An apology finally came after 24 years.
“You’re going to get two different stories on this,” said Tustin Sgt. Dana Harper.
“I’ll tell the truth,” Capt. Steve Lewis quipped.
In 1991, Lewis – a sergeant at the time – laid out a meticulous plan to catch a prolific car burglar.
There was a stake-out involved, a K9 unit summoned and a select group of officers tapped to follow and then apprehend the suspect.
Police were surveilling a stolen car on Carfax Drive and Lewis’ well-thought out operation was expected to lead to an arrest.
Then Harper got involved.
A young officer at the time, Harper said he was poaching because he wanted in on the action.
When the suspect drove away in the stolen vehicle, Harper, along with five other officers, jumped in on the pursuit.
“They had this plan all worked out and we ended up cutting off the officers who were involved in that plan,” Harper said. “If we would’ve just stayed out of it, the plan would have worked.”
The driver pulled into a residential neighborhood that Harper knew had only one exit, so the officer waited.
As the suspect pulled out of the tract, Harper decided the best way to stop him was to crash head-on into the stolen vehicle.
“If he would’ve been going super-fast I wouldn’t have done that. Probably,” Harper said. “It wasn’t a good idea.”
“Talk about lessons learned. I would never have advocated for that now.”
The stunt stopped the pursuit and landed the suspect in custody, but Harper was disciplined and Lewis was left dealing with 66 pages of reports.
“I really apologize for that,” Harper told Lewis on a recent Tuesday as they sat across the table from one another recalling the story.
“Oh, now you apologize?” Lewis responded, laughing.
Harper and Lewis have stories upon stories. After all, they’ve spent the last 30 years at the same police department.
Even rarer still: the two graduated from the same academy class (Golden West Criminal Justice Training Center, Class No. 82, The Chosen Few in 1985).
Now they retire together.
Although their law enforcement paths have been very different at Tustin PD, they share a common bond in the deep love they have for the job and the people who dedicate their lives to it.
SGT. DANA HARPER
“This is Dana Harper and I’ve just shot my mirror.”
It’s a story he’ll never live down, and rightfully so.
Fresh out of the academy and new to Tustin PD in 1985, Harper was impressed with his own image reflected in his bedroom mirror.
“I think I was like every young police officer who gets out of the academy and puts their uniform on and damn do we look cool,” Harper said.
He was practicing drawing his weapon and liked what he saw.
“I had a new holster and I’m checking myself out, man I look good,” Harper said through laughter. “Well, when you’re in the academy you never have any bullets. When you get out of the academy they give you bullets.
Harper shot a round straight through his bedroom mirror.
He reported it to Fountain Valley PD, the city he lived in at the time, then reported it to his own department.
Embarrassment mounted when the Tustin dispatcher replied, “Never heard of you.”
Harper had not yet even started his training with Tustin PD.
The story was made even better when Harper went in for his shift and requested just one bullet from his sergeant so he could fill out his magazine.
“It was a disaster,” Harper said. “A total, utter disaster. I thought I was going to be fired.”
The incident was investigated and ruled an accident.
It’s a great tale and one that is lauded as legendary at Tustin PD.
“I get rookie cops come up to me today and ask me about it,” he said. “There’s no getting over it.”
People also ask Harper why he even reported it.
Nobody was hurt, nobody saw anything and not mentioning the mirror mishap would have saved him 30 years of ribbing.
But that’s not who Harper is.
He wanted to do the right thing — he possessed a strong moral compass that carried him through three decades of law enforcement.
“When I think about lessons learned there are probably thousands of them, but I don’t think about it that way,” he said. “This is just my life. It’s the way I live.”
From a young age, Harper, 53, said he learned to be a problem solver.
His parents divorced when he was in the second grade, leaving him to care for himself while his mother worked to pay the bills.
“I had to get a lot of things done from a very young age,” he said. “I think that really helped in my career; it built the foundation, anyway.”
Harper remembers when law enforcement first came on his radar.
In the early morning hours before he’d head to school, Harper would surf near the Huntington Beach pier.
Although only 14, Harper knew he wanted a job that would allow him to keep his early-morning surf sessions.
He also knew he wanted something outdoors that would constantly pique his interest.
“Every morning, the cops in Huntington Beach used to pull out on the pier while I was surfing and meet at a coffee shop,” he said. “I remember looking up between sets and going, ‘Those guys can work at night. Sounds like maybe a job for me.’”
Harper went through US Army basic training and military police school before enlisting in the California National Guard in 1984, where he served six years.
A year into his time with the National Guard, Harper signed up for the police academy.
The class started with 75 recruits but dropped to 50 by lunchtime on the first day.
“That first day was bad,” he recalled.
With a military background, Harper breezed through the academy and was hired by the Tustin PD two months before graduating.
He was an eager rookie and a results-driven worker.
Harper was the first officer at Tustin PD to be awarded the Mother’s Against Drunk Driving Award for arresting 49 drunken drivers his first year on patrol.
He worked patrol, detectives and served as a DARE officer for two years, one of his most rewarding assignments, he said.
“When someone in the community comes up to me and they have kids now and they remember me and say, ‘Hey you were my DARE officer’ that is really cool,” he said.
Harper went on to become a field training officer where he stakes claim to training some of Tustin PD’s highest-ranking employees, including Police Chief Charles Celano.
“I trained the chief, I trained a captain, I trained a lieutenant but I’m still just a sergeant,” he said. “But sergeant is absolutely the best position.”
