Tustin Police PSO blazed a trail throughout her career as civilian employee


Police Services Officer Marcella Sanbrano has been a trailblazer and trendsetter for the entire non-sworn officer branch at the Tustin Police Department. Soon, Sanbrano will retire after 27 years on the job for the department.

Sanbrano leaves behind a list of firsts for civilian employees at the department. Whether helping victims of abuse, working crime scenes, or conducting background investigations, Sanbrano has charted new paths at the Tustin Police Department.

Although she doesn’t take credit, it would be fair to say that Sanbrano’s stellar work in new fields has made it possible for others to follow in her footsteps.

Tustin Police Explorer Leylani Swihart and PSO Marcella Sanbrano hand out hot chocolate to families driving up to the annual Santa Cop event in this photo from 2020.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Sanbrano credits the progressive leadership at the Tustin Police Department for opening doors.

“I think what has happened is our department is forward-looking in our use of civilians,” said Sanbrano, who is one of 54 civilian employees in the department.

By taking over certain tasks, she says, “it takes some of the work off officers. It frees them for patrol and other things no one else can do. I think it’s been a really good thing to free officers to do proactive police work.”

Some firsts

Sanbrano was the first civilian in the department to become a Domestic Violence/Elder Abuse Investigator while working General Investigations. 

In the job, Sanbrano conducted ongoing investigations, helped victims and their families obtain resources, and coordinated with Adult Protective Services, domestic violence advocates, and the courts.

“It was dark and heartbreaking work, but I like to think I was able to help,” Sanbrano said.

Sanbrano broke the mold again when she moved into the Professional Standards Unit for the first time and began doing background investigations of civilian employees. This included dispatchers, cadets, chaplains, crime analysts, technology specialists, and fellow police services officers.

“Background investigations is a positive experience,” she said. “You have a little say in who you might be working with.”

Tustin Police Department PSO Marcella Sanbrano is retiring after a successful and storied career.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Now in her second go-around with Professional Standards, she is the first civilian tasked not only with conducting background checks but coordinating and tracking all training for officers and civilians in compliance with Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) mandates.

While homicides tend to go to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department CSI, Sanbrano worked on numerous other crime scenes ranging from car accidents to burglaries. The job involved gathering information, writing crime reports in the field, collecting and processing evidence with proper chain of custody, and photography. Sanbrano also trained other Police Services Officers (PSOs) and officers, and served as a scene supervisor on occasion.

When not breaking new territory, Sanbrano did front desk work, fielding phone calls, answering questions and guiding callers to the correct resources. She wrote crime reports, registered drug and sex offenders, and more.

While working the front desk, she has fielded lots of calls and counseled elderly residents about fraud schemes and scams.

Signing on

Sanbrano joined the Tustin force after six years in the Army, during which she became an E-4 specialist with postings at NATO headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Police Services Officer Marcella Sanbrano, Officer Gus Gonzalez, Police Services Officer Steve Giddings and Det. Eric Haug are veterans of the United States Army. This photo was taken in 2016.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

After six years in uniform, Sanbrano had an “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” moment. Sanbrano said after six years she would need to re-enlist for three more years. As they say in the service, “if you go nine, you stay for 20.” Sanbrano decided to see what civilian life had to offer.

Her mother, Louise, was with Newport Beach City Hall and was working with the police at the time. She suggested municipal government work.

“At first, I thought I’d be an officer,” Sanbrano said, before she settled on civilian work.

“I made a list and just started calling,” she said. “There were no websites.”

One job she inquired about was with the Records Department at the Tustin Police Department.

After several years as a records clerk, Sanbrano tried her hand at dispatch and learned that “it takes a unique person.” It was not for her.

She returned to records before moving into the PSO ranks, where her career took off.

Wrapping up

As Sanbrano looks to her last weeks on the job, she has the usual mix of emotions.

She has seen good and bad. She has dealt with citizens angry and grateful, sad and happy. She has helped people resolve legal entanglements.

PSO Marcella Sanbrano of Tustin Police Department in a photo from 2016.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Sanbrano remembers the hectic days, such as in 2013 when 20-year-old Ali Syed went on a murder and carjacking rampage through Orange County, including in Tustin. Because there were multiple crime scenes across the county, Sanbrano and her team conducted a CSI investigation at the Micro Center in Tustin, where a construction worker was killed and another wounded.

There have been joyful, personally fulfilling assignments as well, such as her stint helping Community Relations with the Santa Cop program for local families.

“You remember the good things,” Sanbrano says. “I don’t dwell on the dark stuff.”

With her newfound freedom looming, Sanbrano is at loose ends.

“I planned my whole life to this point,” she says. “Now I’m just going to see what happens.”