earlier.”

As he developed friendships and camaraderie with police personnel, a career in law enforcement became more enticing.

Orange Police Officer Casandra Roldan takes a man into custody in a bank parking lot.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Jump ahead to 2014, when the public perception of law enforcement was beginning to change – and not for the better – due to a variety of factors.

“That was really hard for me personally because there were all these people who I really respect (who) do this job,” he said. “It got me more motivated to explore the career.”

By now, Velazquez was a father of two young daughters and working mainly from home as an editor for a fitness magazine.

Red lights inside the patrol car make it easier for Orange Police Officer Eric Velazquez to do his work inside without loosing his night vision.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Enrolling in the police academy would essentially put the duties of raising the kids on the shoulders of his wife, Wendy.

As a couple, they agreed. It was now or never.

So, at age 39, the husband and father of two embarked on a radical career change beginning with almost seven months of regimented training at the Golden West Criminal Justice Training Center, which is akin to Marine boot camp.

Orange Police Officer Eric Velazquez, left, and Officer Casandra Roldan cautiously check out a car with a couple inside parked at night on a dead end street after neighbors called in a suspicious vehicle.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

But for Velazquez, the greatest challenge of the academy wasn’t the running or the push-ups. It wasn’t the obstacle courses or firearms training and hours-long study sessions. It wasn’t even being barked at by the recruit training officers.

“I went from being home most of the time, to being gone, always,” Velazquez said. “She was left to do everything at home on her own, and I was out trying a new career and doing everything on my own.”

Orange police officers respond with guns drawn when a suspect they were looking for is found in a parking lot near the Anaheim/Orange border.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

On March 17, 2017, Velazquez was not only one of 35 police recruits graduating from the Golden West Criminal Justice Training Center, he was the class president.

“Some people made the typical assumptions about my midlife crisis but I told them if that were the case that I would have gone skydiving or at least (bought) a Range Rover,” Velazquez said in a speech in front of his fellow recruits. “But no, I decided to subject myself to six months of dry turkey sandwiches and getting yelled at by people who were mostly younger than me.”

Orange Police Sergeant Kevin Plog said Velazquez is probably the oldest new hire he’s seen in his 11 years at the department.

Orange Police Officer Eric Velazquez uses the patrol car computer to check on outstanding calls and see where he can best help the city.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“He’s got a wife and kids at home and I don’t even have that,” Plog said. “He stays up as late as the young guys do and he’s out working as hard as the young guys are. He’s obviously in very, very good shape.”

Having more life experience gives Velazquez an advantage on the streets at times, particularly on domestic violence calls, the sergeant said.

“There is that rapport that is automatically built in just because he has that life experience,” Plog said.

The job has its challenges, Velazquez said. No doubt about it. The most difficult calls are those involving children.

“When you know you are getting sent to something where a kid is being abused or might be hurt, I get a pit in my stomach,” Velazquez said.

Orange Police Officer Eric Velazquez started his career as a law enforcement officer at age 39.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

But the job brings an abundance of rewards, he said, one of which is just getting out and interacting with the public. Another is serving a city where he lived for many years and working alongside officers who have a passion for the job.

But what’s most rewarding for Velazquez?

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I kind of geek out on just getting to wear the uniform and the badge.”