La Habra Officer Chris Koelber has made it through more than 30 years of police work by embracing a simple mantra: find the good.
It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t something he learned straight away, but it’s important, he said.
As Koelber talked about his career on a recent Thursday with his Dec. 28 retirement date approaching, he said being kind and seeking out the positive is the greatest lesson he’d like to bestow on younger generations of police officers.
“If you’re out there being friendly and being a role model it makes your job easier,” he said. “Little things and little moments make an impression.”
Koelber, 51, waves at passersby from his patrol car, chats up residents when he can and smiles so people view him as approachable.
He loved to focus on the little things while on patrol — his favorite assignment, of all the positions he’s held, since starting with the department 34 years ago as an Explorer.
Koelber lived with his mother in San Clemente after his parents divorced, but was shipped off to his father in La Habra, when his grades dropped and his choice of friends became questionable.
His dad, a Los Angeles PD officer, wouldn’t tolerate Koelber’s brief stint of slacking off and minor rebellion.
“I was sort of an incorrigible child,” Koelber laughed. “But I never got into any real trouble.”
While living with his father, Koelber decided to put in for a ride-along with La Habra PD.
One ride and he was hooked.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he said. “What young kid didn’t want to be a police officer?”
After learning of his son’s infatuation with law enforcement, the elder Koelber urged him to become a plumber.
Koelber didn’t listen.
In 1984, he was hired as a cadet and two years later became a reserve officer. In October 1986, he joined the PD full time and never left.
“This is a family-oriented place and you get close with everyone,” Koelber said of his tenure with La Habra. “You can still make a difference in La Habra. If you have a problem area, you can change it.”
Koelber remembers being on patrol in the ’90s when gang activity was more prevalent and the crime rate was higher.
But a concerted effort by the PD, including La Habra’s newly formed gang unit, inspired measurable change.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “We developed a program to go out and deal with the issues and it made a huge difference.”
That was one thing Koelber loved about working the streets, and for a few years in the ’90s, he got to do so with a partner.
In 1990, Koelber was selected to be a K9 handler for Natz, a German shepherd that had a knack for balancing when told to be docile around children or spring into action to go after a suspect.
Back then, there were no cages separating the front seat from the back so Natz would ride cheek-to-cheek with his handler, sometimes dropping a slobber-covered tennis ball in Koelber’s lap as if urging his partner to pull over for a break.
“The only thing bad about having the dog was I smelled like a dog and that tennis ball left a line of drool down the front of my uniform,” he said. “But I loved that dog. He was a great dog.”
Natz also was a great violence deterrent, Koelber recalled.
When he joined the force at a lanky 6-foot-1 and 145 pounds, bad guys always were ready to go toe-to-toe with Koelber.
“I was the skinniest cop you ever saw and I looked like I was 16,” he said. “My uniform looked like a kite when the wind blew. Everyone wanted to fight me.”
But that didn’t last once Natz was at his side.
“I’d point my dog at them, and they’d call me sir,” he said.
The pair was together until 1993 when Koelber transferred back to patrol. In 1995, he joined the investigations bureau as a fraud and forgery detective.
The caseload was interesting but Koelber missed the streets, so in 1997 he returned to patrol.
“I like talking to people and I like being out there and helping people,” he said.
But there were tough parts that went along with the assignment Koelber enjoyed so much.
“There are the things that you try to forget, but they keep coming back to haunt you,” he said.
Things like friends getting shot on the job and children he couldn’t save.
One incident involving a teenager who crashed his car after racing is particularly vivid is Koelber’s mind.
The car exploded into flames when it crashed into a truck, and Koelber was first on the scene.
Despite trying to put the fire out and free the driver, the conscious teen was trapped. He died in the vehicle.
“That was hard,” he said. “But you have to let it go, if you can. (The memory) is going to come back, but as long as you talk about it, it won’t eat you up as much. You have to look at the good things — your kids, your family. There is a lot of good out there.”
And Koelber has done a lot of good in his years with La Habra, too.
When asked about his accomplishments, he furrowed his brow and replied, “I never did anything outstanding. I just enjoyed the job.”
Koelber is effortlessly deferential and self-deprecating.
He received the lifesaving medal three times — once in 1999 for saving a man who was not breathing and twice in 2008. The first involved administering CPR to a man in cardiac arrest and the second the resuscitation of a man who had suffered a head injury in a fall and was unresponsive.
Koelber also received a Chief’s Citation in 2005 for rescuing a 10-day-old baby who had stopped breathing. And early in his career, he stopped a young girl from hanging herself in the city jail.
Reflecting on his career, however, Koelber doesn’t measure it in terms of awards and accolades. Instead he hopes he left an impression with his colleagues and he hopes they learned something from him.
“I think people will most remember my sense of humor and that I was someone who was always there,” he said. “If you needed me, I was there.”
Koelber does not yet have any post-retirement plans, but is considering real estate, sales or fueling his love for home improvement projects by working at Home Depot.
“I make a lot of mistakes and could use that 10 percent discount,” he quipped. “But who knows what the future holds.”
Koelber knows he’s looking forward to spending more time with his four children, who range in age from 5 to 11.
He also knows he wants to catch at least one Packers game at Lambeau Field.
And he knows he’ll miss the job.
“I’m going to miss the humor, the people and the closeness. I made a lot of friends here,” he said. “I wonder what it’s going to be like to wake up and no longer be doing this. But I did it. I made it 30 years.”