SAN CLEMENTE — As drums tapped steadily in the background Thursday, four police officers slowly lowered the fluttering blue-and-white San Clemente Police Department flag for the last time.
The officers stared pointedly ahead as they folded the banner emblazoned with the name of the 65-year-old department. Then they marched off, visibly emotional.
More than 250 city residents and friends and family of department personnel gathered at the ceremony in Max Berg Park to witness a historic occasion: the formal dismantling of the police agency as it merges with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
As of today, the city's police officers become sheriff's deputies, and the agency whose 1928 inception marked the incorporation of the city is no more.
"It's sad to see something come to an end, but I know, progress-wise, it was the only thing that our city could do," Max Berg, former city clerk and the park's namesake, said as he sat on a bleacher seat watching Police Chief Mike Sorg inspecting his officers, who stood at attention, for the final time.
Berg paused, then added: "Time has changed, our city has changed and we have to change to adapt."
The switch was necessary, officials said, to save the financially strapped city $2.1 million annually. And although the controversial merger is now complete, a community group is still circulating petitions to put the issue on a ballot and to recall the four City Council members who voted to disband the Police Department.
"I lost a part of my family today," said Bonnie Sillert of Citizens for a Better San Clemente, the group formed to push the recall drive. "We're losing a part of our individuality--a part of ourselves--with this merger."
While police officials generally don't disagree with Sillert, some said Thursday that they are optimistic about the future of policing in the community. Most of the former officers have said they will continue to patrol the city as deputies--albeit in different-colored uniforms and cars.
The 44 new deputies now wear the Sheriff's Department's olive green instead of dark blue.
"The color of the uniform won't change what's in our hearts as far as our commitment to the community is concerned," said Capt. Paul Falk. "We will continue to serve the residents here the way we always have."
Thursday's two-hour ceremony--during which the city was patrolled by sheriff's deputies and Laguna Beach police officers--featured presentation of awards and honors to more than a dozen officers. It also included moments of nostalgia as police officials and city old-timers exchanged golden-hued memories of the department in its upstart days.
As a boy, Don Divel used to wave to the two-member department every day on his way to school. Now 70, Divel jokingly recalled how he "knew all of the department by name and face, and they knew me."
Chief Sorg provided some levity to the mostly somber atmosphere as he talked about the department's humble beginning in a single-room office at a bank building.
"The police chief had a police car, but he had to share the car with the fire chief," Sorg said. "High tech was the order of the day" as a light pole was used to let the on-duty officer know his services were needed, Sorg said.
Inevitably, Sorg, who will become San Clemente's public works director, also remarked on the city's growing population, escalating crime rates and eventual city budget crises that led to the department's demise.
In the last few years, service calls to the department increased 65% while the crime rate jumped 100%, Sorg noted. And in the face of the dire statistics, the department was forced to cut officers and services because of budget constraints.
The City Council in February voted for the merger with the Sheriff's Department, which promised more patrol officers, more services and no personnel cuts, all at the substantial savings of $2 million.
Therefore, Sorg said, he believes "everything is going to be OK."
The new sheriff's deputies agreed.
"It's an ending chapter of your life, and you have to go on," said Sgt. Willie Moreno, one the four officers who took down the San Clemente Police Department flag.
"It's like you're the veteran on a professional sports team and one day you get traded to another team," he said. "You're a professional, so you keep on playing."