She had planned on a speech, but pretty much ditched it at the last moment.
At a Jan. 8, 2020 retirement ceremony to mark the end of her 27-year career in law enforcement, all but one of them at the Irvine PD – Julia Engen just wanted to say thanks.
The IPD’s outgoing assistant chief of police expressed her gratitude for the tactical officers at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy for pushing the petite Engen (she is 5 feet 3 inches) to successfully get through the physical and mental rigors of training.
She thanked her family, including her three now-adult children, for showing unconditional love throughout her career.
And she thanked the women and men of the IPD for having her back all those years.
The large number of friends, colleagues, and loved ones who attended the ceremony in Irvine City Hall chambers underscored the lofty standing Engen achieved in law enforcement, not only in Orange County but statewide.
Throughout her career, Engen earned a reputation as a hard-working officer who did much to advance the ranks of women in law enforcement, helping to grow the percentage of sworn female officers at the IPD to 20 percent– twice as much as most other law enforcement agencies.
In 2013, Engen was part of the original team that established Women Leaders in Law Enforcement, Southern California chapter. And for three years, she was a board member of the California Police Chiefs Association.
“She’s had an impact on law enforcement throughout the state, and has been a mentor to other officers,” said Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy, a CPCA second-vice president who worked with Engen to develop curriculum for an executive development program for members of law enforcement.
Handy was among a dozen speakers at Engen’s retirement ceremony, from former partners to members of non-profit organizations who’ve worked closely with her over the years.
“The timing was right, personally and professionally,” Engen said of her decision to retire.
First hired by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in 1993, Engen joined the IPD in 1994. On Dec. 2, 2015, she was sworn in as the IPD’s deputy chief.
“I actually was going to retire a few years back, but when I promoted to assistant chief, I committed to stay for two more years, which quickly turned into four,” Engen told Behind the Badge.
“I’m looking forward to being a little less connected to my phone and email and a little more connected to my family and friends,” Engen said.
Engen said she’s excited about coordinating the Leadership Development Program at Golden West College, one of her post-retirement projects.
Engen is the mother of three children: Jena, 32, who is married to Santa Ana Officer Steven Stuczynski; Woodrow, 30; and Steven, 23. They and other relatives attended the Jan. 8 ceremony, which culminated in a cordon ceremony in the secured parking section at the IPD, with officers lined up alongside their patrol vehicles, lights flashing.
That ceremony was followed by cake and goodbyes inside IPD headquarters.
“We thank you for her, Lord,” Irvine PD Chaplain Frank Winans said at the start of the 1 hour-and-40-minute ceremony. “We thank you, God, for (Engen’s) life. We thank you for her career in law enforcement. We thank you, God, for the incredible contribution that she has made to the IPD family.
“God, we pray today that Julie would know how much she is loved and how much she’ll be missed, especially by those who worked closely alongside her and are able to call her friend.”
Chief Mike Hamel presented Engen with her retirement badge. Hamel started at the IPD the same year she did.
“She has worked in virtually every (part of) our department and has influenced both our people and culture in extraordinary ways,” Hamel said. “Most important has been her unparalleled professional work ethic, her abilities to make personal connections with people in our organization, and her dedication to our profession.”
He told Engen: “You’ve always understood the importance of making decisions based on what is in the best interests of this community, this city, and our department always before your own self interest. You’ve been a true servant leader.”
Among Engen’s numerous accomplishments, she was the IPD’s first female commander and first female assistant chief.
Hamel praised Engen’s special touch with youth when she was an IPD School Resource Officer. He mentioned her volunteer work with the Irvine Prevention Coalition, a local nonprofit dedicated to programs aimed at at-risk youth including drug use and violence prevention, and with Team Kids, another nonprofit.
In 2009, Engen was assigned as the department’s first full-time recruiting sergeant. She also was assigned as a tactical officer at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Regional Training Academy.
Several speakers touched on Engen’s bout with cancer, shortly after she became the public face of the IPD in 2010 when, as a lieutenant, she began serving for four years as public information officer.
While undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment, Engen still went before the cameras when news broke – sometimes wearing a wig.
Engen established the IPD’s first all-female sworn team for the Baker to Vegas relay race. She named the squad Team Jane, after former Irvine PD Officer Jane Golden, who died of breast cancer in 2009.
Since 2015, Engen has served as a board member of Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) Orange County, which has 120 specially trained volunteers who work at the request of police agencies, fire departments, and hospitals to provide emotional and practical support to people immediately after a tragedy.
“We would not be in the organization that we are today without her support,” TIP Founder Wayne Fortin said. “She’s been with us for over 15 years providing leadership, support, and encouragement.”
Noelle Smiley, a commander at the IPD, said Engen is fiercely loyal to her friends, to the IPD, and to the community.
Barry Aninag, retired IPD commander, recalled working with Engen in 1998 at the then-named Entertainment Center at the Irvine Spectrum Center, noting her penchant for arresting revelers who often were typically much larger than her.
Echoed recently retired IPD Sgt. Jeff van der Sluys Veer: “I learned early on working with Julia that it wasn’t the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
Lt. Rachel Johnson, of the Newport Beach PD, worked closely with Engen in Women Leaders in Law Enforcement, Southern California Chapter.
“You’ve been an inspiration not only to me personally, but also a number of women in our profession,” Johnson said. “Thank you for your leadership, vision, and insight. Thank you for being accessible, candid, and humble throughout the years.”
At the end of the ceremony, the crowd rose to their feet.
“This is overwhelming beyond my wildest dreams to have so many people here,” Engen said.