Behind the badge, the heart of an Old Blue

Alex Yao came to UC Berkeley at the age of 18 to earn a degree in integrative biology. It was his first big step, he believed, toward becoming a doctor.

Yao in his Sproul Hall office (NewsCenter photos by Barry Bergman)

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to graduation. Instead of launching a career in medicine, his biology studies led him straight into the arms of the UC Police Department, where – except for a brief stint at a sister campus – he’s remained ever since. Earlier this month, after 21 years with the department, Yao was sworn in as captain of the operations division, a job that puts him in charge of 56 police officers and 50 civilian employees. The promotion makes him one of the top three police officials on campus.

If a badge seems a far cry from a stethoscope, Yao doesn’t see it that way. What drew him to police work, he explains, was public service – the same virtue he saw in medicine. He originally volunteered with UCPD as an undergraduate, then took a part-time job as a community service officer, helping staff, faculty and fellow students to navigate the campus after dark as part of the BearWalk nighttime-safety service.

It was his job as a CSO – which he took to support his biology studies at Berkeley — that revealed what he terms “my calling.”

“I saw not only from the police department perspective, but also saw from the student perspective, how much BearWalk was needed,” says Yao, newly installed in a sparse office in UCPD’s Sproul Hall headquarters, just next door to the one he had as a lieutenant. “I had friends who used it, talked about how much safer they felt. I was proud to be part of the team that provided that service.

“I’ve always wanted to do something to make a difference, to help people,” he adds. “After working as a community service officer, I saw that there was another way to do that besides becoming a doctor.”

Taking the oath as captain at Alumni House

Taking the oath as captain at Alumni House

When a spot as an officer opened up, Yao applied. “I got to know the UCPD family and really enjoyed them, loved the people who work here – they truly felt like extended family,” he says, explaining his change of course. He got the position, went through the Police Academy and eventually – after taking a break from his undergraduate education – earned his degree from Berkeley while working the graveyard shift as an officer.

Yao spent his childhood years in Taiwan. The family moved to the East Coast when he was 13, then relocated to Southern California before his senior year in high school. His parents, he says, were “cautiously supportive” of his change in career plans, but worried he might never return to complete his studies and graduate.

“Completing my college education was very, very important to them,” Yao says. (His father had been a university professor in Taiwan; his younger brother is also a Berkeley alum, and his younger sister graduated from UC San Diego.)

When Yao speaks of “extended family,” though, he means what he says. Victoria Harrison, then UCPD’s chief of police, shared Yao’s parents’ interest in his education. And she proved uniquely persuasive.

“During my swearing-in ceremony as a police officer, Chief Harrison made me promise that I would go back and finish school,” he says. “And I kept my promise, and got my degree here.”

‘The foundation of the future’

It was another longtime mentor, Margo Bennett, who swore him in as captain – the position she held until May, when she took the oath as chief – at an exuberant Aug. 20 ceremony in Alumni House. He’s reported mainly to her since 2005, dating back to his days as a sergeant in the crime-prevention unit and on through most of his four years as a lieutenant.

At the standing-room-only ceremony, Bennett praised Yao as “a high achiever,” and cited his leadership in reshaping the patrol bureau as evidence that he can help guide the department to “further greatness.”

For Yao, the feeling is mutual. “I attribute a lot of my success in this organization and on this campus,” he says, “to good mentors.”

Mentoring, family and community are notions Yao returns to again and again in describing not only his role as captain, but the role of the department on a campus where police clashed with protesters in 2009 and again in 2011. Yao served as UCPD’s public information officer during that tumultuous period of cutbacks, tuition hikes and angry, Occupy-inspired demonstrations – “some of the most challenging times this department has experienced in recent years,” he observes — and often found himself having to defend the department in the face of boom microphones and TV cameras.

Yao trading card

Sgt. Yao, 2002: wisdom from Thoreau

Police officials and campus administrators learned from those experiences, Yao says, and he believes better communication will help head off future confrontations. Still, he adds, “We should never stop putting forth our best efforts to collaborate with our campus stakeholders and partners. Because this is our university.

“We are the campus police department,” he stresses. “And we’re not just a department on campus – we want to be, and should be, an integral part of the campus community. In order for all of us to achieve the university’s mission and goals, we need to build stronger relationships with all the stakeholders. So there’s always that opportunity to make it better.”

Yao, a soft-spoken man with an iron grip, was a member of the Greek system as an undergrad, and lived in residence halls as well as off-campus. In addition to working patrol with UCPD he was a student-liaison officer with Residential and Student Service Programs, and made countless presentations to students and staff as a crime-prevention officer.

His ongoing interactions with new classes of Berkeley undergrads – he gave a half-dozen presentations this year alone at CalSo, the orientation for incoming students – fuel his ambitions to make sure the department serves the community and, above all, to protect what he calls “the foundation of the future.”

“When students first come here,” he says, “they’re bright-eyed, so excited about being here, a little bit nervous, a little bit confused. Then, when they graduate, they have a clear purpose. They know what they want, they know where they’re going. They know how they want to contribute to society.

“Seeing the amazement in their eyes as freshmen, and the determination as they leave – that gives me energy,” he says. “That’s addictive, and very motivational. And it always reminds me of how I was when I was a student here.”

In 2002, when the department issued lighthearted “trading cards” featuring UCPD personnel, then-Sgt. Yao’s offered this famous bit of wisdom from Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

For Yao, the road to medical school took a surprising turn. As UCPD’s newest captain, though, he’s just where he’s always wanted to be.