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Q & A : Bell Gardens' New Police Chief Vows to Be Fair

August 08, 1993|Jill Gottesman

Andy Romero, 50, took over as chief of police in Bell Gardens on Aug. 2, replacing Interim Chief Ed Taylor, former head of the police officers union. The city's 76-member Police Department has been without a permanent chief since 1990, when longtime Chief William Donohoe retired. Romero, a former Marine and 27-year veteran of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, is the first Latino police chief in the city's history. He was interviewed by Times staff writer Jill Gottesman. *

Q: After serving nearly three decades at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, why leave now? And why leave for a city notorious for its political upheaval?

A: I think I can at least answer the first question (laughs). I have had a great career, and I've done everything that I have wanted to do, from patrolman to jailer to working in personnel to investigations. I've arrested murderers and burglars and prowlers. But this is a good opportunity for me to grow. I have always been somewhat of a risk taker, and a lot of forces lined up for me to be able to take this job. As for the second question, yes, I am aware that the city has had a lot of political strife in the past, but I look at that as a challenge.

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Q: In a city that is nearly 90% Latino, do you think it is important for the police chief to be Latino? In what ways will your ethnicity and ability to speak Spanish affect the law enforcement effort in the city?

A: It helps to be Hispanic, because it gives me a better understanding of the (residents). I will have a little bit of an edge, but being Hispanic doesn't necessarily make you a good police chief. Being able to speak Spanish is an asset, because now residents can come into my office and talk. They might not always like what I have to say, (but) at least they will understand the answers that I give instead of going through an interpreter. But the most important thing about being the chief is being qualified to do the job.

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Q: Despite the city's demographics, only about a third of the officers are Latino, and fewer than that are in management. Any plans to change that?

A: I believe that a good policeman is a good policeman, regardless of his ethnicity. This is America, and what we are looking for is good officers. We do need more officers who can speak Spanish, because we are serving Spanish speakers. If our (residents) were 90% Chinese, well, then we better be learning how to speak Chinese. It would be nice to have a force that better reflects the residents, but when we hire, we will look at the qualifications of the officers first. If there are Hispanics that are qualified, great. But we are not going to bring them into the department just because they are Hispanic.

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Q: How serious is the gang problem in Bell Gardens? Or do you think the Latino gang problem is overstated?

A: Statistics in general are overstated by the media, and I think that is something the media has to address because it is bringing fear into communities. I do know there are gangs in Bell Gardens, and I anticipate that to be the biggest police problem in the city. On the other hand, the same is true of all big American cities.

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Q: The Bell Gardens Police Department recently rejected an effort by neighboring cities to participate in a regional gang program. Are joint operations with other agencies a good idea? How might regional operations work in the Southeast area?

A: We have to approach the gang problem on a regional basis. I think gangs and drugs and auto theft and all sorts of other crimes must be handled regionally. We should be sharing information and working together toward stamping out gangs and drugs and all that crime. Every police officer in California is doing basically the same job, and we all need to work together because the criminals certainly outnumber us.

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Q: What is your philosophy about community-based policing? Is it possible in a small city like Bell Gardens? Can small substations and foot patrols increase the security in the city?

A: A city like Bell Gardens lends itself perfectly to community policing and problem-oriented policing. I'm a proponent of both, and I plan to enhance whatever basic programs they have at the department.

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Q: The $6.5-million Police Department budget makes up about a third of the city's total budget. Any plans to boost manpower? How about additional incentive programs for the officers, such as canine or motor patrols?

A: I have no plans to boost the manpower right now, because it appears that we have adequate staffing. I may restructure it and redeploy it, but I don't plan to make any kind of request for more officers. As for incentives, I don't think the taxpayers want me to institute nice things for officers unless they are effective and necessary.

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Q: A recent study of the Bell Gardens Police Department found that a majority of the rank-and-file officers said there is a morale problem at the station. How would you raise morale?

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