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Long Beach officer patrolled with compassion

Officer David A. Garcia took special care of the neediest people — and animals — on his beat, even when terminal cancer made the job tougher.

February 14, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Long Beach Police Officer David A. Garcia with his wife, Melissa, and newborn daughter, Aydan. There will be a memorial service for Garcia on Tuesday.
Long Beach Police Officer David A. Garcia with his wife, Melissa, and newborn…

Long Beach Police Officer David A. Garcia demonstrated his courage on one of his first days on the force.

It was 1991, and Garcia was a probationary officer under the supervision of a field training officer.

"Pull over the car!" Garcia told the older policeman during a patrol.

When the cruiser stopped, Garcia jumped out and ran to an injured pigeon that was struggling at the side of the road. Placing the bird gently into a box, he directed the training officer to drive to a veterinarian's office.

Other Long Beach police officers say that's the way Garcia was until the very end, when he succumbed to a long battle with cancer on Feb. 7.

The 44-year-old officer would begin every night shift on the city's north side by unloading pet food from the back of his car and piling it into the trunk of his police vehicle.

As he patrolled Long Beach's darkened avenues, Garcia watched for homeless people with dogs. If the street person's pet was hungry, Garcia would pull a few cans of dog food from the trunk and assure the owner there would be more if needed.

"He'd stop and find out the dog's name and what kind of care it was getting. He paid for flea collars and for their dogs to go to groomers," said Officer Keith Mortensen, who worked with Garcia for 15 years.

To the uninitiated, Garcia "was a no-nonsense, the-law-is-the-law guy," Mortensen said. "But he'd say, 'Animals need help.' He didn't want anything bad to happen to them."

Garcia regularly left bowls of water and cat food for feral cats living in various city parks and in the police station parking lot. As a result, patrol cars always had tiny paw prints on them.

"Working graveyard, you often find animals hit by cars in the dark. Dave would always make sure that animal control got there in a timely manner. If they were late, he'd get on the radio and tell them to hurry up," said Officer Mario Talavera, a friend for two decades.

"One homeless man Dave befriended has a dog named Sasha, and occasionally he gets picked up because misdemeanor violations have gone to warrant. Dave wanted to make certain that Sasha was taken care of when his owner was in jail, so he arranged for a lady in a trailer park to take care of the dog on those occasions," Talavera said.

"Dave bought a tag with the lady's name and phone number on it for Sasha. He would pay for her to take Sasha to the groomer's and pay her for her time and gas."

Garcia regularly purchased sandwiches for homeless people and made a point of checking on an elderly Long Beach woman who walked her dog between midnight and 1 a.m. every night.

Garcia was honored by Long Beach officials for helping rescue another elderly woman during a violent 1997 confrontation with her mentally ill grandson. Citizens frequently commended him for his professionalism, according to police administrators.

But his fellow officers say they will remember him for more personal reasons.

An avid sports fan — Garcia studied communications in college with an eye toward becoming a sportscaster — he often dazzled co-workers by reciting local football players' sports statistics.

They say Garcia learned that a waitress at a sports bar frequented by off-duty officers during Sunday football games was battling cancer but had no insurance. So he regularly tipped her $80 or $100, explaining: "I know what she's going through. She needs all the help she can get."

Despite inoperable tumors that by then were in his lungs, Garcia chased down and captured two automobile burglars involved in a cross-country crime spree that ended near the Virginia Country Club.

Other days he worked despite painful blisters on his hands and feet that were caused by chemotherapy. In December he struggled to report for duty one final time so he could distribute Christmas gifts to senior citizens and homeless people he had befriended.

Many of them are likely to be at a memorial service at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Long Beach's Bethany Lutheran Church, 4644 Clark Ave. They were notified of their friend's death when officers found their names and numbers in Garcia's cellphone.

Garcia's survivors include his wife, Melissa; his 4-week-old daughter, Aydan; and his parents, Kathleen Fjermedal and Cayetano Garcia.

Interment Wednesday will be private.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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