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Michael Parker wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up always wanting to play cops and robbers. And when he graduated from St. Joseph High School in Orcutt, Parker had no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Today he does.

“I’d work here the next 30 years, if they’d have me,” said Parker, 29, who is now a Santa Maria police officer and part of the department’s gang suppression team.

He was one of a handful of local law enforcement honored Wednesday during an appreciation dinner hosted by the Santa Maria Elks Lodge, No. 1538, and attended by a crowd of about 300 people.

“I’m very proud,” Parker said.

Also honored were Deputy Probation Officer Stephanie Haro; Deputy District Attorney Paul T. Greco; Guadalupe Police Officer Ruben Ramirez; Deputy Sheriff Rando Calahan; retired CHP Sergeant John Ploetz, and Hancock College Campus police dispatchers Joanne Hopkins and Becky Ortega.

Parker said that in his job he has witnessed first hand the city’s struggle with gang violence. In fact, he will testify in the Anthony Ibarra murder-torture case, the largest case of its kind for Santa Maria in recent history.

Some of the 11 defendants in the case have also been indicted for the special allegations of lying in wait, torture, kidnap and for committing the crimes in furtherance of a criminal street gang. One is also charged with witness intimidation with a gang enhancement.

Parker’s job during the trial will be to explain gang culture to the judge and jury.

“It doesn’t make sense to average people,” he said.

The Ibarra case has focused the spotlight on gang violence in Santa Maria, but he said the case’s massive size and arresting brutality should not be misconstrued by the public. He said gang violence ebbs and flows, sometimes with the weather — like during summer, when people are out later and drinking more. But he has not seen a notable escalation.

Ibarra’s death is mostly a case of being in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

It was by chance, really, that Parker ended up with the SMPD. A relative who worked for the city told him that the police department was hiring.

At the time, he was enrolled at Allan Hancock College, taking general education classes, and working at Best Buy — not a job he could see himself staying at for long with any enthusiasm.

He doubted he’d get bored in law enforcement. So Parker switched to classes in administration of justice at Hancock and entered the police academy program there. He graduated in 2007.

And, just as he suspected, he’s never gotten bored. After spending 18 months or so as a patrol officer, he joined the gang suppression team, which he calls “small, close-knit, dedicated.”

Parker said he has had some close calls. There was the time in 2009 when he joined the high-speed chase of two suspects in a vehicle, one of which was shooting at pursuing patrol cars. He was just doing his job; it wasn’t until later that it occurred to him just how dangerous that pursuit had been.

The shooter, Joseph Deleon, was convicted of attempting to murder police officers along with numerous other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison. It was termed by the lead prosecutor in the case “one of the more horrific crimes our community experienced.”

At any rate, his unit also spends as much time as it can on community outreach, he said, a key to fighting gang violence. He has talked with community groups, teachers, and to special classes for parents on parole about how to keep their children out of gangs.

And that’s what he likes best about his job.

“You can really make a difference,” he said.

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