A Top Cop With Humble Roots

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Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada spent his childhood in Pico Rivera, a city in Los Angeles County where neighborhoods were distinguished by the gangs who controlled them.

Quezada’s street belonged to the Jardin gang. He remembers his parents restricting him from going to the park two blocks away because “it was just that bad.”

Today, Quezada, who was appointed in December after a seven-month stint as interim chief, heads a department in a city with neighborhoods facing similar challenges — gangs, police shootings, broken homes and mistrust of authority.

He ascended to the job less than a year after a spate of police shootings triggered a downtown riot and shattered an already tenuous relationship between the Police Department and working-class Latino neighborhoods.

City officials hope that having Quezada, the city’s first ever Latino police chief, will signal to residents who have long felt disenfranchised at City Hall that city government is accountable to them.

He understands the opportunity being presented to him and said he’s ready for it.

“It’s personal to me,” he said.

Residents and activists have said Quezada is amicable, willing to listen to their grievances and has implemented measures the community has asked for, including mandatory audio recorders for police officers and a neighborhood council that fosters dialogue between the chief and residents.

He’s also added more officers to the community policing beat, which has officers patrolling neighborhoods and getting to know residents.

Others, however, have said the Police Department has not shed its tough-guy culture with Quezada at the helm and still has a long way to go before it builds trust with the Latino community. Police officers patrolling low-income neighborhoods remain disrespectful toward residents, particularly youth, treating everyone as criminals, said some vocal residents.

“The cops are still doing the same thing. We don’t believe in him,” said Yesenia Rojas, a resident in the Anna Drive neighborhood and a passionate protest leader in the aftermath of the 2012 police shootings.

Donna Acevedo, whose son Joel Acevedo was shot and killed by police during a car chase, said that Quezada’s roots in rough neighborhoods lends him credibility. But Acevedo, who has also announced her candidacy for City Council, said she is still waiting for the new chief to conduct more outreach.

“I’m hoping to see that he sees there are a lot of problems in our community still and he’s still willing to reach out to the community without us poking at him to do it for us,” Acevedo said. “Let kids know there’s something more out there than hanging out in the alley.”

Quezada said he’s making strides and points to expanded funding for children’s programs like Cops 4 Kids and the Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership or GRIP program. He said one part of GRIP connects parents of youth who have been arrested with other parents to teach them lessons they had to learn the hard way.

Through another program, officers will first refer young offenders of minor crimes to counseling and community service and prosecute them only if they fail to follow through with those commitments.

Joanne Sosa, an activist with the East Street Community Renewal Initiative, which held a town hall with Quezada and residents last month, said that residents are still contending with many anxieties, including rumors of a pending gang war.

She also said residents needed to dialogue with Quezada and not walk away from those conversations with a “closed heart.”

Mayor Tom Tait and Lorri Galloway, a former councilwoman who is now running for mayor, pointed to Quezada’s kindness and humility and argued that Quezada has what it takes to change the department.

Tait pointed out that the chief supported a public safety civilian oversight board, something the City Council majority did not.

“He’s open-minded to change,” Tait said. “He has the kind of integrity and character we need for leadership. I think all that starts at the top. … He understands the culture of kindness, and there’s a humility about him that makes him a strong leader.”

Council members Lucille Kring, who is also running for mayor, and Gail Eastman, a candidate for reelection, also said they are fans of Quezada. Among other things, they praised his coffee-with-a-cop program, which gives residents regular opportunities to meet with officers and air their concerns.

“I think it’s huge for the immigrant communities to have the police out there interacting with them, not just when there’s an emergency,” Eastman said.

Some residents have said that while they have had positive experiences with Quezada, his recent remarks about a police shooting rubbed them the wrong way.

He said claims from a shooting victim’s family attorney that police purposely placed a shotgun next to the victim’s body amounted to slander. His comments focused on the fact that an Orange County district attorney’s investigation of the shooting found no wrongdoing by officers.

“It was a very detrimental comment for him to make,” said Theresa Smith, mother of another man killed in a police shooting. “Not everything you read is in fact true,” she added, referring to the DA’s report on the incident.

Quezada defended his reaction by saying he was only restating the conclusions of an independent investigation.

He said he is taking additional steps to improve trust. For example, plans to implement video recording systems are in the works.

He also made a point of saying not every solution to the community’s problems can come from the Police Department. At some point, parents need to ask themselves and their neighbors what can be done to stop children from ending up in violent street gangs. There must be accountability at home, he said.

That’s the lesson he said he takes from his experience in the Jardin neighborhood of Pico Rivera. He challenged residents working up to three jobs to share parental responsibilities with their neighbors.

“It’s not always the police — what are you doing, what aren’t you doing,” Quezada said. “It’s what are you doing at home? And how can we help at home?”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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