Officer Michael McDonagh sits in front of his locker at the Colton Police Department on Tuesday. McDonagh s layoff goes into effect today. He is one of eight officers in Colton being laid off. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Staff Photographer )

By Ryan Hagen Staff Writer
Posted: 04/29/2011 06:06:19 PM PDT

COLTON – In four years of police work, Officer Nellie Johnson has often felt her heart thump as she chased criminals, drew her gun or stared down threatening suspects.

But as she finished one of her last shifts before layoffs for her and seven other Colton police officers go into effect today, Johnson’s calls were her favorite type – peacekeeping.

“When I started, I told myself, if I only help one person in my entire career, I’ve done my job,” Johnson, 30, said Wednesday as she drove away from a long talk with a woman who said her daughter had been punched at softball practice.

“Even though I wasn’t able to give her exactly what she wanted, because it wasn’t a police matter, I helped that woman find other solutions.

That’s what feels good.”

But Johnson is afraid tight budgets in cities up and down the state might keep her from helping in the same way again.

Dozens of experienced officers have applied for the same positions she has, human resources coordinators told her. Johnson, who has three years’ police experience in Colton and another year on the reservation for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said she was one of 152 officers fighting for three police positions in Murrieta.

“I’ll get by – I waitressed for years, way back when, and … if I don’t get a job by June, I’ll sell the house,” she said. “But I love my job, and I love this department.”

And she and her fellow officers also worry the remaining force – there are now 47 officers, down from 58 in March and 75 in 2008 – will have less time for such preventive calls, possibly leading to an increase in crime.

“Is morale low? I shouldn’t say this, but yeah,” said Officer Robert Dimas, who is staying with the department but worries about its future. “It’s not just that we’re losing our friends and partners. Without them as backup, I feel less safe.”

Higher-ranking officers say their hearts go out to those who lost their jobs, but the Police Department and the city will find a way to get the job done.

“We’re working through it, and we’re going to remain a great, full-service department,” interim Police Chief Steve Ward said Monday.

Officer Mike McDonagh, who is also now jobless, worked eight years for the Los Angeles Police Department before coming to Colton last May. He said he can’t picture doing anything else.

“I was fourth-generation LAPD before I came out here,” said McDonagh, 39. “I really like working for a smaller agency because it’s more like a family. I thought my job was safe.”

Facing the loss of a utility tax that provides 16percent of the city’s operating budget – $5.5million – the City Council in June authorized up to 16 police layoffs, and after the police union agreed to some concessions, eight officers received pink slips on March 1. A ninth officer scheduled to be laid off found another job that week, and his position will not be filled.

“We wanted to try to limit the amount of layoffs as much as possible,” City Manager Rod Foster said Thursday. “I’m assured that under the leadership of our interim police chief and the staff that remains of the Police Department, they’re focused on moving us forward to Colton’s new day.”

It’s hard to relay that to his children, McDonagh said.

“I’ve got to explain to a 15-year-old who’s starting high school, when this (police work) is all we’ve known,” he said.

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