Sherrie Aldinger decided to become a police officer in her senior year at Cal, while she was working in a dress shop at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Durant Street.
“It happened after I got to know some of the beat officers from the city and from the campus police,” she recalls 28 years later, in an interview held three days before her retirement. “I took the tests for the UC police and the City of Berkeley, but the city had a hiring freeze.”
She heard from the university police the same day she graduated with a B.A. in communications and public policy. Seven weeks later she showed up at the Butte Police Academy for 10 weeks of training.
“The hardest part of the transition was sitting in class straight through from eight to five every day,” she said, smiling.
What happened at the academy proved a foretaste of what lay ahead. In a male-dominated class, Aldinger set several fitness records, including the most sit-ups in 60 seconds.
Ten months after she was sworn into the campus police, the city called. The hiring freeze was over, “and I decided I wanted to go with a city department,” she said.
From there, her career blossomed. She became successively the Berkeley Police Department’s first woman to make sergeant, then the first to make inspector, and, finally, the first to make lieutenant.
Along the way, she received 128 commendations, many for the analytic projects for which her UC degree proved especially helpful.
BPD had been effectively sexually segregated until 1973, when the city finally opened up the position of “officer” to women.
“Before then, women could only become ‘policewoman’ or ‘assistant policewoman,’” she said. The former all had four-year degrees and were kept off the streets, restricted to investigative positions. The latter were either jail matrons or secretaries. “There were only four women on the force when I joined,” Aldinger said. “Now there are 33.”
She encountered some hostility early on for invading a male-dominated bastion, “but I ignored it. Thankfully, Berkeley’s a pretty accepting place.”
Her first assignment was patrol, and she worked all over the city. “Then I was asked to go into sex crimes. For about three years I had the great pleasure of working with Inspector Larry Lindenau, who’d been working sex crimes for over two decades. That’s when I really learned how to be an investigator.”
Aldinger’s investigative skills led to the apprehension and conviction of two serial rapists.
From sex crimes it was back to patrol, and, in September, 1983, her promotion to sergeant—making her the department’s first-ever woman supervisor. “I’d just gotten married to Rich Aldinger, who was also a sergeant, so for a while the Berkeley Police Department had two Sgt. Aldingers.”
After a year on patrol she was assigned to the department’s communications center, which had just been merged with the fire department’s center.
“It was the first time in the department’s dispatchers weren’t police officers,” she said. Aldinger trained the dispatchers and supervised operations for a year, then headed back to patrol for another year until, in 1986, she was assigned to the Internal Affairs Bureau, policing the police.
Now promoted to inspector, she ran IAB for three years before she went back to patrol in September, 1989. Three months later, on Dec. 31, she made lieutenant.
Then Capt. Roy Meissner assigned her to get the department in shape for accreditation under the newly instituted nationwide CALEA Accreditation Program. Under her lead, BPD became the 151st department in the country to win accreditation.
After three more years in administration, it was back to patrol. Aldinger’s spouse retired in 2000, while she was starting her three years as supervisor of the detective bureau and the city jail. Her final assignment started last June, when she was brought back into administration to, she explained, “revisit policies and procedures and to formulate an action plan for getting them updated.”
Aldinger said the biggest changes she’s seen at the department are the growing numbers of women and the declining age of the officers.
“I’m glad that I’ve got a fair number of colleagues in supervisory and command positions now. It’s nice. I’m also glad that I’ve been able to mentor women as they come up through the ranks,” she said.
The declining age of officers was sparked by a large number of retirements between 2000 and 2002. In 200 alone, 24 of the Berkeley department’s 200 officers retired, and “right now close to half the officers have less than 10 years’ experience.”
Aldinger said the Internet had also wrought changes in local law enforcement, “because we get almost immediate coverage on a number of websites, from activist and community groups to local television stations. I tell incoming officers, ‘Envision yourself as though you’re always on camera.’”
Lt. Aldinger was born in Oakland and raised in Lafayette, but her ties to Berkeley go way back. He parents met while both were students at the university.
“My dad was going to school on the G.I. Bill and working as a firefighter in Orinda,” she said. “He got put on academic probation, so he decided to take a French class to boost his average—he was raised in a French-speaking family. He met a woman in class who was struggling with the language, and they went on to have five children.”
Her father became an independent Maytag repairman, and her mother finished her last year of college the moment her youngest started kindergarten. She went on to become the director of a preschool.
“They’re both still working, and I don’t expect either one of them to ever retire.”
Aldinger’s identical twin took the mommy track while Aldinger’s law enforcement career soared. Now that her sister’s children are grown, her sister has started school preparing to embark on a new career. “It’s almost like we’re working on opposite tracks,” Aldinger said.
Berkeley Police Chief Roy Meisner will lead the ceremonies for Aldinger’s retirement Thursday afternoon.