In 1972, Irma Vasquez thought that the dependable hours, undemanding work and good pay of her job at the Orange County Jail were perfect for a divorced mother raising a young son.
A career in police work was not her goal--at least not until she moved to the Santa Ana Police Department and rose quickly through the ranks from patrol officer to homicide investigator, earning local, regional and national recognition along the way.
"At the Sheriff's Department, I just knew I was making easy money because I didn't have to do that much. I worked in the jail for eight hours, and then I went home," Vasquez said in a recent interview. "Only when I came to the Santa Ana PD did I start thinking of law enforcement as a career.
As a detective, Vasquez now juggles an average of five new cases a week and often puts in 14-hour days when assigned to investigate a homicide. She is rated highly by superiors and colleagues alike for her drive, her local knowledge--she was brought up in the tough Santa Ana barrio known as Delhi--and her concern for her work.
"That is a very definite asset and a very definite reason for her success," said Vasquez's immediate boss, Sgt. John McClain. "She is such a concerned, giving type of person that I'm sometimes concerned with the fact that she is too concerned and too giving to the point where it might tend to wear her down over a long period of time."
McClain cited the case of the abduction of a 7-year-old Cambodian girl on her way to school in October of 1983 by a man in a red van who threatened the child with a knife, beat and raped her.
McClain said Vasquez put "an extremely large amount of time, work and perseverance into the investigation," using her free time to search for the van. "She was the one who spotted the van," McClain said. "The case really personally upset her and she stuck with it."
Vasquez's partner of almost three years, Investigator Ferrell Buckels, said he had his doubts when they first teamed up.
"Initially, I didn't know what it was gonna be like when we were first paired. I had never worked with a woman before in this type of work," Buckels said. "But now I don't worry about it at all. She's very good, and I have absolutely no qualms about going any place with her."
Capt. Robert Stebbins, who met Vasquez in 1972 when she was taking a forensics course he was teaching at Santa Ana college, calls her "an exceptional police officer," whose success is "a real distinction in a city as tough as Santa Ana."
Unaware of Antagonism
One year after Vasquez joined the Santa Ana force, the city lost a federal lawsuit when the court found that the Police Department had systematically discriminated against Latinos.
In her career in Santa Ana, Vasquez said she has seen no bias.
"I never felt any antagonism because I was Hispanic or female," she said.
Vasquez said the term Hispanic is too vague for use as a description in police work.
"If I have a witness who reports seeing a black man who spoke with a Spanish accent, then I know right away that he (the suspect) was almost certainly a Cuban. People from Central and South America tend to be more fair-skinned," said the 34-year-old bilingual detective. " Hispanic, to me, is just too vague. It includes so much."
Satisfaction for Victim
Vasquez said the most enjoyable aspect of being a police detective is telling a victim that the person who committed a crime against him or her has been caught. "The cases where someone killed a loved one or robbed a business or beat up a child or whatever--some sort of satisfaction needs to be brought back to the victim," she said emphatically.
"The victim is forgotten too much. We're constantly reminded of the rights of suspects, but what about the rights of victims," the detective continued. "If you've ever been the victim of a crime, you know it's a very traumatic thing."
Aside from that sort of human contact, Vasquez says, much of the job is routine. She interviews victims and suspects, does background checks, investigates crime scenes, hassles sources and generally does whatever is necessary to prepare a case for court prosecution.
"It's like pulling teeth sometimes. You have to ask numerous questions to find out what you want because a lot of people are not used to giving descriptions and remembering details. Something that is very important to a case may seem insignificant to them."
For Vasquez, the transition to a career in law enforcement has been rewarding. She was named the Santa Ana Police Department's Officer of the Year for 1977 after only two years on the force. Last year, she received an honorable mention award for International Policewoman of the Year and a plaque from the Los Angeles Hispanic Recognition Committee, which honors Latinos in different careers.
"The people that received awards at this function were doctors and scientists, and I thought to myself, 'What the heck am I doing here?' When you think of scientists, you think of high-power brains."
"It's hard to (perceive) yourself as others may perceive you," Vasquez said.