Cpl. Anthony Bertagna has been the face and voice of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Whether there’s a murder in a motel at 3 a.m., a hit-and-run resulting in the death of a pedestrian, a cold case arrest, or pretty much any high-profile incident in Santa Ana, Bertagna is the person in front of a gaggle of microphones and video cameras providing the details to the gathered members of the media.
When the media needs information and they need it quickly, Bertagna is who they call.
And now, after 36 years with Santa Ana Police Department, including the past 12 as the department’s public information officer (PIO), Bertagna is days away from retiring.
“I’ll miss it all,” Bertagna said. “I could have retired 10 years ago. I have a philosophy that if you have a passion for something, then you should do it until you can’t anymore and then it’s time. For me this is the right time, as the department has a leader in Chief Valentin who is taking the department in all the right directions.”
Bertagna was 20 when he began his career in law enforcement in 1980 with the Ontario Police Department.
His goal was to be a K9 handler, so after discovering Santa Ana Police Department had a top notch K9 program, Bertagna made the jump to Santa Ana.
After a required stint in patrol, Bertagna tested successfully to be a K9 handler and went on to spend more than eight years in that assignment. That opportunity afforded him and his K9 Frei the chance to represent our Country on three separate occasions as part of the U.S. team competing in the Police Dog World Championships. During his eight years, Bertagna and his K9s Frei and Arco were assigned to the department’s SWAT team as one of the K9 teams.
“The job I have now, I love and have a passion for, but being a K9 handler was special,” Bertagna said.
After working with two K9 partners, he was assigned to a special enforcement unit and then back to patrol and continued as a member of the SWAT Team for an additional eight years.
Bertagna was then asked by then Chief Paul Walters to work in the chief’s office, which is where he’s held a variety of positions for the past 20 years including Internal Affairs, Chief’s Adjutant and Public Information Officer.
“It’s a whole different world,” he said of his role as a chief’s adjunct. “It’s the business and political side of the police department’s operations.”
On his first day as PIO, Bertagna was immediately put to the test when he had to respond to an officer-involved shooting, which led to a pursuit and culminated in a fatal collision.
While some who work in law enforcement can have a strained relationship with the media from time to time, Bertagna said his experience has been a positive one.
“When I first took the job, everybody said the media is out to get you, and I have had nothing but the opposite experience,” Bertagna said. “They are just people doing their job. The goal is to get (the media) what they need and to do it in the best way you can, and I think we’ve been successful. To me, everything in working with the media is about your relationships. If you have good relationships, then you should be successful. Many of the media people I have worked I can now call personal friends.”
But being a good PIO requires a 24/7 commitment, Bertagna said.
He can recall days when he’s been called to a murder scene at 2 a.m., then goes home and is called to fatal car crash two hours later. He returns home again and another murder occurs and he’s right back out in the field.
“You can be on TV sometimes two or three times a day, but that’s the job,” Bertagna said. “That is what the chief expects. He expects you to be that person.”
In 20 years reporting for KABC TV, mostly as the Orange County Bureau Chief, Eileen Frere has plenty of experience interacting with PIOs.
Some are forgettable, Frere said, but Bertagna is among the ones who stand out.
“Any time breaking news was happening in Santa Ana, there was always a sense of relief that I could call Anthony to find out details,” said Frere, who recently retired from KABC. “He always answered calls, emails and texts quickly, no matter the hour, and provided the information needed. If he didn’t know the answers, he found out.”
Bertagna has been involved in countless high-profile cases over the years. But the ones that leave indelible impressions are crimes involving children, he said.
One he’ll never forget occurred on Halloween night in 2014 when three 13-year-old girls who were out trick-or-treating were struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver speeding through a Santa Ana neighborhood at 65 miles per hour. The suspect was already on probation for a prior hit-and-run conviction.
Another took place in 2015, when a 44-year-old woman murdered her 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son in a Santa Ana motel room after losing custody of the children to her ex-husband. The woman had told her children she was taking them to Disneyland.
“Things that happen to children … those are the hardest things,” Bertagna said. “They always stick with you. Just because I’m a father. To see things like that, they are things you don’t forget.”
Another case ingrained in his memory is the 2014 beating death of a 23-year-old Chapman University student outside a Santa Ana nightclub.
“I remember it because it was long and drawn out,” Bertagna said. “And then these stories catch on and they are national stories so then you are working all day and night and they all stick in your head.”
Bertagna’s final day on the job is July 30.
Aside from hitting the golf course, Bertagna isn’t quite sure yet how he’ll spend most of his time, but he does plan on staying active.
“I have to do something but I haven’t figured out what that something is,” he said.
Bertagna is most proud of the relationships he’s built and the friendships he’s made.
“I think we have a great working relationship with the media, and I’d like to think I’ve had a part in that,” he said.