When Robert Rodriguez entered policing, he had no aspirations to move into command. He aspired to be a sergeant, the rank he held when he left the Marine Corps.
As Rodriguez recalls, a professor asked about his goals.
“The professor said, ‘You don’t come to SC to be a sergeant. You come to SC to be a city manager,’” Rodriguez said.
Six years later, Rodriguez became the newest Deputy Chief of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Now Rodriguez is working on his doctorate in public policy and development at USC. Prior to his promotion, a professor asked him about his goals. This time, Rodriguez said to be a city manager.
“The professor said, ‘You don’t get a doctorate at SC to become a city manager. You get a doctorate at SC to change the world,’” Rodriguez recalls.
Where the new deputy chief goes from here is anyone’s guess. However, in an age of profound changes in policing, Rodriguez is part of the Legislative Committee for the California Police Chiefs’ Association, so he is on the path.
For a kid born in Tijuana and raised in poverty, Rodriguez is already a classic American success story. Rodriguez and his family moved to the United States from Mexico when he was a young child. They settled in Santa Ana but were soon on the move, ping-ponging through nearby cities.
“My past has built a lot of resiliency in me,” Rodriguez said. “We moved around a lot. I had a very unstable home life.”
However, whether his family jumped to Garden Grove, Anaheim or Fullerton, “we always returned to Santa Ana,” he said.
Although his life situation could have made Rodriguez a natural target for gangs, he said he was never tempted or even approached.
“Even as a young kid, I always wanted to work,” Rodriguez said. “As a freshman in high school I sold snow cones at the swap meet.”
There were other odd jobs, such as changing tires and working in construction to make extra cash.
“I never participated in gang activities or crimes. I never had contact with the police,” Rodriguez said. “I am a collection of the choices I made…I wanted something better.”
“I played sports. I never hung around the block. I’d hang out at the mall and meet girls,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez saw first-hand the ruinous consequences of gang life.
So eager was Rodriguez for his “something better,” he said, “I almost dropped out of school. I tried to go into the Marines at 16. They said, ‘No.’”
As soon as he graduated, Rodriguez signed up for the Marine Corps. In his six years, he was part of several operations, such as the evacuation of diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Desert Storm in Iraq.
Rising through the ranks
Rodriguez said becoming a police officer was a goal when he left the service. Rodriguez’s older brother, Leo, now a corporal with Santa Ana Police Department, had been a police Explorer, which introduced Rodriguez to the idea.
Within a month of leaving the Marines Rodriguez was enrolled in the police academy.
As happened during his military career, Rodriguez soon found himself where the action was. He was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department joining the Hollenbeck Division and later battling gangs with the LAPD Southeast Division CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit.
Although there were 18 such units, scandal in one — Rampart — took down the entire program and led to a reorganization and being replaced by the Gangs and Narcotics Unit. Rampart was not connected to Southeast Division CRASH.
While the rough and tumble life of chasing gangsters and bad guys in Watts and Boyle Heights fed Rodriguez’s adrenaline, a conversation with a coworker reframed his perception. His coworker told him he should consider his quality of life.
When an opening at the Santa Ana Police Department became available in 2000, Rodriguez returned home. Since joining the Santa Ana Police Department, Rodriguez’s career has advanced steadily. By 2012, he was a corporal.
In 2014, he was promoted to sergeant and to commander in 2018.
As Commander, Rodriguez was in charge of field operations for the Chief’s Office, charged with executive duties such as budgets and strategic planning, authoring year-end reviews in 2019 and 2020. He also oversaw internal affairs and media relations.
As Deputy Chief, Rodriguez oversees the department’s main crime solving branch: the Investigations Bureau. This includes the Homicide Unit, Crime Investigation Division, Special Investigation Division, Metropolitan Division and SWAT.
Rodriguez has embraced the Chief’s Community First initiatives, which stress community policing practices such as regular engagement and trust-building in conjunction with robust enforcement when necessary.
To succeed in this mission, Rodriguez says it is not just enough to talk a good game.
“I need to be seen,” Rodriguez said of getting out to community events and meeting with residents. “I cannot be seen from behind the desk.”
To Rodriguez, public interaction is all about opening your mind and showing respect and empathy.
“You have to listen, have an open mind, and suspend your assumptions,” he said. “Most people just want to be heard.”
For the time being, Rodriguez is just getting his feet under him and becoming accustomed to the post.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.
However, he said part of the job includes being able to foresee what’s down the road.
If he continues to follow the advice of his professors, and considering how far he’s come, there’s no telling where that road will lead.