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Sheriff's New Chief Deputy Is the Dept.'s Top Minority : Law enforcement: Richard Rodriguez's promotion is seen as an important step in making the agency better reflect the ethnic balance of the community.


When Richard Rodriguez won a promotion to the lofty rank of chief deputy in the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, no one was surprised but Rodriguez himself.

His colleagues say Rodriguez's steady competence had already propelled the longtime Oxnard resident from the police academy more than 26 years ago through a patrol car, the jail and the homicide division to the rank of lieutenant in 1986.

With twin blue lieutenant's stripes on his sleeve, Rodriguez rounded out his experience with a mix of work on the street and behind a desk, as watch commander, budget manager, acting Moorpark police chief and head of internal affairs investigations.

And he had won the respect of his comrades, who universally cite Rodriguez's diligence and thoroughness as keys to his success.

But when Sheriff Larry Carpenter put him through two quick promotions--to commander last January and then chief deputy last month--making him the top-ranking minority officer in the department, "it came absolutely out of the blue," said Rodriguez's wife, Topi.

"We were both absolutely speechless for two weeks, because it was not something we had had in our discussions," she said. "He was thrilled with it, absolutely thrilled.

"He planned his career this way," she added. "He decided that he was going to have experience and education that nobody could overlook, that they would have to consider him. He was going to be a contender, and a strong contender."

Rodriguez, son of a dairy worker and a fruit packer, remains modest about his achievements, about how he rose from summer jobs picking fruit to be one of the sheriff's top-ranking officers.

"It's humbling. It's beyond anything I ever might have imagined or dared to imagine," he said recently of his promotion. "My first goal was always to try to make sergeant. Once I got there I looked around, so to speak, and I realized I could make lieutenant, and it just kind of flowed from there."

Rodriguez said he realizes the significance of being the first Latino in 20 years to hold his rank, and the responsibility he bears to other minority officers who hope for promotion.

But the job comes first.

"The job's going to get done," he said, sitting in the office from which he oversees personnel, training, affirmative action, records, crime analysis and administrative support as chief deputy in charge of the Support Services Division.

"I don't look for accolades in any job I've accomplished. As long as it's done right and there's appreciation for what's done," he said.

But minority colleagues said Rodriguez's promotion is important at a time when the department is striving to make its number of women and minority employees more closely match Ventura County's population. For instance, the department wants to raise its Latino staffing--about 11%--closer to the county's 26% Latino population.

"His appointment to deputy chief should not be taken as insignificant," said Cmdr. Dante Honorico, in charge of the department's Minority Relations Committee. "I think it's very important symbolically.

"More than that, as a practical matter, his appointment and what he's done over the years shows that we really do not look at what your color is," said Honorico, a Filipino native who was promoted at the same time as Rodriguez to become the department's first Asian-American commander. "If you can do the job, you can reach anything you aspire to."

The department's affirmative action policy requires it to choose women and minorities first for the sheriff's training academy if they are equal to or better qualified than their competitors, Rodriguez said. But with no new openings for deputies last year and only 24 vacancies this year, the department has a limited ability to even the mix, he said.

"I think all that can be done is being done, given our current financial situation," Rodriguez said.

The department has been criticized by some minority employees as insensitive, and 11 of the department's 15 African-American deputies have sued the department for discrimination.

Saying he could not comment on personnel matters, Rodriguez declined to discuss the lawsuit, which alleges racist and sexist behavior among peers and supervisors that ranged from derogatory jokes to a death threat.

But he said he has never experienced prejudice in the department or even in his personal life. "I've been real fortunate," he said. "This department's provided a lot of opportunities, and it's just a matter of being able to take advantage of it."

Rodriguez's law enforcement career began one night in 1966, when he returned home from a tiring night shift in a food processing plant in Oxnard where he worked while attending college classes during the day.

Six months out of boot camp as a Marine Corps reservist, he was restless and ready for a more challenging job. An opportunity jumped out of a newspaper he picked up from his front stoop.

Rodriguez had considered trying to join the Oxnard Police Department, and once even submitted his name to indicate he was interested.

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