Think you can’t come from a small department to become a big deal in police circles? Then you don’t know Eric R. Nuñez.
The retiring Police Chief of the Los Alamitos Police Department, who spent his entire 30-year career in two of the three smallest departments in Orange County, rose to President of the California Police Chiefs Association (Cal Chiefs), which represents all 333 municipal police departments statewide.
During a five-year stint as Chief of Police in Los Alamitos, Nuñez shaped and maintained a highly professional and respected police agency. And while a new chief will start in January, the city is still recognizing its retiring chief. Recently, Nuñez was named one of the city’s “Heroes” for 2021 at a luncheon held by the Los Alamitos Chamber of Commerce.
The respect Nuñez garnered in the city was particularly apparent when he was named President of Cal Chiefs in 2020.
City Manager Chet Simmons said at the time, “Chief Nuñez is exactly the type of leader that the CPCA needs in this role during these difficult times. He is a steady hand in a storm and the organization will be able to lean against his ability to find real world solutions to difficult issues they are going to face in the coming year.”
Although he was admittedly a little “star struck” when he started with the organization, Nuñez said he soon realized, “they all want to see you succeed.”
Not that his tenure as president went quite as planned.
Nuñez was elected to the one-year post in April, just after Gov. Gavin Newsom made his executive stay-at-home order.
“Most of the time you get the pomp and circumstance,” Nuñez said of the swearing in of the new president of Cal Chiefs, which is usually done with family, accompanied by a visit from the governor and a banquet with thousands in attendance.
Instead, he said, “I’m sitting in front of my computer in my office.”
Nuñez said that was “telling” of how his term might turn out. A month later, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer and any agenda Nuñez may have envisioned during his term flew out the window.
Nuñez has hoped to use the position as a platform to advocate and push for greater attention to officer wellness, emotional intelligence, mental health, and greater understanding and prevention of police suicides.
“If I could have left a legacy, it would have been that,” Nuñez said.
Instead, Nuñez said, he and fellow police officers spent the year defending themselves and the profession while “taking a beating in the media and with some of the public.”
Nuñez said much of the national dialogue that ensued over limiting use of force and other issues were already in place in California.
“I did a lot of education in virtual rooms where people were very hostile,” Nuñez said. “I had no idea we would spend so much time on the issues we spent time on.”
Prior to becoming president, Nuñez was co-chair of the Legislative Committee, chair of the Finance Committee, and chair of the Emerging Issues Committee.
Nuñez said when he first became involved with Cal Chiefs in 2011 he got into legislative issues.
After the Chiefs hired a lobbyist, Nuñez said he really learned about the legislative and political process in Sacramento.
“I thrived in that environment. I have a degree in public administration,” said Nuñez, who earned his Bachelor of Science at La Verne University and an Executive Master of Leadership (EML) degree from the University of Southern California.
Small town roots
Before making his mark on the larger state issues of politics and law, Nuñez earned his bones as a small town police officer. Although at times in his career he says he tried to get hired on in bigger agencies, he is happy with the way his career played out.
It is tempting to think all police chiefs in burgeoning population areas like Los Angeles and Orange County are from big agencies.
However, within the megalopolises of Southern California are nestled many smaller agencies. In Orange County, 23 of the 34 cities have their own police departments. Next to Villa Park, the smallest of these is Los Alamitos, population 11,780, with a department of 24 sworn officers and six non-sworn employees. Third smallest is La Palma, where Nuñez spent 25 years.
Nuñez entered law enforcement at the advanced age of 29 after stints in the military and the construction and insurance industries. He graduated from Golden West College Police Academy in May 1991, as the Most Inspirational Recruit, Class President, and second in his class overall.
At La Palma, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Chief in 2010. Along the way, he received the La Palma Police Department’s Life Saving Award and was selected as the Officer of the Year in 1994. He also worked on special assignments throughout the department as an officer and/or as a supervisor.
Although he was successful by any measure, he said, in 2016, “I told my wife I wanted to try something different for the last five years (of his career).”
Los Alamitos proved the perfect spot. Similar to La Palma in many ways, including population, crime rate, and pay, Los Alamitos had particular advantages.
Nuñez liked that the agency was highly educated and every officer had at least a four-year college degree, that it was in Orange County, and in an area that he knew well.
“I liked the fact that this community was 100 percent behind their police department,” he said. “I have always had an affinity for the military and having a military base, the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, was another thing that brought me here.”
