In 1990, a 32-year-old Lester Jenkins hit the streets of Oakdale after working in a manufacturing plant for Proctor and Gamble. While in training, his eyes would be opened up to the challenges and hazards of law enforcement when his training officer found a gun in the purse of a woman they had stopped in the parking lot of 7-11.
“It was an eye-opener, last thing I expected,” Jenkins said, recalling his years of service to the City of Oakdale. “I realized that I had to be on my game. That was the last situation I would have expected something like that.”
For the next 26 years, Jenkins would be “on his game” working patrol and rising through the ranks as a corporal, then sergeant in 1995, and lieutenant in 2001. In July 2012, Jenkins was selected to be Chief of Police to lead the then-19 sworn member department.
Jenkins, 58, is now retiring and saying good-bye to the department he spent his whole law enforcement career with since being sworn in by Chief Dave Sundy.
“I learned a lot from most everyone I worked with,” Jenkins said of his co-workers through the years. “I took mental notes on what would work for me and what wouldn’t. All had something worth emulating.”
Jenkins said he was drawn to police work after a ride-along in the late 1980s with his brother-in-law, who was a Stanislaus County deputy sheriff.
“I was hooked right away with all the excitement,” Jenkins said. “You don’t know stuff like that exists until you see the street with a cop at night.”
Jenkins took the police officer test with Oakdale, and after graduating from the Modesto Junior College Academy, never again applied for another job outside the Cowboy Capital.
Reflecting back to his initial years, Jenkins said the town was about half the size in population as it is now, but still had 17 or 18 officers on the department.
“The city was smaller and a lot less criminal activity then,” Jenkins said. “Drive by shootings and murders were virtually non-existent. Rarely did we deal with gangs.”
Jenkins said things “heated up” later with crime increases as “a sign of the changing times” that is happening throughout the state.
Jenkins recalled that when making a burglary arrest as an officer, he could see the results as local burglaries would drop because the criminal was in jail.
Jenkins said even as police chief he would go on the street to assist or cover officers in the field.
“It helps you remember what it’s like,” Jenkins said. “You experience firsthand what the guys and gals are going through.”
Through the years, Jenkins said he saw ups and downs in the department, especially hard was the period from 2007 to 2012 when the city was battling tough financial times with budget issues due to the economy, lay-offs and other department rifts.
“I felt like I was a peace keeper then,” Jenkins said.
With Jenkins at the helm, the Oakdale Police Department saw the return of its equestrian unit, the K-9 unit and the implementation of a new badge that more accurately reflects Oakdale’s legacy in the state.
The hardest moment in his career, he said, was having to make the family death notification when Officer Paul Katuszonek was killed in an off-duty car crash in November 2012, right after Jenkins became police chief.
“Something I never wanted to do as a chief,” Jenkins said.
He also relayed that during his tenure as chief, he always felt he had the support of the city council, making his job easier to do.
In his retirement, Jenkins said he plans to complete several home projects as well as restoring his two muscle cars, 1967 and 1968 Camaros. His wife, Kathy, retired from the school district this year, plan to travel.
“I’m not going to miss the stress of personnel issues, the late night calls, or budget,” Jenkins said. “I am going to miss all the people I worked with, many were with me for over 20 years.”
On Friday, July 22, a retirement dinner at the Gene Bianchi Community Center was held in his honor to say good-bye.
After the dinner, in the same style as when he took the position of Chief of Police, Lester Jenkins departed the ceremony on horseback for one final ride through town as a lawman.