After 36 years of service to the South Pasadena Police Department, Michael J. Neff – the second highest ranking officer in the department – still believes in hard work, ethical behavior and respect for others.
“I remember one guy told me in the academy, ‘how big is your badge?’” Neff said during an hour-long interview in his So Pas office about his retirement set for Oct. 2. “He said, ‘Put your hand over your badge. Just remember, you are no bigger than that. You’re no bigger than your badge. And learn to respect others. Be open minded. Don’t be quick to judge and enjoy your job.’”
Words that Neff said he’s tried to follow ever since he joined the local force in 1982, first as a reserve officer, then as a parking control officer and finally as a police officer in 1986.
He’s retiring as the No. 2 in the department and there was even some early whispers about Neff taking over the mantle of acting police chief when Art Miller made it known he was leaving. He’s set on retiring, though, and the acting chief position went to the odds-on favorite Brian Solinsky.
And it all started mowing lawns for a neighbor when he was a just a kid. Neff’s neighbor was a retired Los Angeles Police officer who had a landscaping business.
“My mom was friends with our neighbor, who was a retired LAPD officer,” Neff said, as he reminisced about his upbringing, which he characterized as the best. “On Saturdays I worked for him, just for the day, doing lawns and lawn care. He was the one that introduced me to join the explorers at the LAPD. He was the one that took me down to the Pacific Division. He introduced me to them and got me in the program.”
Neff has not looked back since. He was an explorer from 1974 to 1978 when he decided to join the reserve police officers’ academy, which brought him to SPPD. He served as a SPPD reserve officer for two years, which pays one-dollar annually, and he then decided it was time to get a full-time job. That led to a job as a parking control officer.
“At the time, it was a very big reserve program here,” Neff said. “We had 45 officers. Now we have six.” He attributed the drop to the stiff requirements to become a reserve officer. When he went through the reserve academy it was not as many hours as the regular academy. Now, it’s the same requirement for reserves as it is for full-time officers.
“I came on here full-time first as a parking control officer,” he said. “You just do parking enforcement. It’s not a sworn position but it was full-time. I got my foot in the door.”
His dream now was to become a full-time police officer. He started to put himself through an extended police academy which would meet two nights a week and all day Saturday over 11 months.
“I was going to put myself through the academy while I was working,” he said. “I was six weeks into the extended academy. I had applied here full-time (as a police officer) and they hired me. They had me drop out of the extended academy and put me through the full-time academy so I could graduate sooner.” He finished the regular academy in four months and started his new job, his new career, February of 1986. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“When you’re a reserve, you’re always with another officer,” he said. “I was never out by myself. When you become a full-time police officer, it’s all on you. You’re not just there as a back-up. I mean you’re handling the investigations. You’re handling the reports. A lot of responsibility.”
Neff has served in every capacity in the department and has been promoted steadily up the ranks until he reached captain in 2015.
During his tenure, a couple of incidents stand out to Neff. About 20 years ago, he had to defend himself against a robbery suspect who pulled a gun on him.
“I was holding a parameter and he was hiding in the bushes,” Neff said. “I came up on him and he had the gun and he spun around on me. I had to defend myself.” He did not kill the suspect but immediately brought the situation under control.
Another time, he responded to a call of a drowning. A four-year-old boy had just been pulled out of a swimming pool by his family. He had turned blue and was not breathing.
“I got a call about a kid in a swimming pool that had drowned,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be close. I responded. His family had just pulled him out and he was blue. I performed some CPR, mouth-to-mouth. He started to throw-up water and I turned him over and he started breathing and his color started to return to his face. It’s the ultimate.”
As his retirement day approaches, he acknowledged that he’s going to miss the city, the people he’s worked with and the structure of the job, but he also said he’s ready.
“This is a great city,” Neff said. “The community support is strong, and the people are just the best. I tell people all the time that the day I walked into the city, I came in with a smile. And honest to God, I must be going out at the right time because I’m walking out the door with a smile on my face.”