Roots run deep for Tustin Police Department deputy chief

By Elysse James

Jeff Blair was a teenager when he got his first taste of law enforcement.

He was working at a local gym and had become friends with some of Tustin Police Department’s finest. He joined them for ride-alongs as they patrolled the city, and that’s when Blair first glimpsed his future career.

One of those officers suggested Blair apply to be a reserve officer to get his foot in the door, but Blair never made it to the reserves.

Tustin Police Department’s new Deputy Chief Jeff Blair, with a Thin Blue Line American flag his wife put up in his office.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

During his final interview, he was offered a full-time job as an officer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In July, Blair was sworn in as Tustin Police Department’s deputy chief – the man who will oversee the transition to a new chief when Chief Charles Celano retires in November.

Blair now occupies a corner office, decorated by his wife with memorabilia from the city in which he grew up, and which he now serves.

“I had never had a full-time job before,” the Tustin High grad said. “I was a sworn police officer working the streets of Tustin at 20 years old, driving my own police car around, which was bizarre because they would tease me at briefing about how I wasn’t old enough to go into a bar off duty, but I would go in there for calls and do enforcement.”

Then-Lt. Jeff Blair (now Deputy Chief) of the Tustin Police Department talks about his experiences dealing with Jimmy Rumsey and other gang members.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I was so young that at the time I couldn’t buy my own ammunition off duty,” Blair said. “If I wanted to go to the gun store to buy my own, I had to have a note from my mom.”

Blair has since worked patrol, as a detective in general investigations, as a training officer, was the sergeant in charge of professional standards, the lieutenant commanding the south area, captain in charge of operations and, in 1996, was one of four officers in Tustin’s first gang unit.

Tustin Police Department’s Lt. Jeff Blair (now the department’s deputy chief) and his IDs from his days as a Tustin High Tiller. File photo of Blair by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“That was, by far, my most favorite assignment that I’ve ever worked,” Blair said. “Everything came together to create this really magical unit where every night we were chasing down gang members with guns.”

The most dangerous moment, Blair jokes, came when the unit was chasing after gang members and one of them tossed a gun into the bushes. A Santa Ana police K9 found the weapon and emerged from the foliage, shaking its head – and the gun – back and forth.

“He’s got a .38 revolver in his mouth, teeth on the trigger and meanwhile it’s pointing back and forth at us. We’re jumping around for fear we’re going to get shot by a dog,” Blair says, laughing. “There’s so many good stories from that gang unit… we call it the ‘hot years,’ but violent crime truly did peak in the mid ’90s and our unit put a lot of bad guys in prison.”

Tustin Police Department’s Jeff Blair receives his captain badge from his two daughters, Bailey and Brelynne, and his wife, Ann Marie, during a promotions and new hire ceremony.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Years later, while serving as the south area commander, he recalls authorizing landing two helicopters carrying S.W.A.T. snipers on Red Hill Avenue when a gunman was loose in the city.

“There were three officer-involved shootings within my first six months,” he said. “It was just a really compressed time period where we had a lot of activity. You would normally get that kind of experience over a couple of years and I got it in, like, six months. I felt I gained experience in dog years.”

One of the best things about the Tustin Police Department, he said, is its relationship with the community.

In other cities, Blair jokes, residents might stay silent if they see someone running from officers. But in Tustin, they’ll point the way.

Tustin Police Department’s new Deputy Chief Jeff Blair with newspaper clippings showing events he and the department has been involved in over the years.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“We’re so tightly connected to the community,” he said. “We always say, ‘no call too small.’ I mean, we treat every call with importance.”

Though Blair spends most of his time at the station these days, he recalls his time patrolling the streets fondly.

“To this day – to this moment – if the radio goes on, and that emergency beeper goes on, my heart starts racing,” he said. “When I hear a hot call go out, I still feel that adrenaline rush that I had when I was a young kid working patrol.”