Harper, who graduated with honors from Webster University, was promoted to sergeant in 2000 and served as a supervisor for patrol and detectives in his 15-year tenure.
He said he hopes he’s remembered for his willingness to help and his drive to work hard.
“When somebody asks me for help with something I really try to stop what I’m doing and give them a hand – whether it’s a big thing or a small thing,” he said. “The thing I’m going to miss most is the camaraderie of police officers. To me, that’s the No. 1 cool thing about this job.”
That camaraderie and his experience over the last three decades is why he encourages a career in law enforcement.
“I would tell that young person, ‘Absolutely you should go into law enforcement it’s the greatest job you can ever have,” he said.
Harper said he’s not yet ready to leave Tustin PD, and he won’t have to for a bit as he wraps up some projects for the department after his Dec. 27 retirement day.
His retirement plans include surfing more and planning an RV surf trip from Santa Cruz to Cabo San Lucas with his wife of 28 years, Christian.
His children live locally and Harper said he will continue to help renovate his daughter and son-in-law’s home as the couple gets ready to welcome their first child.
“I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to do, but I’ll be around,” he said.
CAPT. STEVE LEWIS
Like many teens, Steve Lewis didn’t have a clue what career path he wanted to pursue.
Lewis first was introduced to law enforcement at age 18 while working at Pep Boys.
“I worked with a reserve police officer from Costa Mesa and we got to talking about law enforcement one night,” Lewis said. “The more he started talking about it, the more interested I got.”
Lewis, 58, became a reserve with Westminster PD in 1980 before joining the Orange County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the jail in 1981.
He worked his way through college at Cal State Fullerton while serving as a deputy and in 1985 was sponsored by Tustin PD to go through the academy.
His first day, they issued him a left-handed holster although he was right-handed — something he said he now knows was on purpose.
Lewis stared straight ahead as several training officers got in his face and yelled about his backwards holster.
That’s how the academy was — they tried to make the recruits break. And many of them did.
Recruits were pushed to their mental limit, sometimes having to write pages of memos after a 10-hour day at the academy and on just a few hours of sleep.
There are rules against those brutal hours for today’s recruits.
After graduating from the academy and joining the Tustin PD in 1985, Lewis was promoted to sergeant after just four years as a patrol officer.
In 2003, he was promoted to lieutenant and in 2009 was sworn in as captain.
Looking back at his 30 years, Lewis learned many of the qualities he brought to his law enforcement career played in to his successes on the job.
Among them: strong mental resolve and deep dedication to his family.
“My personal belief is that you have to have a certain mentality to stay in this job,” Lewis said. “You can’t let what you see every day get to you. If you do, you’re not going to be able to last.”
Lewis, who was married with a young child when he started with Tustin PD, said strong bonds outside of law enforcement kept him grounded.
“I have always had a strong family and now we know how important it is for officers to do that,” he said.
Lewis recalled passing up the chance at a promotion to lieutenant so he could continue to coach his son’s baseball team.
Some of his colleagues thought he was crazy, but Lewis knew he made the right choice.
“I learned early on that I’d have another opportunity to promote but that’s the only chance to spend that time with my son,” he said. “That time was great and you never get that back.”
When he became a cop, the culture in law enforcement was different — it was all about what Lewis called “the blue family.”
Cops would hang out with cops then gatherings eventually skewed to include only those who wore a badge.
Soon, he’d see his peers start to push away family and friends.
A lot has changed since Lewis’ early days.
“Now we know just how important it is to get away from here and make sure you have friends that give you a better perspective, otherwise you become super jaded,” he said. “We really push that now.”
A balanced life outside of law enforcement makes for healthier officers, but it is also important to have a safe place for officers to talk about what they encounter on the job or challenges they face in their personal life with those who might understand the most.
Lewis, who holds a master’s from Cal State Long Beach, founded Tustin’s Peer Support program in 2006, which continues to be successful today.
“We are modeled by almost every other agency out there,” he said. “That’s probably a career highlight.”
Developing programs such as Peer Support is how Lewis made his impact at Tustin PD.
“There were no big cases for me,” said. “I was more on the community development side of things.”
Lewis privatized the department’s crossing guard program, resulting in a major cost savings for TPD, and drafted a training plan that took advantage of using in-house employees.
“We all work a 10-hour extra shift and we’ve built four training days a year into that,” he said. “That’s been really successful from a training perspective and a cost-savings perspective.”
As the former Community Relations Officer, Lewis also had his hand in several projects including co-founding the annual Santa Cop event, which hosts a Christmas celebration for needy families.
“We started this because of the need we realized in the community,” he said. “A lot of these kids don’t have anything.”
Lewis said there is little he’d change about his time with Tustin PD, but he encourages young officers to practice patience in their careers.
“The biggest thing I share with a lot of younger officers is don’t be in a such a hurry to promote,” Lewis said. “If I had known what I know now, I would have slowed down and done some other things for the fun and experience.”
But Lewis said he hopes his work has left Tustin PD a better place.
“I hope that people saw me as somebody they could approach, somebody that was fair and somebody that they could trust,” he said. “I hope they thought I was a quality leader.”
Lewis’ retirement plans include taking an East Coast RV trip, practicing yoga with his wife of 33 years, Jeannette, and spending quality time with his children and grandchildren.
Lewis also will continue volunteering at his church and instructing the next generation of law enforcement officers at the Golden West Criminal Justice Training Center where he will keep offering this advice for those who want to wear a badge:
“This is not a job. This is something you absolutely have to have a passion for. If you don’t, don’t bother.”
“Passion. Persistance. Perseverance.”