From councilman to cop

Steve Bertagna is hoping to embark on a new career in law enforcement

Steve Bertagna is hoping to trade in his signature Hawaiian shirts for dress blues. The former Chico city councilman spent countless weekends over a year and a half at a Butte College law-enforcement program at Shasta College in Redding.

Steve Bertagna is hoping to trade in his signature Hawaiian shirts for dress blues. The former Chico city councilman spent countless weekends over a year and a half at a Butte College law-enforcement program at Shasta College in Redding.

Photo courtesy of Steve bertagna

Training grounds:
More info about the Butte College Law Enforcement Academy.

During a recent Saturday evening at Shasta College, former Chico City Councilman Steve Bertagna tussled with a 21-year-old woman. Bertagna, like his younger counterpart, was participating in a defensive-tactic exercise, part of an 18-month program designed to prepare to be a law-enforcement officer.

Chico’s former mayor will graduate next month from a Butte College Law Enforcement Academy program administered at Shasta College, a program that adheres to the Peace Officers Standards & Training. By that time, he’ll have spent 737 hours and made dozens of weekend roundtrips to Redding to learn everything from gun training and crowd control to how to issue a citation, and he’ll be eligible to apply for entry-level positions at law-enforcement agencies throughout the state.

“This is a physically and mentally demanding sport, and you have to be at the top of your game,” he said.

The weekend format on an extended timeline allows working people, who cannot enroll in the intensive five-day-a-week, five-month format offered at the Butte campus, the opportunity to pursue law-enforcement training.

Bertagna is one of two 45-year-olds in a class that consists primarily of 20-somethings, but his entrance into the academy isn’t some mid-life whim. He’s wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement since he was 10 years old. That’s when he met his first childhood hero, Art Moore, a Chico police officer and friend of his father.

“I wanted to be just like him,” said Bertagna, recalling that meeting in the mid-1970s. “He epitomized the exemplary police officer, with his integrity both on the job and in his personal life.”

That spark stayed with Bertagna even as he continued various other careers—real-estate lending and running his own business—and also during his three terms as a councilman. “I learned at a very young age that it was important to do something you enjoy,” he said.

Bertagna (right) poses with fellow class commanders Don Niemeir (left) and Rich Ortiz.

Photo courtesy of Steve Bertagna

But every career has its ups and downs. Bertagna’s political ambitions ended shortly after losing his 2006 race against Maureen Kirk for a seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors.

After finishing his term as councilman in 2008, Bertagna devoted all of his working time to his car-stereo business, All Around Sound. He acknowledged that it’s facing challenging times in this bleak economy. “We’re no exception to the laws of economics,” said Bertagna, while sitting inside his business office on Mangrove Avenue. “The downturn has been hard, and I’m afraid this will linger for awhile.”

Bertagna has no plans to close his business’ doors, hoping—like other small-business owners—that the economy will begin to show signs of life.

And the challenges will keep coming.

With cutbacks facing virtually every city and county in California, there’s no guarantee that upon graduation there will be a police badge with his name on it, although Bertagna said he has a conditional offer from a law-enforcement agency in the area.

“I have to admit, I wondered why someone his age and with his experience would want to be a police officer,” said Gary Hughes, a coordinator for the Butte College academy and retired Redding police officer.

In retrospect, and after having seen Bertagna in action, it made sense.

“Because he was the mayor, he brings to the table a full understanding of what a police officer can face, whereas a younger officer may not understand,” said Hughes.

Tom Nickell, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, chuckled when he learned about Bertagna’s new career path.

“I hope he’s ready to deal with the thugs and trolls of society,” said Nickell, who served with Bertagna on the Chico City Council for two years.

Nickell said age will be Bertagna’s biggest obstacle. “I’m concerned if he gets injured,” he said. “It takes longer to recover when you get old.”

For his part, Bertagna is confident. He called himself “the youngest 45-year-old on the planet” and said people underestimate his assertiveness. “I feel better than I ever have in my life—physically and mentally,” he said. “I’ve gotten back into shape and feel stronger than ever.”

Indeed, he’s the fittest this reporter has ever seen him.

Of course, there are other qualities besides physical fitness that make a good cop. Nickell said his former council colleague has them.

“He’s mature and very well-spoken,” he said. “And he’s respectful to people, even those he doesn’t agree with.”

It’s that consensus-building and respect for others that made Bertagna popular with friend and foe alike while serving on the City Council for 12 years, including two as mayor. He believes his search for common ground will also serve him well as a police officer.

“You don’t always have to take a baton and beat people,” he said, speaking figuratively of course. “You can get things done in a tactful and polite manner.”