Henry K. Lee
San Leandro police Officer Nels “Dan” Niemi was part of a new breed in law enforcement — the rookie cop in midlife.
Before joining the force in 2002, Niemi, 42, held a sales position with a wine company and developed computer software for a small Silicon Valley startup company.
Niemi, who was gunned down last week and will be honored today at a memorial in Castro Valley, is among a wave of new recruits who got a second wind in law enforcement.
Although no statistics are available to track the trend, middle-aged men and women have traded desk jobs for patrol cars; they now negotiate with suspects in the field rather than with mediators in boardrooms.
Many agencies have no age limit for new officers, and former scientists, attorneys, accountants and those who speak more than one language are hot commodities. In becoming officers later in life, some are fulfilling a dream they’ve harbored since they were kids. For others, it’s a matter of economics.
“With the fall of dot-coms resulting in thousands of educated professionals suddenly unemployed, many are looking into law-enforcement careers, because police work offers good pay and benefits and job security,” said BART Police Chief Gary Gee.
Niemi, who used his computer skills to crack cases, “received his calling later than the rest of us,” said San Leandro police Chief Joe Kitchen.
“This is not a job where you go to the office and do the same thing. That’s part of the allure of this profession,” Kitchen said.
As long as those in their 40s or older can pass the required tests and make it through the academy, there’s no age limit to becoming a police officer. Most California agencies require that recruits be at least 21.
UC Berkeley police Sgt. John Suezaki, 41, deferred joining the department until he was 36. He first got married, ran his own carpet-cleaning business and did a stint as a corporate buyer for Bank of America.
“After doing banking for three years, I definitely had a spare tire,” Suezaki said of his waistline. “But the academy helped me hang up the tire.”
While many agencies hire officers right out of school, others look for more seasoned professionals who have more life experience. “It’s harder for a 21-year-old to understand about domestic violence,” Suezaki said.
The changing economy and the dot-com bust have lured some of the midlife recruits to police work, officials say.
“In ‘poor’ economic times our candidate pool, in terms of numbers, increases. In ‘good’ economic times, it decreases,” said Rick Turner, San Leandro police personnel and training manager.
Gee agreed, saying, “To them, it is a matter of putting food on the table and staying in the middle class. What many of the former dot-commers don’t realize, however, is what they’re getting themselves into.”
What they’re getting into is hard work — and grueling ordeals such as the physical agility test. Some departments require applicants to be able to drag a 165-pound dummy for 32 feet and maneuver through an obstacle course. Almost everyone can count on plenty of running.
It’s not surprising that some older candidates wash out of the academy — where there’s even more huffing and puffing — or during the field- training process, when they’re evaluated by senior officers, experts say.
Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said many military veterans with 20 years’ experience make the switch to law enforcement.
“At age 38, they’re still eligible to go into the academy,” said Cottingham, a San Diego County sheriff’s lieutenant. “To deny someone entry into the academy because of age is considered age discrimination.”
The Los Angeles Police Department had an age cap of 34 until the city’s police commission abolished it to comply with federal law.
Many agents in the FBI, meanwhile, left behind previous careers as attorneys or accountants, said San Francisco FBI Special Agent Brian Weber, himself a former state’s attorney in Illinois. Agents must be 37 years or younger when they join the bureau.
Weber said his current job on the white-collar crimes squad “offers a little bit of what I used to do, which is criminal prosecution, and a little bit of what I used to see detectives do.”
FBI agents who speak foreign languages and have specific expertise in computers or accounting are plums, Weber said. “Anything that someone did before — in a job like this, it’s very valuable,” he said.
Harry Stern, a Pleasant Hill attorney who defends police officers, credited flashy TV shows such as “CSI” in drawing those with high-tech experience to law enforcement.
“I think computers and science in the modern era are important in crossing over to police work,” Stern said. “They meld it together.”
Earlier this year, Stern successfully defended Palo Alto police Officer Michael Kan, who along with a second officer was charged with beating a black motorist. Kan had previously worked in the computer field.
The key to deciding whether to become an officer later in life is to “do a lot of homework on yourself,” said Richard Nelson Bolles, 78, of Alamo, the author of the landmark job-hunting book “What Color Is Your Parachute?”
“Be sure you’re going into a field not because you think the market is hungry for such a person, but because you love the idea of doing it,” Bolles said. “You won’t love anything if you’re doing it badly.”
It was clear that Niemi loved police work, said Kitchen, the San Leandro police chief. “We will do our work, and that’s the only way we can remember Dan,” he said.