By JASON ECK
Sonora Police Department has hired one new officer and is close to hiring another.
Police officials are conducting background checks on two candidates and expect to hire a second officer by mid-March, said Lt. Pat Tonegato.
The department has two remaining vacancies. The Sonora City Council has ordered that a third position remain vacant for a year to free up money for existing salaries and raise pay to attract new applicants.
The city's newest officer has returned to work in the city in which he grew up.
Jeff Aitken, 26, was reared in Sonora and graduated from Sonora High School in 1995. He began working for the Police Department on Feb. 15.
Aitken attended Columbia College with plans to become a teacher to follow in the footsteps of his father, Tom, a teacher at Sonora Elementary School. But his plans changed when he learned of an opportunity in Calaveras County law enforcement.
Aitken worked for 18 months as a deputy with the Calaveras County Sheriff's De-partment, which put him through the peace officers' academy.
He said he long had his sights set on returning to Sonora. "I didn't think it would happen this quickly. ... But it was a good fit for everybody and I was happy to come home," Aitken said.
"I think we're very lucky to have Jeff," Tonegato said.
Aitken, who lives in Valley Springs, is engaged to be married and hopes to move back to Sonora soon.
He has one child, Mikahl, 7.
Aitken is working with Sonora Sgt. Dave Bird to learn the computer system and the techniques the department uses to police a small community, Tonegato said. In about three weeks, a police sergeant will shadow Aitken while he works. Police Chief Duane Ellis said Aitken's training should go faster because he knows Sonora and many of the merchants and residents already.
Aitken is the first officer the city hired since City Council members raised police salaries late last year.