Department celebrates decorated retiring Santa Ana police corporal


People go to Idaho for the trout or the taters.

Brett Nelson isn’t likely to take up farming, but he is willing to learn about fishing and the other outdoor wonders of the Gem State.

Asked what would draw a SoCal born and bred family to Idaho, Nelson said, “a better quality of life for the kids and enjoying a different perspective. My hobbies are outdoors and I wouldn’t mind taking up some new ones.”

Like kayaking, he said.

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson holds a photo of the Santa Ana Police Explorers, with Commander Joseph Marty, second from left, given to him by the explorers during Nelson’s retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Nelson was feted Thursday, June 4, at a retirement ceremony for his 21 years with the Santa Ana police department and 27 years in law enforcement.

Speaking about the veteran policeman’s tenure, Chief David Valentin said, “Corporal Brett Nelson is one of the most highly decorated Santa Ana police officers our department has ever had. Brett is respected amongst his peers and across our industry due to his genuine contributions to our profession and his investment in preparing future generations of professional officers. His legacy driven service is something to be admired and I will miss having him in the department as a professional and personal advisor.”

As deep as Nelson’s roots may be in California, he isn’t wasting any time pulling stakes. He and his family plan to be settling into their new Idaho home before the end of the month.

For the last five years, Nelson has headed up Santa Ana PD collision investigations, which appeals to his inner Pythagoras. Nelson said he has always been interested in math and physics and collision investigations are like putting together intricate puzzles.

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson, left, looks up at the officers lined up along the atrium balconies as he gives his retirement speech.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

In the position, Nelson investigates all types of traffic collisions involving hit-and-run, high-liability, major or fatal injuries and vehicular homicides.

He is also called upon to provide expert testimony and review collision reports by department staff.

It is an interest Nelson has developed over the years ever since, as a Fontana cop, he was first thrust into taking the lead in investigating a triple fatality.

“That put my internal drive into gear,” he said. That led him to take more than 1,000 hours in classes on the math and science of collisions in states from Florida to Texas.

“I’ve seen in excess of 300 fatals,” Nelson said.

In addition to collision training, according to his resume, Nelson has also received 1,700 hours of advanced training in street gangs, narcotics, DUI, training, supervision, tactical operations and crisis negotiations, interviewing and interrogation, ethics, investigative skills, terrorism, peer support, and human dynamics in uses of force by police.

Santa Ana Police Officer and Honor Guard Chuong Bao, left, presents Cpl. Brett Nelson with a replica of the California Peace Officers Memorial during Nelson’s retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

This wealth of education and training helps Nelson oversee field training of officers and recruits as well as the Explorer program.

He is particularly proud of helping develop a pipeline for future officers with Santa Ana.

Nelson estimates he has had direct influence on the hiring or training of about two-thirds of the Santa Ana police force.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been with the training office for 20 years,” he said.

The veteran cop’s view on training is to give recruits and young officers all the tools they need, but adds, “success is a personal choice.”

Nelson was raised in a police family. His father, Lew Nelson, was chief of police for the City of Redlands and other members of his family were in law enforcement. Nelson would go on to marry a detective.

“I grew up around the profession,” he said.

And yet, law enforcement was not his first career choice.

“I saw myself as a career military officer,” said Nelson, who attended the Naval Academy but left after two years.

Riverside County Sheriff Department Detective Michele Nelson gives her husband, Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson, a hug near the conclusion of his retirement ceremony. The couple originally met while at the Fontana Police Department.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

After returning to California, Nelson joined the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in 1992, before landing a patrol job with the Fontana Police Department.

During his stint at Fontana, in addition to his introduction to collision investigation, Nelson was involved in gang suppression and enforcement and had experience with the SWAT team.

As an Inland Empire native, Nelson said he would have been happy to stay in the area. However, he said toward the end of his stint in Fontana the city and department were in a state of flux.

“One of my first patrol sergeants told me, ‘If you leave, check out Santa Ana.’ Eventually three of us came over,” he said.

In the course of his career, Nelson has won a slew of awards and commendations, including twice being named the Santa Ana Corporal of the Year.

Santa Ana police officers applaud Cpl. Brett Nelson from the department’s atrium balcony during Nelson’s retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

He also earned a Golden Badge for Heroism, a Medal of Valor from the OC Probation Department, and Officer of the Year for Valor recognition from the American Legion all stemming from a harrowing 2007 encounter.

As Nelson tells the story, he had been part of a stakeout with the FBI, which was searching for a murder suspect from Las Vegas, a white supremacist member of the Nazi Lowriders, Kenneth Spitznogle-Daley.

At 9 p.m., after a fruitless effort on stakeout, Nelson was in his cruiser and about to clock out to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. At the same time, Nelson said, a car left the stakeout area, though it wasn’t believed connected to the suspect.

Nelson pulled the car over on a traffic stop just to check it out.

During the course of the stop, the passenger, Spitznogle-Daley, emerged with an AK-47 and was shot by Nelson.

Rachel Nelson, 16, looks over with pride at her father, Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson, during his retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Police found shotguns and a bag with thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Nelson said he later learned Spitznogle-Daley’s plan was to “kill the cop,” and make his getaway on the Garden Grove (SR-22) Freeway.

Nelson, who turns 50 in July, said he is not sure what the future holds, although he expects to keep working in some capacity.

Luckily, he says his three children, ages 15, 12 and 10, are all enthused.

“That makes it very much easier to make the move,” Nelson said.

Asked if he plans to check out Idaho’s legendary skiing, Nelson said, “I’ve never skied, but everything else outdoors could appeal to me.”

Except, one might presume, potato farming.

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson, left, is presented with a police shadow box during his retirement ceremony, representing his career in law enforcement with patches, badges and awards he received over the years.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Santa Ana Police Sgt. Garry Couso, right, talks about his friend, Cpl. Brett Nelson, as officers line the upper hallways of the Santa Ana Police Department center atrium during Nelson’s retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin, left, presents Cpl. Brett Nelson with a retirement plaque during Nelson’s retirement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Brett Nelson, left, listens to friends talk about the impact he as made to the agency over the years. Sitting next to him, from left, is his wife, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Detective Michele Nelson, daughters Rachel Nelson, 16, and Diana Nelson, 12, and son, Travis Nelson, 10.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin talks about Cpl. Brett Nelson during Nelson’s retirement ceremony at police headquarters.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge