Meet Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, the first female motor officer in the history of the Tustin PD

By Greg Hardesty

When the dust cleared, Tustin PD Motor Officer Ralph Casiello turned to his colleague on the ground and made a crack.

“Are you making gravel angels?”

Sgt. Sarah Fetterling was flat on her back.

Assigned to run the traffic unit in June 2018, Fetterling decided to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Although she didn’t have to, she wanted to be a sergeant who rode one, just like the officers she would supervise.

Casiello was training her prior to her entering a motor academy.

Fetterling hit the throttle on the 900-pound Honda too hard, let go of the clutch, and took a spill off a concrete training pad onto gravel.

It may have been a humbling start to learning how to ride a police motorcycle, but Fetterling – who was not seriously hurt in the spill — eventually mastered it.

And now, she has the esteemed distinction of being the first female motor officer in the history of the TPD.

“It’s a great step for this department,” Fetterling says, “but I see it as I’m just filling a role that males have done in the past, and I hope this is a step toward women in this position being the norm.”

Tustin PD motor officers (from left) Tim Crouch, John Hedges, Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, Steve Brooks and Ralph Casiello.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Casiello, a nearly 30-year veteran of the TPD who became a motor officer in 2000, trained Fetterling for a couple of months before she attended, late last year, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s training academy for aspiring motors.

“She was tough,” Casiello recalls. “She’d crash and be bleeding and get right back up and get right back on the (motorcycle). She was motivated. Where some people would kind of be more tentative, she’d roll the bike back up and say, ‘OK, let’s do it again.’”

Casiello laughingly recalls the time Fetterling was having trouble making a U-turn in a braking exercise. She consistently missed the turning point after slowing from 40 miles per hour.

“I jumped out in front of her as she was braking,” Casiello recalls. “Her eyes got super big and she grabbed onto the brakes, and she stopped.

“I kind of surprised her with that one.”

Fetterling, 34, was one of seven officers to attend the LASD academy and, in mid-December 2018, she was only the third female to ever graduate from the academy, said Deputy Shawn Bryant of the LASD.

“She did fine, just like everyone,” Bryant says.

The academy, on average, has a 40-percent failure rate, he adds.

In this file photo, Tustin PD Sgt. Sara Fetterling runs a driver through a series of tests at a DUI checkpoint. File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“Some years, we’d have all who enter the academy pass, and in one academy class, all failed,” Bryant says.

The motor community came together to help Fetterling prepare for the academy, whose many challenges include successfully navigating through a variety of cone patterns.

Because the LASD academy uses BMW motorcycles, Fetterling needed to practice on one. Sgt. Eric Milling, of the Long Beach PD, loaned her one of his agency’s BMWs for a month.

“He didn’t even know me,” says Fetterling, who practiced for two weeks with motor officers at the Huntington Beach PD.

Fetterling practiced riding LBPD’s BMW for a month and eventually became comfortable with this motorcycle.

“It was just a crazy six months of me getting used to the motor community, being part of the law enforcement family we are used to working together and helping each other, but this was even more than that,” Fetterling says. “They’ll give you the shirt off their back if they can.”

Adds Fetterling, referring to the LASD motor academy: “I knew it would be hard, but I honestly didn’t know it would be as hard as it was. It’s extremely physically demanding.”

TPD Lt. Ryan Coe, Fetterling’s predecessor, isn’t surprised she passed the academy.

“Her will to succeed is unbelievable,” Coe says.

Tustin PD Motor Officer Sgt. Sarah Fetterling gets support from her motor team, from left, Tim Crouch, John Hedges, Steve Brooks and Ralph Casiello.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

The TPD, as it turns out, is switching to BMWs this month.

“They’re easier to ride,” Fetterling says of the BMW RT 1250. “And they’re the safest bikes on the road. Every motor officer in our department has a family they want to go home to.”

While Fetterling was learning to ride a motorcycle, the motor officers at the TPD handled her sergeant duties, such as making sure overtime was filled for special events, planning special events, and approving citations for the entire department.

“The motor unit welcomed me with arms wide open in taking over all of the duties assigned to the motor sergeant,” Fetterling says of the TPD Traffic Unit. “I was able to fully focus on learning to ride. Without their support, this would have been a difficult journey.”

In addition to Fetterling and Casiello, the TPD Traffic Unit includes:

Motor Officer John Hedges

Motor Officer Steve Brooks

Motor Officer Tim Crouch

PSO Traffic Investigator JJ Garzone

Reserve Officer John Crews

Parking Control Officer Jim Harada

Cadet Alan Uribe

In this file photo, Tustin PD Color Guards, including Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, post the colors during Tustin PD’s annual memorial ceremony for Officer Wally Karp.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Fetterling’s background suggests she would grow up to enjoy the physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging job of police officer – and, now, motor cop.

Growing up in Yorba Linda, one of her next-door neighbors was a household of four boys who would go on to become a firefighter, a Navy SEAL, a bomb squad technician for the Navy, and a SWAT officer for the Long Beach PD.

“Those were the boys that I rolled with and tried to keep up with growing up,” Fetterling says. “I played hockey and swam and was constantly active, and played cops and robbers (with the boys).

“I feel like that foundation helped me get to where I am today.”

Fetterling played soccer, basketball, and softball before entering Esperanza High School, where she played golf and roller hockey.

After graduating from Esperanza in 2002, Fetterling went to junior college locally before transferring her sophomore year to Chico State, where she played Division I rugby.

“They always claimed we played dirty,” Fetterling says, “but we just tackled hard.”

After graduating from Chico State in 2007, Fetterling returned to Orange County.

“I knew I wanted to join the police force,” says Fetterling, who partially was inspired by a ride-along she went on with the California Highway Patrol while at Chico State.

The Tustin PD hired her and put her in the police academy in January 2008. That year, in June, she began her career at the TPD.

Fetterling never really planned on being a motor officer.

Sgt. Sarah Fetterling of the Tustin PD grew up in Yorba Linda.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“What I always wanted to do was go after drugs, you know, working on a team,” she says.

After working patrol for three years, Fetterling got her wish when she was assigned to the Special Enforcement Detail (now called GRADE Unit).

She spent three years on the SED looking for gangsters and drug dealers, as well as working with probation and parole officers.

“It was just such a fun time,” says Fetterling, who went on to become a DRE (drug recognition expert).

Fetterling then served as an FTO (field training officer) for nearly a year.

“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I knew it was something that I did not want to miss in my career because I had such a great time while I was (a trainee).”

Fetterling was promoted to sergeant in July 2014.

Just before that promotion, she married Dispatch Supervisor Kristin Fetterling.

She has been my biggest supporter because it has been really hard to learn how to ride,” Fetterling says. “She dusts me off and puts me right back out the next day.”

Tustin PD motor officers (from left ) Tim Crouch, John Hedges, Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, Steve Brooks, Ralph Casiello, and PSO Traffic Investigator JJ Garzone.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

The couple have two boys, Tyler, 15, and Jack, 13, and live in the house Fetterling grew up in.

After working as a sergeant in patrol, Fetterling then put in for the job to run the Traffic Unit.

“I’m high energy – I wanted to do something else, I like to do things that are new so I don’t get bored.”

Fetterling says she feels at home as head of the Traffic Unit.

“They’ve never made me feel like they don’t want me around,” she says of the motor officers. “They are a tight knit group and really work hard both out on the streets and behind the scenes coordinating special events, grants, investigating fatal traffic accidents, and researching and maintaining specialized equipment.”

Adds Fetterling: “This is the best group of guys ever. They want to have fun, but of course they also want to get the job done. And, we take care of each other.”