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Santa Ana may pick a new chief

In a city that's largely Latino, officials and others say that hiring one for the post could give instant credibility.

June 09, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

It takes only a glance at the Santa Ana City Council to understand the demographics of the city, the ninth largest in the state. With Latinos accounting for 76% of the population, it is no surprise that the mayor and every person on the City Council is Latino.

Although the council reflects the makeup of this central Orange County city, Santa Ana has never had a Latino police chief. But that could soon change.

Paul Walters, who has led the city's Police Department for two decades, is one of two finalists in the search for a new Orange County sheriff. And it has left some to wonder if the time has finally arrived when a Latino will head a department in which Latinos make up nearly half the 390 sworn officers and 67% of the police staff.

"I think it's important to consider a Latino. We should seek a replacement based on our demographics," said Councilwoman Michele Martinez. "But we're an equal opportunity employer, and we need to find the best of the best."

Martinez and other council members interviewed said they would not lobby specifically for a Latino but agreed that one would bring a unique cultural awareness to the job. A Latino could start the job with "instant credibility in the community," one councilman said.

Walters has spent most of his career in Santa Ana, rising through the ranks until his appointment as chief in 1988. His rival in the search for the new sheriff is Sandra Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department division chief.

One of them will replace Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who resigned in January to focus on his upcoming federal corruption trial. The Orange County Board of Supervisors may select his replacement as soon as Tuesday.

If Walters becomes sheriff, Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream would appoint an interim chief, and then his permanent replacement, subject to City Council approval. Ream was unavailable for comment, but Assistant City Manager Catherine Standiford said all applicants would be considered, not just Latinos.

"However, we encourage diversity and have a long record of hiring bilingual employees," she said.

The chief could come from within the department, from outside or could be a retired law enforcement official, Standiford said. Some council members said they prefer a national search, but she said no decision has been made about that.

Walters is well-liked in the department and enjoys wide support in the Latino community. He was an early advocate of community policing, an effort by officers and residents to address neighborhood crime together. The department's community policing program has been a model for departments nationwide.

Councilman David Benavides credits Walters for "an amazing job reducing crime" and for being "very much in tune with and understanding the Latino community."

Walters has shown that "you don't have to be Latino to work [as chief] in the community." But given the city's demographics, a Latino chief would be a plus, he said.

"If you have that background and personal life experience, it definitely helps," Benavides said. "You come into the job with almost instant credibility in the community."

Roy Garivey, president of the National Latino Peace Officers Assn., praised the Santa Ana Police Department as top-notch. He said Walters' departure would be an opportunity for the city to hire a Latino.

"There's plenty of qualified people who can work with budgets and personnel," Garivey said. "Your police department should reflect the city's population, from top to bottom. If not, you're missing the boat."

A Latino chief could build on Walters' legacy, he said.

"You already have a good department with good people in place. You don't have to change the world. Just come in and be a leader."

Debate about Walters' replacement is a "healthy and a legitimate issue," said Councilman Sal Tinajero.

"You don't want to close the door to someone just because he's not Latino. But having a Latino chief does help," he said. "A Latino comes into the job with an understanding of the community and its culture. I know there are Latinos out there who are extremely qualified for the job."

Sgt. Joe Perez, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Assn., said he was not so much concerned about a new chief's ethnicity as he was about where that person came from.

"Our concern is whether we're going to look within the department or look to hire from an outside agency," Perez said. "Cops on the street are more concerned about experience and leadership. There's people within the department with those qualifications."

Councilman Carlos Bustamante agreed that finding the best qualified person should be the city's top priority.

"If he or she is Latino, that's great. But I'm not going to place particular emphasis on hiring a Latino," he said. "Walters is not Latino, but he's done good things for the community and he'll go down as one of the city's best chiefs."

hgreza@latimes.com

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