“I don’t know if you really believe me, but I don’t think I should have been Officer of the Year.”
You believe him because it’s impossible not to.
Tustin Police Officer Robert Nelson III is sitting at an empty table in a police department interview room on a recent Friday, searching for reasons his peers picked him.
In at least 25 years, nobody at Tustin PD can recall a rookie winning Officer of the Year.
Nelson means it when he says he doesn’t know why he won.
“I was surprised to be nominated, first of all,” he said. “But to win it, especially with the people on that list, I didn’t expect that.”
His supervisors and colleagues, however, weren’t as surprised.
“Not only is he one of the kindest officers I’ve ever known, he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Sgt. Ryan Coe.
Coe said Nelson is eager to learn and jumps at the chance to take on extra assignments and help his colleagues.
“He’s always open to constructive criticism and is never defensive,” Coe said. “He is always the guy who steps up.
“Anything he can do to help this organization, he does.”
Nelson knows he works hard.
In his first year, he helped out with assignments in the gang unit, special enforcement detail and an undercover operation.
“I want to experience the most that I can as fast as I can,” he said. “Because I work a lot, I get exposed to a lot of different things.”
Nelson doesn’t keep track of his arrests, but said he wrote a lot of reports in his first year, casually concluding he didn’t have any stand-out arrests or big cases to highlight.
But his colleagues saw something that not only prompted them to nominate Nelson, but also select him to win.
“It’s the biggest compliment possible that it was voted on by (my peers),” he said. “I welcome that and appreciate that, but it feels a little strange.”
Strange for the Compton kid who didn’t like cops, let alone aspire to ever be one.
How things change.
Striving for change is part of what led Nelson to law enforcement and part of what drives him in his work today.
The 30-year-old officer wants to shift the perception some have of the profession and make a positive impact, especially in the community where he grew up — a goal he keeps in mind during every patrol shift in Tustin.
On Friday afternoons, Nelson makes a point to stop in the neighborhoods of south Tustin.
Children run across their lawns to the sidewalk and wave him down.
Nelson gets out of his car to toss a football around or challenges the neighborhood kids to a pushup contest.
He doesn’t let them win.
The children want to talk about school. Nelson asks about their homework and grades.
A lot of what he sees in these neighborhoods reminds him of where he grew up.
Crowded living and no parking were characteristics of the streets in his Compton neighborhood where he was raised by his mother, grandmother and uncle.
Many of the kids he grew up with joined local gangs, but Nelson, an honor student and high school athlete, didn’t socialize in those circles.
“I was always treated differently,” he said. “Even if I wanted to hang out with them, they wouldn’t allow me to.
“I was always the guy they hoped would get out.”
Growing up in Compton was a strange dichotomy: In some ways, Nelson respected the very gang members who showed him the life he didn’t want.
“They were the same people who helped take my grandmother’s trash out every week,” he said. “I looked up to them for different reasons. Not because of their gang life, but because of their commitment to family.”
Nelson learned to live among violence and he learned the relationship with law enforcement was a contentious one.
Children in his neighborhood didn’t ask for homework help or play catch with officers because when the police were around, it was not a positive thing.
“I was socialized to not like police,” he said. “I had a natural dislike for police work until I got older and I got to experience life outside of my city.”
Unlike where he grew up, the Tustin PD overall has a positive relationship with the community they serve.
Strangers will sometimes pay for Nelson’s meal at local restaurants or stop and thank him — gestures that still surprise him.
But, in pockets of the community, there are shades of the police distrust that Nelson grew up with and that’s where the officer hopes to make the greatest impact.
Tustin police have put a concerted outreach effort to some neighborhoods historically known for gang activity, higher crime rates and residents’ hesitancy to call for help.
The apprehension to reach out to the police is mostly driven by fear — fear if they report something they may be victims of retaliation, or fear they might be deported.
Police actively work to quell this impression by forging relationships with residents through events and community policing.
Nelson’s weekly stops play a part in that.
“If we don’t do things like this more often, children in those neighborhoods are going to grow up just like I did,” he said. “They’re going to learn not to like the police.”
Committing to law enforcement
Nelson doesn’t recall when his perception of law enforcement started to shift, but he knows school and family played a role.
He attended Dominguez High School then transferred to Torrance High School where he ran track and played basketball.
Nelson graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Long Beach (which is where he also met his wife) and is currently working toward a master’s degree in organizational leadership.
Nelson first joined the law enforcement field after he was hired to analyze fingerprints in Lakewood — a career he chose, in part, because of his fascination with crime scene investigation.
When a Tustin CSI position opened in 2013, he went for it.
After about a year, his colleagues encouraged him to enroll in the academy, so he did.
“I can’t say I had an epiphany or that this career was anything that I actively chose,” he said. “I was just kind of guided to this.
“I wouldn’t want to work for, or with, anyone else.”
He hopes his work as an officer inspires a positive perception of law enforcement and even makes an impact in his hometown, where his mother still lives and he frequently visits.
Nelson’s goal, he said, is to one day run for the school board or City Council in Compton while serving in law enforcement.
“Although I was raised around a lot of bad, I was raised around double the good,” he said. “Some of the good people get out and they stay out. I don’t want to be that person.
“I’m going to come back and be able to do some good.”
Nelson keeps his law enforcement goals closer to the vest, but said he has a list of several must-do assignments including the gang unit, general investigations and the special enforcement detail.
“I don’t ever want to be comfortable,” he said. “I will always want the next challenge.”