Listening comes first, then action.
This simple and straightforward approach to police work is how Huntington Beach Lt. Kelly Rodriguez has managed to implement major public safety changes for downtown.
Rodriguez was appointed to lead the Special Enforcement Bureau in September, which oversees downtown and special events, including the upcoming Vans US Open of Surfing.
“When I came down here, I met with the people who are actively involved in this community,” Rodriguez said. “I listened to their ideas, suggestions and complaints.”
The Huntington Beach resident requested the assignment having lived downtown, at one time.
“Being responsible for that area, I knew that I would be busy and be able to implement and effect change,”Rodriguez said.
It’s an area often mischaracterized by some in the public and media, she said.
“The perception of violence in downtown is not reality,” she said. “Crime is actually down right now, but we’ve had a couple highly publicized cases that make it appear more violent.”
Although downtown is not without its challenges.
Residents have long complained about alcohol-induced crime and homelessness.
Rodriguez listened, then got to work with the help of the nine officers in the bureau.
“I have a great team, and I really believe they are the ones making the difference,”she said. “Everybody has a huge part in making downtown safer.”
Since taking over as lieutenant for the post, 18 surveillance cameras were put up in the most at-risk areas including the pier, the 200 block of Main Street and Pier Plaza.
They’ve helped with investigations for a variety of crimes including theft, vandalism and assault, Rodriguez said.
Other improvements include installing better lighting, creating a bicycle patrol unit, educating local servers on responsible alcohol service and launching an ambassador program to deter alcohol issues, Rodriguez said.
A homeless task force was also formed, which has the dual responsibility of lessening public nuisance issues associated with the homeless, while helping them locate resources.
The department also expects to debut its mounted enforcement unit in September, a suggestion from Police Chief Robert Handy.
Downtown is seeing tangible results.
Rodriguez is effecting change, which is the reason the New York native got in to this business in the first place.
Rodriguez moved to California after high school to become a teacher.
She majored in liberal arts at Cal State Long Beach until her then-boyfriend (now-husband, who is a police officer) encouraged her to take a criminal justice course.
The professor required students to go on four police ride-alongs in different cities.
It only took one for Rodriguez to change her major to criminal justice.
The ride-along was in Norwalk.
A traffic stop turned into a short vehicle pursuit followed by a foot chase.
The Norwalk officer ran after the first man, wrestled him to the ground and detained him.
He then went after, and caught, the second man.
The men were driving a stolen vehicle while high on PCP, Rodriguez said.
She watched from the front seat in admiration.
Adrenaline coursed through her body, and she was only a spectator. She wondered what it would be like when she was doing the chasing.
“It was just crazy excitement,” Rodriguez said. “I was hooked. I thought it was the absolute best job ever, and I still do.”
Twenty-six years ago, Rodriguez started her law enforcement career with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department working in the Men’s Central Jail and the Women’s Central Jail.
After seven years, she applied for a job with Huntington Beach.
“Huntington Beach has an excellent reputation in the law enforcement community with a tremendous amount of support from the citizens,” she said. “I loved the teamwork and camaraderie in Huntington Beach. When I did a ride-along here, I saw that first hand.”
Rodriguez, who is currently pursing her master’s degree in public administration, has worked as a crisis negotiator, school resource officer and a training officer. She has been on the trauma support team, the professional standards unit and beach detail, among other assignments.
She said she’s never had an incident that made her second guess her career choice, although the job is not without days that weigh on the spirit.
“The hardest part about my job is seeing my partners deal with tragic incidents that affect them,”she said. “The public doesn’t realize how deep that goes.”
The hard days often reaffirm Rodriguez’s commitment.
“It only makes me want to stick more to the team,” she said.
But overall, there are more good days, the kind that effect change.
One case that stands out for Rodriguez came in 2007 when she worked as a school resource officer.
Rodriguez received a tip about seven freshmen girls experimenting with heroin.
She intervened and followed up throughout the school year.
A year later, two of the teens wrote Rodriguez a letter crediting her with saving their lives.
“I was able to see from start to finish that they were going down the wrong path and I was able to help,” she said.
This kind of hands-on, community-based police work is what Rodriguez said will lend itself to more positive changes downtown.
“I’m willing to implement change when I can and take the time to express why I can’t, if I cannot,” Rodriguez said. “I believe communication is the key to success.”