Private Lives

There are a million stories in "America's Finest City." This is one of them.

"I always wanted to be a police officer," says Tom Di Zinno, president and CEO of the Di Zinno Thompson Solutions advertising agency and a sergeant in the San Diego Police Department Reserve Unit. These officers, however, are not glorified crossing guards. They are true blue.

Di Zinno's assignments have included stints with the vice squad and as a financial sleuth. He's worked from a typical squad car, though he is currently found keeping the peace on bike patrol. Di Zinno's shifts have placed him serving undercover on prostitute-john detail (where he once busted an ex-client without being recognized), handling domestic disputes, and storming through crack houses, where he once almost lost an eye in a raid. The reserve officers follow the same training steps as the rest of the force: physical and psychological tests, deep background checks, nearly a year at the academy on nights and weekends, plus 600 hours of street training. When it's over, volunteers are police officers in every way -- except a paycheck.

While most police officers jump into law enforcement at a young age, the 55-year-old Di Zinno, who was sworn into the force in 1991, followed a more unorthodox path. "My father was the son of immigrants in an Italian neighborhood in Cleveland," he says. "He was picked on by Irish cops, so he didn't have much respect for the profession." The junior Di Zinno gave police work serious consideration after college, but decided that, given his father's prejudice, blood was thicker than the thin blue line; he opted for the ad racket.

After 15 years of working for others in San Diego, Di Zinno and partner Barbie Thompson started their own agency. They began as a "direct response"shop in consumer-loyalty arenas such as the Pacific Southwest Airlines frequent-flier-program club. These days Di Zinno Thompson is a more diversified marketing company, offering public relations, direct mail, media planning, and Internet services. The shop's clients include the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, sports collectible mainstay Upper Deck, and Nokia.

It's a wonderful balance to the work I do. It's like two days off -- a great mental sorbet."

Keeping the streets of San Diego safe for 60 hours a month sounds like a considerable burden on top of running a $1.8 million business, but that's not how Di Zinno sees it.

"It's a wonderful balance to the work I do ... It's like two days off -- a great mental sorbet." Cleansing the palate, so to speak, by packing a 9-mm handgun and chasing perps inevitably raises the question posed to Di Zinno by countless full-time officers and civilians alike: "Why would you put your life on the line for nothing?"

To Di Zinno, it's a nonquestion. The reserve experience infuses his agency work with a reality often missing in that white-collar world. "I lose patience with those who base their opinion on opinion and not real-world action," he says. "I miss the clarity of the streets in the boardroom."

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