Mark Cleavenger has been the seasonal head lifeguard at the Malibu West Swim Club for the past eight years, and in that time has gotten to know lots of Malibu West residents and other locals. Imagine their surprise to learn he’s written a book full of detailed exploits chronicling his previous life as a State Parks lifeguard in Malibu—which includes a lot of history most locals don’t know—and then 17 years as a police officer in Hawthorne and Ventura.
His book, “Rescues to Arrests: A Peace Officer’s Career through Verse,” is unusual in many respects—the entire book is written in verse that does not rhyme. The style takes a little getting used to, but is surprisingly powerful and emotional. Dozens of chapters in chronological order each tell a different riveting story about an incident in his career, and the book is filled with copies of photos, newspaper articles and letters that add life and credibility.
Cleavenger described the last part of the book, Part 4, as “collateral damage,” or what some might describe as PTSD after years of being on the force.
“I wrote it with a specific reason to publish my professional and personal journal as both a state lifeguard and a municipal police officer in a 37-year career to share to the naysayers and people who’ve had bad experiences with cops,” he wrote. In other words, he explained in an interview, he hopes the book proves that not all cops are bad—that there are a lot of dedicated, ethical, hardworking police officers out there.
Specifically, Cleavenger wanted to demonstrate that not all white cops are bad. Describing his own look as “Nordic,” he found it particularly hard to establish trust with neighborhoods and communities of color just because he was white. This was ironic to him, he explained, because so many of his rescues as a lifeguard were people of color, as well as so many of the people he served as a police officer.
As a former State Parks lifeguard, he writes about fatal accidents from cars going over the earthy embankments along PCH and down rocky cliffs to the ocean before K-rails were installed. In a bit of dark lifeguard humor, those earth embankments constructed alongside PCH were referred to as “launch pads.” He described the rescue of two little girls at Leo Carrillo whose parents were too busy drinking to realize they were in danger. And most locals aren’t aware that over 20 people drowned swimming in and around Point Mugu Rock in the 80s before Ventura County finally decided to hire some lifeguards.
As a police officer, Cleavenger described foot pursuits, an officer- involved shooting, arrests, confessions, jailhouse retributions and his varied assignments—equestrian officer, running a police storefront, being a SWAT team medic, vice squad, and part of a gang special enforcement team.
As if that weren’t enough, Cleavenger won a whole host of athletic awards back in high school and college for swimming and water polo, then qualified for the Olympic kayak team in 1992. During his career, he won three Medals of Valor from three different departments. He was inducted into the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Cleavenger chose to write the book in verse because he’d begun writing poetry in college, where he won poetry contests and found support for his writing in poetry meetings. He agrees non-fiction poetry is unusual, but it became his preferred way of writing because he could “put more emotion into it.”
“Rescues to Arrests: A Peace Officer’s Career through Verse” is available on Amazon as a paperback. Cleavenger is hoping to increase sales over the holiday season because the proceeds are donated to his favorite charity—Humanizing the Badge—and he hopes to give them a generous donation this year.
“It’s my last act as a public servant,” he wrote.