Homegrown Westminster commander makes policing personal


Three miles to work, three miles home.

Westminster Commander Al Panella has the same routine almost every day.

He laces up his Asics and often jogs from his Westminster home to the police department or rides his bike in.

That home is the same one he moved into with his family at age 2.

It’s the same living room where he laid on the floor as an eager 10-year-old, watching “Adam-12” and fantasizing about the career he would one day have.

And the street outside his house is where he would re-enact scenes from “Starsky and Hutch” with the neighborhood kids — trying, but never mastering, Starsky’s trademark hood-of-the-car slide.

On his daily three-mile trek in, Panella often reminisces.

He runs by the movie theater and remembers the dozens of days and nights he spent watching popular 70’s and 80’s films.

He passes the McDonald’s on Westminster Boulevard where he sat on the curb every October as the Founder’s Day Parade marched down the street.

He remembers admiring the Westminster Police Officers working the parade, wishing someday to be part of their ranks.

“I go by these places and fondly remember things from my childhood,” he said. “I really care about my community in a more intimate way, maybe more than someone who hasn’t grown up here.”

An officer with Westminster Police for 27 years, and an Explorer for six years prior to that, some of his hometown streets spark memories that are not as warm or inviting.

Like a nearby intersection where while working as a patrol officer, Panella attempted a traffic stop that evolved into a 45-minute high speed pursuit through Orange County.

The chase ended in another city when Panella and other officers were forced to shoot the suspect who tried to use his vehicle as a weapon to run over two pedestrians.

Images of the suspect smoking crack cocaine during the pursuit were captured by the media and later used in the investigation, Panella said.

Then there’s another area where a suspected drug dealer crashed into a pole after a police pursuit Panella was involved in.

The suspected dealer ran from Panella, a patrol sergeant at the time, and then turned uttering threats while reaching into his waistband, forcing him into a shooting to protect himself and others present.

A Los Angeles Times article about the shooting said witnesses heard the suspect threaten Panella, and that he tried to convince the man to surrender, but he refused.

Panella frequently passes another intersection where he, as a lieutenant was involved in a shooting of a man who pointed a shotgun at him and other officers.

“My faith and my resolve about having a purpose and meaning in what we do has really gotten me through the difficult times in my career,” Panella said. “Knowing that even in those horrible times, when I’ve had to use that sort of force, it is in the ultimate service to others.”

The positive impact Panella has had during his years on the force overshadow the tough days, he says.

“Of all the bad that has happened in my career, there has been so many times that I’ve done so much good and I’ve helped people,” he said. “I think about all of the children we’ve helped, and the people I’ve arrested and put in jail who I’ve run into years later and thanked me for helping them find a better place in their lives.”

“Those things are huge.”

Al Panella, Commander for the Westminster Police Department talks about his career with the department. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Al Panella, a commander with the Westminster Police Department, talks about his career.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

At the crux of his law enforcement philosophy is a strong moral fiber that translates from Panella’s home life to work.

“What is most important to me is ethical police work,” he said. “When you put this badge on, it really means something.”

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics hangs on a wall in Panella’s office. The framed oath was hand-written in calligraphy by his neighbor.

A small poster from “Adam-12” also has a place in Panella’s office, serving as a reminder of that eager 10-year-old determined to one day wear a badge.

“It impressed upon me so much that I still have the (TV) series,” Panella said. “These guys are the epitome of ethical, hardworking, role-model police officers.”

That was the officer Panella wanted to be.

In 1982, Panella joined Westminster’s Explorer program. Once he learned volunteer hours could be used to earn ride-alongs, he filled his free time with service projects.

“I couldn’t work enough hours,” Panella said. “I signed up for everything. I don’t know how many thousands of hours over the six years I was an Explorer that I worked.”

He was so certain he would become an officer that at age 17 he ended a relationship with his high school girlfriend who frowned upon the career.

“She tried to talk me out of police work; she thought it was dangerous,” he said. “I just said, ‘That’s not going to happen. See you later.’”

Panella went on to marry a woman he met at Westminster High who was much more supportive of his career path.

Panella joined Westminster PD in 1988 and has served as a metro team officer, detective, a SWAT commander and a special operations commander, among other assignments.

He was transferred this year to serve as commander in the detectives bureau.

Whatever his assignment, Panella calls on his roots and the experiences he continues to build in Westminster.

“I don’t just see the community through the lenses of work; I see it through living here, eating here and conducing business here,” Panella said. “I love the community and I feel at home here. I’m blessed to be able to work here.”