Growing up in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, Santa Ana Police Sgt. Michelle Macchiaroli never dreamed of becoming a police officer.
Neither did her 76-year-old mother, Barbara Meriwether, who thought Macchiaroli would end up a veterinarian.
“She was very good with animals,” Meriwether said, recounting a story about how her daughter couldn’t bear to see a stray dog dying in front of her, so she took the animal to the vet and spent $2,000 to save it.
But Macchiaroli’s passion for helping others, especially the vulnerable, was always there, her mother said.
“She always was for helping people,” Meriwether said. “That’s all she cared about.”
Macchiaroli, who moved to Southern California as a teenager, has carved out quite a career at the Santa Ana Police Department, where she became the 15th female in the department’s history to become a police officer in 2000.
Since then, Macchiaroli has worked in patrol, gang suppression and gang assaults — where she earned the distinction of being one of two women who worked in the gang unit as a detective and corporal — and Internal Affairs, where she currently handles any allegations of police misconduct.
As Macchiaroli approaches retirement in May, the police veteran spoke to Behind the Badge about her time in the department and reflected on her time on the force.
“The job’s been great,” she said. “Throughout my career, I have always tried to help people, whether it’s in the community or just within the department, having an impact on people’s careers.”
Macchiaroli moved to Southern California to live with her father when she was 14. After graduating from high school, she worked odd jobs until she saw a chance to apply with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. After completing the academy in 1997, she worked in Women’s Central Jail until 2000, when she made a lateral move to work for the Santa Ana Police Department.
“I wanted to be out on the streets,” she said. “Santa Ana had a really good reputation, the type of city that was very busy with over 300 sworn (officers).”
Macchiaroli started in patrol, working hard to distinguish herself as an officer. She became a Field Training Officer in 2005, then an acting Sergeant in patrol in 2007.
Her wife, Alma, a fellow Santa Ana police officer who met Macchiaroli in 2010, admired the way Macchiaroli carried herself as a strong female officer willing to share her experience with new people.
“I think that she definitely has made an impact on all the trainees that she had and just guiding them in the right direction, showing them how to do police work the right way,” her wife said. “And I think definitely as far as all the females that I’ve worked with, she is the strongest female. And I’m not saying that because she’s my wife. Her accomplishments are pretty significant for the police department. So by her leaving, it’ll definitely be a big loss.”
Even before becoming a detective in Gang Suppression in 2008 and a detective in Gang Assaults until 2012, Macchiaroli said she had a passion for working gang detail.
“I would work overtime with the detectives and gang suppression,” she said. “At that time, the unit was really small.”
When Macchiaroli was selected to join the gang unit, she was thrilled.
“It was my dream job,” she said. “That was something that I was really striving for and it was very rewarding once I did make it.”
In that role, Macchiaroli had to become a local gang expert and testify in court in criminal cases.
She recalled one case in which five gang members were involved in a spree of street robberies and a carjacking that ended with the shooting of two rival gang members.
“I come in and they’re like, ‘Here’s what you’ve got,’” she said. “It took a lot of coordinating with the gang unit as well as the robbery unit, homicide, everybody, because it was involving so many things.”
That team effort led to the arrest of five gang members, said Macchiaroli, who had to testify in court as a gang expert, providing background on each documented member.
“It was one of my biggest cases that I had up there, just because it involved so many moving parts,” Macchiaroli said. “It’s not like they’re just committing assaults on each other. They are out there terrorizing the community.”
When she returned to patrol as a Corporal/Field Training Officer, Macchiaroli found joy in working with new officers.
“I love training, because you’re making a difference,” she said. “You’re helping to shape the future of the department.”
In 2013, a terrible back injury nearly ended Macchiaroli’s career.
“That was a very challenging time,” she said. “You’re used to doing something but your body doesn’t allow you. … Police officers are used to taking care of other people, not being taken care of.”
Thanks to the support of her wife and family, therapy, and Bikram yoga, Macchiaroli was cleared to return to the field seven months later without having to undergo back surgery.
“I was very fortunate,” she said.
Macchiaroli was officially promoted to Sergeant in Patrol in 2017 before moving to her current position as Sergeant (Inspector) in Internal Affairs in 2018.
“I know it’s an important position, I think now more than ever, having accountability and transparency,” she said. “I think we’ve been on the forefront of that, implementing body-worn cameras as early as we did.”
“It’s just that one added layer of that transparency, accountability,” she said. “It’s protecting everybody — the department and the employee and the citizens that we’re dealing with.”
After they both retire this year, the couple will move to Pennsylvania to be closer to family and where they intend to build a house. Macchiaroli said she plans to travel and enjoy the slower pace of retirement. She sees herself doing volunteer work in the future.
“I don’t think it’s hit me,” she said. “Most people don’t do this job unless they want to help people because, as they always say, it’s a thankless job. We don’t do it for the accolades or the recognition.”
For Macchiaroli, answering one question mattered.
“Did I make an impact? And I feel like I probably did with the community as well as internally,” she said. “If you can do better than me, then I’ve done my job. You should want people to succeed, to help each other out, and continue to keep trying to do better.”