On his last day on the job after nearly 31 years in law enforcement, James Kazakos had a dear friend present him his retirement badge.
It was quite the emotional moment for Kazakos, who stepped down as an Anaheim PD lieutenant on Dec. 2, 2016, after 25 years at that agency and, before that, nearly six years at the Alhambra PD.
Were it not for former Alhambra and Anaheim PD Chief Joseph T. Molloy, Kazakos most likely wouldn’t have realized his dream of becoming a police officer.
For nearly five years, a checkered youth torpedoed Kazakos’ chances of being hired by a law enforcement agency. Growing up in Pico Rivera, he hung with the wrong crowd through his early teens. By the time he was 18, Kazakos had been arrested four times.
That fact led several law enforcement agencies to pass on Kazakos during the background investigation phase of the hiring process.
That is, until Molloy took a chance on him.
The then-Alhambra chief was one of Kazakos’ tactical officers when Kazakos put himself through the Rio Honda Police Academy, and was impressed with his academy performance.
In addition, a high school coach of Kazakos who took a liking to him told a friend — an Alhambra officer — to put in a good word for Kazakos with Molloy.
“Have him apply,” Molloy told his officer, “because if no one had ever given me a chance, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Kazakos applied to the Alhambra PD, and Molloy hired him in 1985 — the start of Kazakos’ three-plus decades in law enforcement.
“I owe my career to him,” Kazakos said.
So at his packed retirement ceremony in an auditorium at the Anaheim PD, Kazakos, 54, had Pam Molloy pin on his badge. She’s the widow of Joe Molloy, who died of a heart attack at age 54 outside his chief’s office at the Anaheim PD in 1993.
Molloy served as chief of police of Anaheim from 1988 until his death.
Kazakos was so fond of Molloy that he followed him to the APD, transferring from the Alhambra PD to Anaheim in 1991.
“It didn’t matter where that man went,” Kazakos recalled of Molloy. “I would have followed him anywhere.”
So when Pam Molloy pinned on his retirement badge, Kazakos lost it — emotionally.
“I was a mess,” he said.
As a middle-schooler and through his early high school years, Kazakos was a mess — until he made a 180-degree turnaround, thanks to the encouragement of some adult mentors.
Kazakos’ father was born in Greece and worked as a mechanic until he became totally disabled after breaking his back twice. His mother was born in France and worked in a sweatshop as a seamstress.
While growing up, Kazakos was arrested for fighting, being drunk in public and assault with a deadly weapon. “I grew up being chased around by the police, and eventually I thought being a cop would be a pretty cool job,” said Kazakos.
During his last year of junior high (back then it was the 9th grade), a vice principal took Kazakos aside and encouraged him to get involved in sports. Kazakos, who missed half the eighth grade after being kicked out of the school district, had to double-up on all of his classes in order to graduate.
He pulled it off, and his hard work in academics — as well as on the football and track field — continued at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera.
His high school football coach, Don Peterson, ended up being Kazakos’ best man at his wedding, in 1988. Peterson also attended Kazakos’ retirement ceremony late last year.
While attending Rio Honda Junior College, where he earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice, Kazakos went on a ridealong with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“After that,” he said, “I was hooked.”
Kazakos worked three jobs to save up enough money to put himself through the Rio Honda Police Academy.
His backup plan was to become a teacher and football coach if he failed to get hired by a policing agency.
At the Alhambra PD, Kazakos worked patrol, as a field training officer and undercover narcotics.
He credits retired Alhambra PD Sgt. Andrew Harvey for urging him to never stop educating himself about police work.
“A lot of important people played a role in my (law enforcement) journey,” Kazakos said.
Kazakos only had been at the APD for a couple of years when his mentor Molloy died. At the time, Kazakos was working on the community policing team, cracking down on gangs and drugs in the Haster Street/Wakefield Avenue area.
He then moved onto the APD’s street narcotics unit, Crime Task Force, and then transferred to the domestic violence unit, followed by robbery and homicide. As a sergeant, Kazakos was assigned to patrol, the K9 team, burglary and the resort policing unit.
“Every assignment I got,” Kazakos said, “I had a blast.”
In addition to his policing assignments, Kazakos also performed a lot of volunteer work at the APD. He was a regular at such annual events as Tip a Cop and Shop With a Cop — part of his longstanding ethos of giving back to the community.
Kazakos’ legacy of giving back is honest and humble, said APD Sgt. Daron Wyatt.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I have been at an Angel’s game or other event in uniform and some early 20s kid would come up and ask, ‘Hey do you know Kazakos? He was my football coach and helped get me straight,'” Wyatt said.
Kazakos said he was “blessed” to end his career at the APD as the lieutenant in charge of the Orange County Family Justice Center, an APD-launched center that serves all Orange County victims of domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse and sexual assaults.
He ran the OCFJC from 2012 until his retirement and served as president of its non-profit arm, the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation.
Kazakos’ wife, Lisa, a longtime dance instructor, helped raised money for the foundation over the last two years by staging an annual Motown dance showcase.
For his leadership of the OCFJC, foundation Executive Director Tracy Theodore named a college scholarship after Kazakos to help money-strapped young adults get a higher education.
“I consider that an unbelievable honor,” said Kazakos.
He said of the OCFJC: “It was truly a blessing to be able to end my career there. The opportunity to work with so many agencies located in one building was great, and Tracy is phenomenal. It was wonderful being able to reach out into the entire O.C. community and help people and actually make a difference in not only one person’s life, but also their entire family.”
Kazakos still is adjusting to retirement.
He said his stress level has dropped considerably since retiring, but he’s still figuring out how to spend his days.
On tap is riding his Harley around a lot and doing a lot of traveling with his wife. Both want to see more of Greece and France and other countries.
“My wife and I want to cover the Earth before the earth covers us,” Kazakos said with a chuckle.
Kazakos and his wife have lived in the same modest home for 27 years. They have two sons: Jacob, 27, who recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach and is an illustrator, and Josh, 25, who lives in Seattle and is in college.
Despite his full and rewarding career at the Anaheim and Alhambra PDs, Kazakos doesn’t hesitate when asked about his proudest achievement.
“My children are my legacy, plain and simple,” he said. “It’s not my work. It’s my wife and children. It has been challenging at times, but I’ve always kept them as my priority.”