Tustin Police Chief Charles Celano didn’t expect to have a law enforcement career.
He certainly didn’t predict that he would love policing, and the community of Tustin, enough to stay 27 years.
But that’s exactly what happened.
This month, Celano retires early after 27 years at the department that put him through the academy.
While at the helm of Tustin PD, he championed a family first philosophy, built a wellness program that saved lives, taught his team how to help people who are mentally ill, and implemented new technologies such as StarChase to help officers more safety do their jobs.
It hasn’t been easy. During his six months as interim chief following Chief Scott Jordan’s retirement in 2013, the department had three officer-involved shootings in a span of 60 days. Celano became chief in February 2014.
“In closed session I was sworn in by the city clerk as the official chief of police,” Celano recalls. “I walk out into open session and I’ve got 50 people calling for my resignation. I (thought) this has to be the shortest tenure ever.”
Celano went on to serve five years at the helm of the Tustin Police Department.
“It helped me to be a better chief,” Celano said. “I literally was thrown from the frying pan into the fire. It was baptism by fire as a new chief.”
Celano worked part time in college at the UC Irvine Police Department – a job suggested by his friend (now Irvine Police Chief) Mike Hamel. When Celano, then 20, needed a way to pay for his final year of school, he happened across the Tustin Police Department booth at a campus job fair.
Thirty days later, he was in the police academy.
He planned to work a few years and then go back to school, but life took a different turn.
“I fell in love with the job,” said Celano, a 2014 FBI National Academy graduate. He later discovered his great grandfather had been a homicide detective for the New York City Police Department in the 1930s and 1940s. “I love my career. My career is like a bunch of mini careers. Every four years I seem to want to be challenged with something else.”
He’s worked in patrol, narcotics, and the gang unit, as an undercover officer, as part of a county drug trafficking task force, as a training officer, area commander, and as a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.
Celano says today’s officers are good, hardworking people doing their best for the community, despite national media attention on officer-involved shootings.
“There are 700,000 police officers in this country and 99.9 percent of the time they’re doing a phenomenal job,” Celano said. “They’re going out there, they’re risking their lives, they’re helping people.”
The perfect officer, Celano says, can find gang members, take guns off the street, put bad guys in jail, and then stop to throw a football with kids in the neighborhood.
“If you allow it to, this job will chew you up and spit you out,” he said. “You have to find healthy coping mechanisms to deal with what you deal with, because we see the worst.”
That’s one reason Celano lives his family first philosophy. He encourages officers to use peer support and the chaplain program to maintain their mental wellness, and he implemented a program that encourages physical wellness as well, with heart scans and a fitness assessment for those that opt in, along with access to nutritionists, dieticians, yoga and flexibility training.
“I’m proud of the fact that I care about my employees and I take care of my employees,” Celano said. “I may not be the perfect chief, I’m not even close to it, but… I do care about these men and women and they’re the ones I’m going to miss.”
Throughout his career, Celano has supported and encouraged employees to start and join programs that benefit the community, such as Run with a Cop developed by Officer Matthew Roque which pairs kids with officers with a goal of running a race together, and the One Mind Campaign though the International Association of Chiefs of Police to help train officers to help people with mental health issues.
“I feel that the stigma that’s associated with mental illness is very damaging,” Celano said. “Crime fighting is one part of what we do. We’re so much more than crime fighters. We’ve taken on a lot of societal issues because the system is broken…A lot of these things are thrust upon law enforcement.”
“My officers are just outstanding when it comes to like de-escalation, compassionate policing, but at same time they can do it safely,” he said. “They can be effective in their jobs.”
He’s also honored Tustin’s only officer to be killed in the line of duty by developing, with retired Captain Mike Shanahan and Sgt. Del Pickney, an annual memorial service.
Celano will soon shift his focus to teaching and consulting, and spending more time with his wife and five children.
“I hope that when I’m done I’ve made this place a little bit better, even one percent better,” Celano said. “If I did that then it’s a success, and if I didn’t, I gave it hell.”