The two police chiefs were recalling when they first met — way back in junior high, in summer school biology class.
“We were dissecting a frog,” Irvine PD Chief Mike Hamel recalled.
“We were dissecting something,” Tustin PD Chief Charlie Celano said.
The two became instant friends.
Celano thinks it’s because Hamel didn’t make fun of his New Jersey accent.
Celano was 14 when his father’s job brought his family from the small town of South River, N.J., to Hamel’s hometown of San Pedro — and to that biology class at Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes.
“I don’t even remember your accent,” said Hamel. “I think we clicked because we had similar values.”
“We instantly opened up to each other,” he said. “You know how you meet somebody and you just gel?”
“The other reason we clicked,” Hamel said, “is he secretly wanted to date my sister.”
“I did date your sister,” Celano said. “My senior year in high school.”
And so it went during a recent interview at the Tustin PD, Hamel and Celano now Chiefs of Police of two adjacent cities — best friends since they were too young to drive, and close companions throughout high school and college and beyond.
For both, a career in law enforcement wasn’t even on their radar when they started college together at UC Irvine.
Celano wanted to be a doctor.
Hamel wanted to be a computer scientist.
Coincidence, or destiny?
“There’s no way we could have predicted this,” Celano said. “If you told us 30 years ago this was going to happen, I’d say that was the craziest thing. There’s just no way.”
Celano, 45, became Police Chief of Tustin on Feb. 28, 2014.
Hamel, 45, was sworn in as Irvine’s Police Chief on Nov. 5, 2015.
“So I’m senior to him – just for the record,” Celano said with a laugh.
Hamel runs a PD with 217 sworn officers.
Celano’s agency has 94 sworn officers.
During their days at San Pedro High School, home of the Pirates, Hamel and Celano ran around with a small group of friends — and cruised around in Hamel’s cool wheels.
“He had the greatest car in high school,” said Celano, who drove a beat-up 1979 Toyota Corolla. “I was so jealous.”
“A 1980 Camaro Berlinetta,” Hamel said.
“Blue,” Celano said. “Chicks dug it.”
Recalled Hamel: “We would have a couple friends — sometimes my sister, Meredith, who is two years younger than me — and we’d just cruise around, maybe eat, go to the movies. Very low-key stuff. We weren’t partiers in high school.”
In high school, Hamel and Celano mostly hung with the nerd crowd.
“We were in the chess club,” Hamel said.
“We were?” Celano said.
“Don’t you remember?”
Celano played basketball, while Hamel did track, played hockey and lifted weights.
They worked a lot of odd jobs together, including toiling for a caterer, a yacht club, and at a car wash.
When Celano’s father, an executive with Mattel Toy Co., relocated to Mexico with his wife when Celano was a senior in high school, Hamel’s family took him in.
The two future police chiefs bunked together in Hamel’s room for a year.
Then it came time to make a big decision.
Hamel, a brainiac, got accepted into several universities, including UC Berkeley.
Celano, no slacker himself, got accepted into UCI and UC Riverside.
“He (Celano) tells me early on, ‘I’m going to UC Irvine,’” Hamel recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh God, UC Irvine?’ We didn’t even know where Irvine was.”
If not for Celano, Hamel would have gone to another university.
“In my mind, at the time, there were some better universities, but we knew we would have a great time going to college together,” Hamel said, adding that UCI since then has become one of the best public universities.
They both started as Anteaters in 1988.
For two years, Hamel and Celano lived together in an apartment in Campus Village.
They participated on the UCI crew team together for a season.
“We were pretty good,” Hamel said.
Early on, they switched their majors to Social Ecology. Celano said pre-med didn’t suit him, so he then thought about becoming a lawyer.
Hamel wasn’t sure of his plans.
As sophomores, they got their first taste of police work.
Looking to make a little money, the two got hired as part-time community service officers with the UCI police department. They worked bookstore security, traffic control — stuff like that.
Then, a domestic crisis of sorts.
“Just before our junior year,” Hamel said, “he told me he didn’t want to live with me anymore because I was too messy.”
“Filthy,” Celano corrected him.
So two lived apart for a while, but remained buddies.
After his junior year, Celano left UCI. Money had dried up. It was 1991. He was 20.
“I needed a job,” Celano said. “I went to a job fair on campus. It just happened that law enforcement agencies, including the Tustin PD, were there.”
Within a month, Celano was in the police academy.
Meanwhile, Hamel was enjoying the summer before his senior year.
