Last call: South Tahoe’s oldest officer retires
He never planned to be a career policeman, but in 31 years of service Sgt. Mike Ritter never considered quitting.
“I had no clue what I was getting into. I just knew that I enjoyed being in on stuff,” Ritter said. “It never even dawned on me that they would expect me to write tickets.”
Tickets are not what stands out in 28 years of memories with the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. It is the friendships he will miss. The 57-year-old officially retired Friday as the senior patrol sergeant and the oldest officer with the force.
“Some of my best friends are right here. I will really miss the people I work with,” he said.
As editor of his grade school’s newspaper, Ritter thought he was destined to be a journalist. That changed when he interviewed with the Sacramento Bee and discovered working on the waterfront in San Francisco would support his family, and working as a newspaperman barely covered the job. When work on the waterfront dried up, Ritter started searching for a new line of work. In 1968, at the end of a turbulent political era, Ritter was sworn into service with the Berkeley Police Department. He was 28.
“I had done absolutely no police work. I hadn’t even gone to the academy. That was the way they did it back then. You trained on the job. They gave you your badge and you went down and bought your gun and uniform,” he said. “A month an half later I was in People’s Park in full riot gear, dodging bricks and launching tear gas grenades. I wondered, a little bit, what I was doing there.”
As the climate of Berkeley went through a transformation Ritter said, like many of his fellow officers, he looked for work elsewhere. In 1971 Ritter moved his family to South Shore. The police department was housed in a hardware store and shared space and rest rooms with a pool hall.
“It was a temporary situation. When the prisoners had to go the bathroom, we had to take them into the pool hall. It was interesting,” Ritter said, laughing.
When the department moved into its present home in the El Dorado County court complex about three years later, Ritter and his two children were on the cover of a special supplement to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Ritter and the children were pictured walking hand-in-hand out of the new building.
“Police work when I first came here definitely had more of a seasonal nature. Things really slowed down in the off seasons. But working a beat in South Lake Tahoe is about as busy as a beat in any town,” he said. “Some people think the job entails a lot of physical danger, but the dangers are mental. It is really easy to become a cynic. You go toward everything people run away from or avoid. It can leave you with a real negative way to look at the world.”
By entering the job at 28, Ritter said he felt he gave him more a world perspective and the ability to realize that what he dealt with everyday was not how most people lived their lives.
“I wonder about the kids that are coming in so young. Police work is all they know, and you have to develop a sort of dark humor to deal with it. But you have to remember there is another world out there.”
Ritter is planning on taking his own advice in retirement. A certified tech inspector for Legends Cars, Ritter will spend the first weekend of his retirement working on a pit crew at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Ritter said he also won’t miss his 3:20 a.m. alarm.
“I look forward to sleeping in,” he said. “At least until 6 or 7 a.m.”
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