Ryan Berger likes to say that he didn’t choose his career as a Santa Ana police investigative assistant.
“This career actually chose me,” the Irvine resident chuckled.
After graduating from Cal State Fullerton in 2002 with a bachelor of business administration degree, Berger searched for work for more than a year, only to come up short because employees couldn’t see past his disability.
Berger has a severe form of osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition known as brittle bone disease. As a child, a hiccup or sneeze could cause bone fractures.
“On paper I looked good, but then when I showed up at the actual interview, well, … I think my disability is what intimidated them,” Berger, 44, said.
One day, Berger received a call from the Santa Ana Police Department, where his father, John, worked for 27 years as a detective before retiring.
His father’s former partner reached out to Berger, asking if he’d be interested in working with the department. Berger jumped at the chance to show the department what he could do.
“That job gave me a reason to get out of bed and just keep me focused,” he said. “It was great.”
Since then, Berger has proven himself to be an asset to the department, helping to clear hundreds of cases as a part-time investigative assistant working 15 hours a week.
“His ability to solve crimes and the way he talks to people, it doesn’t take long before you don’t see the disability whatsoever,” said Detective David Angel, who works closely with Berger in investigations. “He handles it as well or even better than anybody else. When you talk to him and you get to know him, all that you see is the person.”
Berger began his career answering phones and doing the mailing for the department. About a year into the job, a detective in investigations noticed how Berger handled himself on the phone and invited him to help out on identity theft cases, then check fraud cases.
“They trained me in-house,” Berger said. “I didn’t have any experience, so all of the officers and detectives showed me what to do and what to ask for and what that is to look for.”
Berger quickly took to the job. He recalled one memorable check fraud case he handled involving about five or six victims who filed their income taxes through a company, but never received their refunds. It turned out that a company employee was depositing the victims’ tax money into his own bank account.
“After a lot of investigating, we were able to arrest the guy, which was great because for me, it’s gratifying to know that I’m able to help people who are voiceless and get them justice,” Berger said.
Berger handled check fraud cases for about 12 years before moving to auto theft cases, where he reviews surveillance footage for the auto theft detectives. Then he was moved to assault and battery cases.
Typically, Berger and Angel review and discuss an assault case and brainstorm a plan of attack for that particular case. Berger will help interview victims, witnesses and suspects, and obtain, review and book evidence before filing with the District Attorney’s Office.
If there’s an active warrant in the system, Berger will ask his coworkers to find the suspect and make an arrest on his behalf. Berger will then be called to go to court to go testify.
“He’s done this for so many years and understands what it takes to file a case,” Angel said. “Basically, he’s my partner and having him there is a huge help. We work hand in hand together and we get a lot done.”
What Berger likes best about the police department is its willingness to take on someone like him.
“They allowed me as a disabled person to fulfill the duties of an investigator,” Berger said. “I have physical limitations, but the fact that they went out of their way to train me and show me what to do to help fulfill these cases is great.”
When he’s not working on a case, Berger loves to socialize, which has been tough in a pandemic.
“It was so hard to not have access to the movies or go to concerts or do anything like that,” he said. “I love a communal experience because I can share that experience with other people.”
Berger is the department’s designated movie reviewer, Angel said.
“Every weekend he’s at the movies and telling us what you should see of all the newest ones,” Angel said. “On Monday, it’s ‘OK, what do we need to see? Give us the reviews.’”
At Santa Ana, Berger found a department that cares.
“I get text messages and phone calls (from coworkers checking in) to just make sure I’m OK and that my family’s OK, to just feel that bond,” he said. “That’s what we are. We’re a family. It’s that dedication to their employees and to the community that drives me to come to work.”
Berger said that while his disability has always been an issue, he has always found a way to overcome it and not allow it to define him.
“It’s a part of me but I found a way to make it work, to be able to overcome it, to do the things that able-bodied people can do,” he said. “I find a way to overcome the obstacles that come my way.”