Westminster Hires Former LA Sheriff’s Commander as Police Chief

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Following the abrupt retirement and legal settlement with its previous police chief, Westminster has selected retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Commander Ralph Ornelas as its new chief.

Ornelas, 59, who has more than 36 years experience in law enforcement, was retired for a little over a year before he accepted the job in Westminster, where he began work on March 13. He will be sworn in on Wednesday.

“You know, I felt I had some more to do. I love public service,” said Ornelas, who spent much of his first two weeks touring the city and doing interviews with English- and Vietnamese-language media outlets.

Ornelas said among his goals are expanding recruitment to the Vietnamese American and Latino communities.

He is the city’s fifth police chief in the past eight years and the first from outside the Westminster Police Department since James L. Cook, who was chief between 1988 and 2002.

The average tenure of a police chief nationwide is between 2 1/2 and 3 years, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

“The city manager, he asked me, can I give five years?” Ornelas said. “If it goes more than that, it’s fine…I’m going to give it 110 percent.”

Ornelas is taking over a department that has been the center of controversy in recent years, including a 2011 discrimination lawsuit brought by three Latino police officers that resulted in a $3.5 million judgment against the city and Ornelas’ four predecessors. 

Former Chief Kevin Baker retired in May 2016 after threatening to sue the city for retaliation he said he experienced after reporting illegal acts to state and federal authorities. The city later paid Baker $100,000 in a settlement to resolve his threat of litigation, and another $400,000 to settle a worker’s compensation claim.

City officials have refused to make public Baker’s claim, although they did release emails from Baker’s attorney which contain allegations that former mayor and current Councilwoman Margie Rice spread lies about Baker’s personal life and voiced her desire to fire him several times after he reported illegal acts.

Voice of OC is suing the city under the California Public Records Act for the release of Baker’s claim against the city.

The deputy chief who served under Baker, Dan Schoonmaker, also retired in December 2016 and took a job as the chief of police in Poulsbo, Washington.

As a LA County Sheriff’s Commander, Ornelas oversaw four jail facilities, a mental health facility and the women’s jail. Prior to that, he headed the Narcotics Bureau and oversaw the Men’s Central Jail.

Ornelas also testified last year in a federal corruption trial about Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s direct role in keeping FBI agents from interviewing jail inmates. According to his testimony, Ornelas was the captain of the Narcotics Bureau before he was “abruptly transferred” to the Men’s Central Jail in 2011 after he defied an order from Tanaka not to leave the country in order to attend a training session in Mexico, according to ABC7 News. 

He has been a resident of Huntington Beach for 32 years, according to the city’s police public relations contractor, the website Behind the Badge.

Ornelas will receive $246,044 in salary and benefits each year.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo. 

  • kburgoyne

    The average 2.5-3 year tenure of chiefs seems a bit surprising on its surface. Although presumably the only path left for promotion for a chief is to move on to another (probably larger) city. It’d be interesting to know how long chiefs remain in the occupation of being a chief “someplace”.

    • LFOldTimer

      Most of them contract ‘Chief’s Disease’ after a few years OTJ.

      I heard it’s contagious.

  • LFOldTimer

    Another Lee Baca protégé like Hutchens?

    That should work out well. lol.