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Living Up to Officer Ochoa

January 27, 2002

Earlier this month, after nearly eight months of investigation by the Orange County Sheriff's Department and district attorney, prosecutors decided that the tragic circumstances surrounding the shooting death of a man by Huntington Beach police didn't warrant criminal charges against the officer.

That may end the local police probe, but an FBI investigation and federal civil rights lawsuit are pending.

The shooting May 5 occurred when officers chasing a crime suspect saw 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar peering into a truck. Police said Saldivar didn't respond to requests in English and Spanish to raise his hands but instead turned around and pointed a rifle at the pursuing officer, who shot him. The rifle was later found to be a toy.

The incident sparked a protest from residents in Oakview, one of the poorest and most heavily populated Latino neighborhoods in the city. For years before the tragic shooting of Saldivar, police had reached into the neighborhood trying to improve communications. Those efforts helped in the shooting aftermath.

One of the major forces in building a better bridge between police and Oakview was Lt. Luis Ochoa. He was the department's first Mexican American officer, and the Oakview neighborhood was one of his prime projects.

Ochoa is credited with helping control the gangs and drug deals that plagued the area. He was also instrumental in the opening of a police substation and day laborer employment center in the neighborhood. He even read stories to children at the library. But most important is the one-on-one link that police efforts such as Ochoa's can provide.

Just five days after the release of the district attorney's decision, Ochoa retired after 37 years of service. Aside from his outstanding contributions, an indication of how much he will be missed in community outreach efforts is the fact that only 12 of the 230 Huntington Beach officers are Spanish-speaking.

Ochoa's retirement and the district attorney's closure of the shooting probe put added emphasis on the need for constant communications and contact between police and the community they serve.

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