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Hail to the Ex-Chief

Oxnard Officer Receives Long-Overdue Retirement Badge


OXNARD — Robert Hinostro has broken up beer brawls, locked up drunks, dodged his share of bullets and racial slurs and has even gotten a knife in the back.

After a career as one of the earliest Mexican American cops on the streets of Oxnard, and making it to 85, you learn a few things--like how to survive, he said with a laugh. During a ceremony Monday at the Oxnard police station, officers and family members cheered as Hinostro received a retirement badge recognizing his role as the first Latino police chief in the city's history. At the time Hinostro was chief, the Oxnard Police Department did not present badges to retiring officers.

It didn't seem to matter to the Ventura native that he received the honor 42 years after he last wore a badge and carried a revolver in the line of duty.

Hinostro, who served as chief for six months in 1950, smiled as well-wishers passed around slices of cake and listened to his stories and dead-on harmonica rendition of the Mexican ballad "Maria Elena."

"My papa always said, 'If you can't beat them, join them,' " Hinostro said, with one hand holding the silver harmonica and the other resting against a cane. " 'After you join them, they will accept you.' That was some good advice."

Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez presented Hinostro with a new badge and thanked him for helping set the foundation for a recruiting standard for officers based on "not who they were, but what they did."

"He was as good as everybody else," Lopez said. "A lot of people say, 'Hey, I did it on my own.' That is not entirely true. [Hinostro] paved the way."

Oxnard Police Cmdr. Joe Munoz, a 27-year department veteran, said Hinostro passed on a legacy of service for future Latino officers.

"You have to look at the total contribution," Munoz said. "He went through when there were very few Hispanics."

Hinostro can be excused if he doesn't consider himself a trailblazer. He said he never had a thought to doing anything but police work growing up on Ventura's Park Row Avenue in Ventura.

Racial discrimination was prevalent in Oxnard and, in those days, you got along and didn't battle it, he said. Even after he had been on the force for a few years, Hinostro said, he was turned down when he tried to purchase two Oxnard homes for a total of $11,000. The reason? His Mexican heritage violated the properties' deed restrictions.

"When I came to Oxnard, Mexicans and blacks were not allowed in town," Hinostro said. "You could only buy in the Colonia."

Hinostro didn't get discouraged. He and his wife, Vera, eventually bought a home on G Street a few miles south of downtown. Vera died a few years ago, but Hinostro still lives in the home, surrounded by dozens of family pictures and photo albums of his favorite police cases.

He joined the Oxnard Police Department in 1938, one of only six officers in what was then little more than a sleepy farming community. In the 20 years he worked in Oxnard--as an officer, captain and briefly as chief--Hinostro said he saw the city grow, particularly after World War II when the first of several postwar housing booms hit Ventura County.

His beat in those early days consisted of breaking up fistfights in the old beer bars along 6th Street, giving the occasional parking ticket and taking care of residents in danger of getting lost in the rainy soup of La Colonia's mud roads.

It was a simpler time, said Hinostro, who later worked as a court interpreter after he retired from the force in 1958. He only wore his gun on certain occasions, and bulletproof vests were only something you saw the good guys wear in movies at the Saturday matinee.

If an officer was cruising in the department's single patrol car, Hinostro and his partner would simply start walking the streets.

"In our day it was a lot less dangerous than it is now," Hinostro said. "I used to patrol without a gun. In town you would patrol the town on foot. You were not in a car very often."

Sixty years later, the memories sometimes run together, but Hinostro has a clear recall of several events from his days on the beat. There was knife fight that drew a crowd of 200 and ended with the death of one man and the arrest of another. What followed was textbook frustration for a beat cop.

"About 200 people were out there to watch it," Hinostro said. "When I got there, no one knew anything."

On two occasions, Hinostro nearly lost his life while on the job. In both cases, both of his assailants later lost their lives, he said.

A man Hinostro once locked up for beating a drunk and stealing his money didn't forget the stocky, good-looking beat cop. After six months in Ventura County Jail, the man came looking for Hinostro. He found the officer in a bar as Hinostro was doing his periodic beat check of the bar scene.

Shots rang out. Hinostro ducked and somehow avoided the bullets. Hinostro said some martial arts he learned from a Japanese prisoner at the Point Mugu naval station came in handy when he disarmed and arrested the man. The last Hinostro heard of his assailant, he had died in a machete fight on the streets of Tijuana a few months later.

Responding to a call of a fight at an Oxnard Boulevard bar in 1946, Hinostro arrived to find two men struggling on the floor.

He pulled one man off the pile, and the second man lunged at him. Hinostro ended up with a knife wound in the back and a trip to the emergency room. A week later, his assailant, on the run in East L.A., died in a knife fight.

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