“He thought I was crazy,” Celano recalled.
Said Hamel: “I remember thinking how we were all proud of him. But at the same time, it was bittersweet – we wouldn’t be going to go to school together anymore.
“I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I hope he doesn’t have regrets not getting his (college) degree.’”
(For the record, Celano would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in occupational studies from Cal State Long Beach and a master’s in business management from the University of Redlands).
When Celano was in the police academy, he moved back in with Hamel — this time, in an off-campus apartment not far from the Irvine PD, near Harvard and Main.
“I apparently had redeemed myself,” Hamel said, “and now was worthy to be his roommate again.”
Hamel said Celano helped inspire him to become a cop. Hamel also had two uncles in law enforcement.
After graduating from UCI in 1992, Hamel needed a job. The job market was thin, but he was able to land a full-time position as a civilian manager of the Community Service Officers unit at the UCLA PD.
A year later, Hamel was hired by the LAPD.
He then joined the Irvine PD, in 1995. He is the first IPD chief to rise through the ranks to the top spot from within the agency.
Celano did the same at the TPD, steadily rising through the ranks.
Over the years, there was informal competition.
Celano became a sergeant first.
Hamel beat Celano to the rank of lieutenant (by three years), as well as the position of commander (in 2006). But Celano, as he loves to remind Hamel, beat him to the rank of chief.
Hamel and Celano both say hard work, timing and opportunity played a role in them becoming chiefs.
A key moment in their careers came in 2002, when they attended the Supervisory Leadership Institute together, as sergeants, in San Diego.
During the eight-month-long SLI, Hamel was promoted to lieutenant.
Said Celano: “We said it then and we say it now: We believe it takes a good person to be a good leader.”
At 45, Hamel and Celano both are relatively young chiefs.
Celano said the job is very demanding. He said the average tenure of a police chief in California is 4.2 years.
“One chief year is like one dog year — seven years,” Celano said.
Hamel has two daughters, ages 9 and 13.
Celano has five children (two girls and three boys) ranging in age from 5 to 21.
Hamel is the godfather of Celano’s eldest child, Lauren, 21.
As chiefs of police, both say character is critical to doing a good job.
“If you work on yourself as a person,” Celano said, “then the leadership will just follow. Leadership is about people.”
They meet about once a week to talk shop.
“In this business, it’s really nice to have colleagues you can trust to bounce different ideas off of,” Hamel said.
Celano reflected on his two years as chief of the TPD:
“I think what I’ve learned is I have two jobs,” he said. “The first is to establish and maintain the trust of the public. The second is to take care of my employees. If I do those two things, everything else kind of falls into place.
“Some people don’t want to take on the role of police chief because of politics. The politics exist, but for me, if I take care of those two things, I really don’t have to focus on the politics of the job.”
Celano continued: “It’s so difficult today to be a police officer — so much more difficult now than when I started 25 years ago. I can’t imagine doing what these guys do every day. It’s just really hard. So I have to take care of them.”
Celano said one of his main goals is to set up a comprehensive wellness plan for Tustin PD employees. The Tustin chief is an avid cyclist who has completed several triathlons, including Ironmans.
Hamel discussed his approach to being a chief of police:
“I always remind everybody that before we are cops, we are public servants. One of the things I talk about is a broad-based decision-making model. When you’re making decisions out there, you may see two or more different courses of action to take, but the filter you should see things through is, first, what’s best for the community.
“Then comes the organization, then your unit, then the fourth is you, the individual.
“In order to be effective as a police officer, you have to understand the importance of being a public servant first, and that requires someone who’s a good person — who truly has a predisposition toward public service, as well as a selflessness to really want to help the public and see that as a priority.”
Celano chimed in.
“I think the term ‘law enforcement’ is misleading,” he said. “It’s only one piece of an officer’s job. I tell my cops part of their job is to help people who can’t help themselves.”
Hamel and Celano had to end the interview after 45 minutes.
After all, they’re chiefs.
They said they plan to get together more often outside of work.
“We have different lifestyles,” Celano said. “He likes to live on the high side of life.”
Hamel laughingly protested.
“I have five kids, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom,” Celano said. “For us, a big night is going to Red Robin. This guy goes to The Winery (in Tustin) all the time.
“About a year ago, we went there with our wives (Hamel’s is Fullerton PD Sgt. Kathryn Hamel). I’m like, ‘What is this place?’”
Said Hamel: “I had to tell him the fork on the far left was for the salad.”
For these BFFs, the ribbing never stops.