As an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate, Steve Highley, now of the La Habra Police Department, helped direct jets and helicopters on and off the aircraft carrier USS Constellation.
The ballet of moving aircraft around the 1,088-foot-long ship is conducted with hand signals because of the deafening roar of jet engines and helicopter rotors. With a force equivalent to 10 football teams moving around the deck, the flight deck could be a dangerous place.
“I saw people get hurt and people die,” Highley said. “I’ve seen people get blown off the ship. It’s very high stress.”
Highley’s experience in the Navy prepared him for the intense job of being a La Habra police officer and part-time member of the North County Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team.
Although Highley’s grandfather was a chief petty officer in the Navy and his dad was a Marine radioman, Highley didn’t plan on serving in the military.
Born in San Clemente, Highley moved around Southern California a lot during his childhood. He enjoyed being outdoors and was especially passionate about riding dirt bikes. After graduating from Temecula High School, he worked a “dead-end job” for about six months before he realized he needed to try something else.
In 1999, Highley signed up for the Marine Corps and the Navy. He ultimately enlisted in the Navy because the service offered him more money toward his education, and he was sent to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. Highley said he found boot camp’s physical challenges easy — with one exception.
“The sleep deprivation was probably the biggest thing for me,” Highley said. “Boot camp kindly removes that from you.”
Like many military recruits, Highley took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test that partners people with potential occupations. He tested well for mechanical hydraulics, air traffic control, and Navy diver positions.
Highley wanted to work outdoors, and the flight deck was the best place to do that.
“If there was excitement going on I wanted to be with it,” Highley said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Highley was asleep aboard the USS Constellation during a Tiger Cruise from Hawaii to San Diego. Tiger Cruises allow sailors’ families and friends to stay on the ship and learn about life at sea.
“My father woke me up to the news of the first aircraft hitting the towers,” Highley said.
Highley felt safe aboard the floating fortress at a time when people across the country were fearful of future attacks. The ship’s orders changed a few times, but the USS Constellation ultimately continued on to San Diego, Highley said.
Highley’s time in the Navy took him to Italy, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Australia.
After Highley left the Navy in 2003, he decided to apply for police officer positions because he wanted to do something that couldn’t be done by everyone. After almost three years of applying, he joined the La Habra Police Department.
The teamwork required of police officers is similar to that of air traffic controllers on an aircraft carrier, Highley said.
”You have to rely on your partners,” Highley said. “You trust that they know what they’re doing. If you couldn’t do it, you’d find out pretty quick.”
Highley has served as a patrol officer, motor officer, and field training officer since joining the La Habra Police Department. As a part-time member of the North County SWAT Team, Highley works with officers from the Fullerton, Placentia, La Habra, La Palma, and Cal State Fullerton police departments. Generally, the team trains, serves search warrants, and does special enforcement.
One day, Highley would like the opportunity to work full time on the North County SWAT Team.
“To me, that would be the ultimate job,” Highley said.
Highley chose public service and followed in the footsteps of his father. His career with the La Habra Police Department has been rewarding and he enjoys the family atmosphere and teamwork that his fellow officers bring to work every day. La Habra is a busy city and a great place to be a police officer.