Unsolved and cold-case murders are among the worst police come across. Without a killer caught, without resolution, the loss lingers.
It is the pain carved across faces, the catches in voices, glassy and tearing eyes, grief without surcease — these are the things that wrench at the soul.
These very human aspects are what inspired Santa Ana Police Commander Jose Gonzalez to lead the launch of “For the Record: A Homicide Spotlight” in August 2020, after he was named special investigations commander in the Santa Ana Police Department.
The “For the Record” feature is just one of the laundry list of tasks Gonzalez, a 22-year vet in the Santa Ana Police Department, has undertaken in his latest posting. The YouTube feature is part of Chief David Valentin’s “Community First” initiative, which aims to ramp up community engagement and interest through technology, according to Gonzalez.
This task is the most personal for the Santa Ana born and bred lawman.
“I thought, ‘How can I leverage all we do?’” Gonzalez recalls.
His answer was the series, which airs monthly on YouTube and highlights unsolved fatal crimes or cold cases.
“It is, to me, probably the most rewarding and impactful thing I’ve done,” Gonzalez said. “The emotion that bubbles over really pulls at your heartstrings.”
There are a number of benefits, Gonzalez said: the opportunity to gather new tips or clues in the crime, allowing families a chance to express themselves and see that the police remain active and engaged, and being able to encourage and “reinvigorate” detectives working the cases.
The videos are usually 4 to 8 minutes. Cases range from years old to weeks old. The victims span from teenagers to, most recently, a 53-year-old man.
The series launched on the one-year anniversary of the drive-by shooting death of teenager Victoria Barrios as she was walking home with friends. Barrios’ family erected billboards and built a website to help find clues to the killers. Despite grainy low-quality surveillance video of the attack, the killers remain at large.
Thus far, although no cases have yet been cracked, Gonzalez believes the day will come.
“If I’m able to solve one that’s good enough for me,” he said.
Before becoming a commander, Gonzalez rode a steady upward path through the Santa Ana Police Department.
He joined the force in 1999 and rose to corporal and sergeant before his first stint as commander in 2016, where he led professional standards as the chief’s top executive. He has also been involved in public information, a vice unit leader, watch commander and inspector for internal affairs.
As commander of special investigations, Gonzalez has wide-flung responsibilities, including homicide and an array of special investigations such as vice/narcotics, the career criminal unit and internet investigations. He also has his toe in the police department’s participation in operations such as the Orange County Asian organized crime, violent gang, human trafficking and internet crimes against children task forces, as well as regional narcotics suppression, mounted enforcement and United States Marshal fugitive apprehension.
Fittingly, he says, “my office is literally between homicide and special investigations.”
Each unit, he said, supplies very different and important roles and has its own needs.
“Homicide is the cream of the crop in terms of the detectives,” he says. “They’re seasoned professionals and have proven themselves capable of handling investigations.”
Gonzalez says his role is to make sure they have the tools they need, not only in terms of technology but physical and mental health.
“We have to take care of their well-being,” Gonzalez said, noting that the hours and stress placed on homicide detectives is enormous.
On the flip-side, special investigations into narcotics and vice “impacts daily life,” of the overall community, he says. When the police crack down on gambling dens, gangs or narcotics operations, “residents come out and they thank the detectives for what they do. It affects their quality of life.”
All about teamwork
In Gonzalez’s view, being on the police force connects to the sports ethics and team concepts he learned growing up
“It’s a natural fit,” he said. “Everyone has a job and a role as long as you’re working to a common goal.”
As a youth, Gonzalez was a sports fanatic, playing all manner of stick and ball games at Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
“My parents were very engaged,” Gonzalez said, especially his mom who carted him around to games and practices.
The constant activity helped steer Gonzalez away from the temptations of street life. Gonzalez funneled his sports talents into football at Mater Dei High School and eventually to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) as a slightly undersized offensive lineman.
Gonzalez said by the time he reached high school, he was already eyeing police work. He would become the first member of his family to go to college and enter policing, although his young brother followed in his footsteps until he was injured on the job and retired from police work.
“In high school it was something I was attracted to, but I looked at it from afar,” Gonzales said of the police department. “I liked what they represented and what they stood for.”
Gonzalez earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UNLV, but he said that was always a backup in case he was hurt playing football. After graduation, Gonzalez returned to his roots.
“I wanted to work in the community I grew up in,” he said.
In 2019, he completed a master of science in law enforcement and public leadership at the University of San Diego.
Despite his hectic work schedule, Gonzalez still finds sports to be a major outlet and teaching tool. The father of three daughters and husband to a former college softball player, Gonzalez coaches a traveling 14-under girls softball team.
“It teaches life skills, success and failure. I’m a big fan of coaching youth,” he says. “It’s what keeps me sane, the insanity of youth sports.”