The city also had a good balance of veteran and young officers.
“It was a good mixture to shape a culture of service that this city expects and we want them to be exposed to,” he said.
Being a small department also has benefits.
Nuñez likened agencies to boats and ships. Large agencies, he said, are like aircraft carriers and need miles to adjust course and turn around.
“With an agency like Los Alamitos it’s kind of like a ski boat, and you can turn on a dime,” he said. “You get immediate gratification from the response and handle and feel of that craft.”
He added, “what comes with that is the relationships you have with your officers and staff. I know every one of the people I work with.”
And those relationships, Nuñez said, are the chief benefit of a small staff.
From a community relations perspective, as well, Nuñez says he is able to have closer ties and communicate directly. Nuñez says residents contact him on his email and he personally responds.
However, big or small, Nuñez said of police agencies, “we all do the same thing.”
Although a small-town police officer often has little opportunity to be nationally recognized, the media spotlight briefly alit on Nuñez.
In 2013, it was learned that mass murderer Christopher Dorner praised Nuñez in his so-called manifesto.
When reminded of the link, Nuñez’s first thoughts go to Dorner’s victims.
Nuñez was a sergeant when he came across Dorner, who was in the La Palma Police Explorers youth volunteer program. In Dorner’s 11,400-word online document, he wrote of Nuñez: “You’re just an awesome person and my first exposure to what law enforcement was really about.”
Nuñez said Dorner would occasionally seek him out, particularly if he felt aggrieved.
“He always had a chip on his shoulder,” Nuñez said, although nothing of the magnitude later displayed.
“I was honest with him,” he said. “I never supported him with his belief that he was a victim.”
Nuñez says he is chagrined when perceived as a “mentor to a monster.”
But it says something about the quality of Nuñez’s character. Despite the haze of madness and paranoia that engulfed Dorner, he recognized the essential honesty in Nuñez and respected him.
Nuñez had police protection for his family and himself during the manhunt and police thought Dorner might seek out Nuñez as an ally.
Nuñez said had that happened, “it would have turned out bad for him.”
Nobility of service
Nuñez is much more interested in talking about policing as a noble profession and the lessons passed on from his father.
Nuñez barely got to know his dad, Army Sgt. Rudolph Algar Nuñez, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1966 when his son was just four years old.
But even in death, Sgt. Nuñez left Police Chief Nuñez a legacy that has lasted a lifetime. Chief Nuñez told Behind the Badge in 2017 that what happened in the aftermath of his father’s death made him the law enforcement leader he is today.
Sgt. Nuñez was leading a reconnaissance patrol when they were caught by surprise. Although likely mortally wounded, Sgt. Nuñez called in an air strike on his position, sacrificing himself but allowing the four other soldiers in his group to escape.
For his heroism, Nuñez was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the South Vietnamese Medal of Valor.
TV news anchorman Dan Rather once said he had three distinct memories of Vietnam:
Arriving in the country and the stark contrast between its natural beauty and the ugliness of war; experiencing the Fall of Saigon; and witnessing the Army Airborne Rangers’ Tiger Force recovery of the body of Army Sgt. Rudolph Algar Nuñez.
To this day, the lessons of the father inform the son and his views of police work, which he calls a “noble profession.”
The willingness of sacrifice, which is something his father heroically displayed, runs through police work in Nuñez’s mind.
“It’s not just being willing to risk your life for someone you don’t know, but someone you don’t like,” he said.
To Nuñez, police work is about “courage, not bravery.”
Courage, he explains, comes from the Latin word “cor,” or “heart.”
“You have to have an open heart and be vulnerable,” he said. “You have to be open and willing to hear what’s being said.”
Although Nuñez announced his intent to retire in April to take effect in June, he has stayed on to allow the city to conduct a thorough search for his successor. His replacement is expected to be sworn in in January, although Nuñez says the name has not yet been made public.
Of course, retirement is relative. Nuñez intends to dive more deeply into a consulting and investigative services company, Reveles USA Inc., that he founded with Mark Gutierrez, a retired supervising investigator with the Orange County District Attorney.
He will also continue to teach POST Certificate classes at Cal State University Long Beach’s Center for Criminal Justice Research and Training.
Nuñez will also be available to help with duties around home, such as picking up and dropping off his 13-year-old daughter, while his wife, Molly, a nurse practitioner, works toward her doctorate
First, however, is an already booked vacation to Europe.
For the small town officer, it will be his first vacation outside of the North American continent.