Roger Neth, 85, standing, joins chief Tom Gazsi at the table during the Costa Mesa Public Safety Recognition Barbecue at the Orange County Fairgrounds on Thursday. Neth is Costa Mesa's first sworn police officer and its second chief. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / October 4, 2012)

Roger Neth remembers when the Costa Mesa Police Department started with four people. He was one of them. The year was 1953.

The chief had them draw straws. Neth got the short one.

He was then issued serial No. 2. The act officially made him CMPD's first officer.

With such an honor came his first shift: a Saturday night.

Neth, 85, laughed about the incident Thursday afternoon at the Orange County Fairgrounds, where he was among the attendees eating, talking and enjoying the day at the Costa Mesa Public Safety Recognition Barbecue.

About 180 to 200 of the city's police, fire and communications personnel came, as well as city officials and residents, said Ed Fawcett, the president and chief executive of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

People could be found sitting on lunch tables, eating burgers, hot dogs, freshly dipped chocolate-covered ice cream and sipping lemonade.

The chamber, Orange County Market Place and the Daily Pilot were some of the event's sponsors.

The barbecue was "simply to recognize them for their work and efforts," Fawcett said. "They put themselves on the line every day throughout the year, and we appreciate it.

"It has nothing to do with all the politics going around. It's just that we recognize the job that they have to do and it's important to us."

The fairgrounds donated the space and businesses donated items that were raffled off to public safety personnel, Fawcett said.

The top prize? A $500 gift certificate to H.J. Garrett Furniture on Harbor Boulevard.

Neth moved to Costa Mesa in 1936 and still lives there. He said the department grew over time — starting with the first four in 1953, the year the Costa Mesa incorporated, then hiring nine more in 1954 — as the city experienced its explosive post-World War II growth.

"By the time I became chief in 1964, we were already up to around 60,000 population," he said.

Those decades were the "golden years," he said, because the World War II veterans got some education through the G.I. Bill and were looking for work. Before then, historically police were strapping men — a "big Irish cop," they were sometimes dubbed — who had a limited education.

"All of a sudden our applicant pool was much, much higher, and we could be very selective," he said. "So we were in a position to pick the cream of the crop. That gave us the opportunity to implement a lot of the professional things that were very necessary in law enforcement."

Looking back at his long career with the department, he seemed to have a hard time choosing a favorite moment.

"I'm one of those strange groups of people that I picked a profession that I enjoyed going to every day," he said. "There are so many things I would say could be my favorite, but they would all be pretty much the same."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint