Beloved school police officer retires

Officer known for his sense of humor, approachability

On Officer Jeff Phelps' last day of work, Danville Police Chief Steve Simpkins said he wished he had ten officers just like him.

"He has really made a difference in 10 years," Simpkins said of San Ramon Valley High's school resource officer.

On Sept. 29, Phelps retired his badge after roaming the halls at San Ramon for the past decade. Originally a member of the county sheriff, Phelps was the school's first resource officer and developed a rapport with students and staff that left a lasting impression on both groups.

"I get family and residents constantly referencing him and his impact," Simpkins said. "He just has an uncanny ability to relate to kids. I've heard it time and time again, kids were comfortable talking to him and looking to him for guidance."

During his tenure, Phelps was often seen around campus joking with students, at dances and cheering for the Wolves at most sporting events. One student, a football player, said his participation in all aspects of school life brought a sense of community to the campus.

"He's always a really nice presence," said junior Justin Bangay. "Him being there means more of the community is out there too."

While his bond with students didn't come overnight, Phelps knew that they were hungry for a connection.

"We had a need to bridge the gap between our department and kids and we didn't really deal with the youth around the community well," Phelps said of his desire to become a school resource officer (SRO). Phelps was San Ramon Valley High's first SRO and prided himself on being a "spokesman" for students.

The 48-year-old said he helped students to see him and other police officers as human by being present and approachable. Instead of sending problem students to juvenile hall, Phelps said he would reflect on his teenage years and think how he would have liked to be treated.

"Students saw that he's not there to try and find trouble, but he's there to help make the school a better learning environment," said leadership teacher Janet Willford. "I think it helped people feel more approachable with the police and not think that there was some...scary presence."

Senior Matt Fisher echoed the sentiment and said he now feels comfortable talking to other police officers.

"I'm comfortable around Officer Phelps, you can just walk up and talk to him any time of the day. He doesn't want to get kids in trouble, he wants to teach them to grow up to be a good citizen," Matt said.

Still, Phelps has had to deal with a litany of issues during his time at SRVHS, from drugs to thoughts of suicide.

"If you can think of it, it's happened. My whole purpose was is if I could change one person it would be great," Phelps said, noting that formerly suicidal students have thanked him for helping them through dark times. "It's an atmosphere like none other when you're at a high school, I don't think adults know what it's like out there."

To that end, Phelps has conducted and participated in several workshops aimed at educating parents of at-risk teens. The most difficult part of the job, Phelps said, was dealing with parents who weren't actively involved or in denial of their kid's activities.

"Until you're there and see it, you're just detached," Phelps said. "It's a very interesting culture. It is nothing like it was when I went back in the 80s."

In addition to new technology -- which he called "off the hook" -- Phelps said he had to get used to students growing up and getting into drugs at an earlier age than previous generations.

"We're just forcing them to grow up and do things much faster than we used to," he said, adding that changing times have forced him to change the way he polices.

"You have to be flexible because not everything is black and white when you're dealing with people under 18, you have to use more compassion and err on the side of the least restrictive way for the kids."

Learning curve aside, Phelps said working with students is refreshing because they "still look at life through rose-colored glasses." After his retirement, Phelps plans to stay involved with his starry-eyed students at sporting events and by possibly coaching basketball, which he did for five years.

"I love my job, I love what I did, but in end you have to think of the future. I'm leaving a lot of kids hanging, I feel in my mind," said Phelps, who must retire or face losing 10 percent of his pension. "I feel like I'm letting them down but I've called them all and told them I'm sorry."

Vince Richards, who has spent two years at the Danville Police Department and five years with the county sheriff, will replace Officer Phelps as the new SRO. The two have had overlapping duties for about a week, during which time Phelps imparted some wisdom on his colleague.

"The only thing I told him was know you have to be flexible and always make your decisions from the heart," he said. "If you make your decisions because you care about them you'll never go wrong."

Phelps will volunteer with Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation during his retirement and hopes to train a service dog for diabetics. He doesn't plan on returning to law enforcement.

"We're going to miss him very much. He's been a staple around here and is so much more than a police officer," said SRVHS Principal Joe Ianora.

Phelps said he isn't bitter about his retirement and considers himself lucky to have been an SRO.

"I've learned more from (the students) than they've learned from me. It's unbelievable how much they know at a certain age, far more than we've given them credit for," he said.


Like this comment
Posted by Karina Newsom
a resident of Danville
on Oct 3, 2011 at 7:16 am

I am sad to see Officer Phelps go!!! He is an amazing man who is gifted with teens and kids. Good luck and hope to see you around officer Phelps.

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Hernbroth
a resident of Danville
on Oct 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

Having seen Jeff in action around the SRV campus over the years, and up close in our Dads on Campus meetings where he volunteered several evenings to meet with us and fill us in on the latest regarding the school goings-on in terms of teens, party drugs to be aware of, what to watch for, etc., and he'll really be missed. When I was in high school back in the 70's, some kids referred to our police presence on campus as "the NARC", and it wasn't meant to be complimentary. He treated his job like a mission to bust kids daily on every little thing. Conversely, Jeff has worked hard to earn the respect of students, faculty, and parents, and has been successful in doing that. Best of luck, Jeff, in the future!

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