Tim Slenders had no idea.

The Chowchilla native, Merced College alumnus and new Mariposa County sheriff, was minding his business with his peers at Fresno City College Police Office Standards and Training (POST) graduation on July 15.

Then someone started talking about a special graduate, the Top Cadet of the graduating class. And then he called Slenders’ name.

“I was shocked,” Slenders said of earning that and the top law enforcement skills award. “I didn’t expect it at all. It made me proud to do something special and apply my knowledge every day.”

David Noblett, coordinator of the Criminal Justice Department at Merced College, was feeling particularly satisfied watching Slenders receive the top award. They’ve known each other since Slenders was in high school.

“Tim is one of those guys, quiet, but very self-motivated,” Noblett said. “He knows what he wants. He is dedicated to a career in law enforcement and he has not let anything stop him.”

Slenders, 32, and the other graduates had a delayed commencement after Fresno City suspended classes from March 16 to April 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Slenders had gone to Fresno City to complete his POST training after finishing the first of three modules at Merced College.

POST prepares aspiring officers in everything from criminal law, investigations, patrol procedures, vehicle operations, ethics and beyond. The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department sponsored Slenders’ training at both locations.

Merced College attracts a lot of second career trainees sponsored by local agencies. They have a good reputation for turning them into skilled future police officers.

“That’s down to our amazing instructors who are dedicated to our cadets,”

Noblett said. Over half of current Merced College instructors are still active officers by day, then train the next generation by night. Noblett said, at Merced, it all starts with professionalism on the job. Cadets wear uniforms according to agency regulations. They call every instructor by their current rank. They sign a code of conduct. They train as if they’re already employed. Expectations are high.

“We tell them, ‘You don’t turn on your integrity switch when you come to class,” Noblett said. “We don’t just get them through the academy. We get them ready for the street. We want agencies to see our graduates and say, ‘These are cadets we want to hire.’”

It works. Noblett said Slenders is the fourth Merced College alumnus to earn a top cadet award in the past several years, and one of a dozen more who earned recognition for other skills. Academy directors also regularly give public kudos to the Merced College program.

“With everything going on in the world right now, we want our people to be as prepared as possible,” Noblett said. “You won’t get rich. You’ll spend time away from family. But life experience is critical to do the job well. Law enforcement is a calling. The ones like Tim who make it through are doing it for the right reasons.”

Slenders had never considered law enforcement while working in ag construction after high school. When the recession hit in 2007, construction work disappeared and Slenders needed a new gig.

Correctional officer friends encouraged him to try it, so he trained as a CO at Fresno CIty. He worked in Madera County from 2007-2010, before taking the job in Mariposa.

Things changed again after 10 years in Mariposa. Slenders was working on the marijana eradication team there and enjoying it. He wanted to continue, but needed POST credentials to qualify. Back to school he went.

“It was interesting applying what I learned at Merced to the simulations we did in Fresno,” the new Mariposa County sheriff said. “That’s the appeal. It was never the same thing every day and it won’t be now.”

Putting in over 1,000 training hours over seven months was daunting. With the pandemic, no one knew if they’d be allowed to finish.

After a month-long hiatus, the FCC cadets had to make up time. They clocked 13 days on and one day off every two weeks. Slenders would drive 90 minutes to Fresno every day, study for a full day and then drive back for dinner with his wife and four children.

He put in the time. It was a slow burn for Slenders to find law enforcement, but now his passion for it drives him.

“It’s challenging,” he said, “but it’s worth it in the end.”