Surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues, four Westminster PD employees were sworn in to their new positions by Chief Ralph Ornelas during a ceremony Feb. 22 at the Westminster Rose Center.
The evening ceremony began with an invocation by WPD police chaplain Pastor Robert Benoun.
“These promotions are a reflection of the individual — of who they are and who they continue to be,” he told the audience.
Ornelas welcomed those in attendance, including friends and family, the mayor and members of the city council as well as police chiefs from other agencies.
He asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the recent Florida shooting.
“Westminster Police Department, my officers and sergeants, have been diligent since that day to visit the schools — to make them feel safe,” he said, adding that part of those visits have involved classes on active-shooter training.
The four who received promotions are Andy Stowers, who became a sergeant; Phuong Pham, who also became a sergeant; Cord Vandergrift, who became a commander; and Al Panella, who became a deputy chief.
Sgt. Andy Stowers
Stowers joined the WPD in 2006 and has worked a variety of assignments, including patrol, field training officer (FTO) and gang detective. He was also a member of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Cal State Fullerton and a master of arts degree in coaching and athletic administration from Concordia University.
His wife, Corrine, pinned his new badge.
“He’s worked very hard,” she told Behind the Badge.
Stowers said one of his goals is to help the younger officers move forward and upward in their own careers. He said he’s going to “try to go out there and be a good leader.”
Sgt. Phuong Pham
Born and raised in Vietnam, Pham was 11 years old when he left with his father on a boat seeking freedom in the United States. Growing up, he never thought of becoming a police officer until he was about to graduate from college.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in international business and finance from Cal Poly Pomona, Pham only submitted his application to one agency: Westminster PD. He wanted to use his language and understanding of the Vietnamese culture to make a difference. Throughout his more than 18 years at the agency, he’s worked patrol, West County SWAT, DARE/school resource officer (SRO), and public information officer and in special investigations.
Pham’s wife of more than 15 years, Susie, pinned his badge. His three children, his mother-in-law, and his father, Thanh, were also in the audience.
“This is a very big honor,” Pham told Behind the Badge.
He said he joined the department because he wanted to help bridge the gap with the Vietnamese community. He said part of his job involves helping Vietnamese residents “who don’t understand law enforcement in the United States.”
“I wanted to help the community,” he said.
Now that he will be taking on a more supervisory role, he said, “I want to share my knowledge with [officers]about the community and what worked for me.
“It’s an honor for me to be able to do that,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity for me to help this department move forward.”
He also wants to help serve as a role model for children in the community, seeing how far he came from his own humble beginnings.
“I want [those]kids to look at me and see that if you work hard and you follow your dreams and follow your goals, it is possible,” he said.
Commander Cord Vandergrift
After graduating from Golden West Police Academy, Vandergrift started his career with the WPD in 1996. As an officer, Vandergrift worked several assignments, including in traffic, metro, and administrative services. In 2006, Vandergrift was promoted to sergeant and supervised various units, including patrol, detectives, and the Professional Standards Unit. Vandergrift has also been part of the agency’s field training program and West County SWAT, for which he is now commander.
Throughout his career, Vandergrift has played a large role at the Golden West Police Academy, where he’s been a recruit training officer, physical fitness instructor, range staff member, and SWAT Academy instructor. He has a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Long Beach and a master’s degree from Gonzaga University. He is also a graduate of the Sherman Block Leadership Institute.
His wife of 15 years, Leann, pinned his badge.
Vandergrift told Behind the Badge that he looks forward to the new work ahead.
“I’m taking over the East Side Command,” he said.
Deputy Chief Al Panella
A resident of Westminster since age 2, Panella has deep roots in the community. He attended all the local schools and graduated from Westminster High School in 1986. He started his career at the WPD in 1988. At the age of 14, he became a Westminster Police Explorer, serving for six years and ultimately earning the rank of captain. At 18, he was hired as a WPD intern, working in forensics and animal control.
Panella has worked a variety of assignments, including patrol, FTO, the Metro Team Task Force, detective, sergeant, watch commander, crisis negotiator, West County SWAT Team leader and commander, special operations and traffic commander, Professional Standards Unit commander, and Detective Division commander. Panella holds a bachelor of science degree in administration of justice and a master of arts degree in leadership. He is a graduate of the California POST Supervisor Leadership Institute, California POST Command College, and West Point Leadership in Police Organizations course, where he is certified as an instructor. He also holds an executive leadership certificate from Cornell University, and is a certified instructor at the Golden West Police Academy.
His wife of more than 27 years, Michelle, and his son, Nathan, a Westminster Police Explorer, were in attendance. His oldest son, Joseph, wasn’t in attendance because he is currently serving in the United States Marine Corps. Nathan, in his Explorer uniform, pinned his father’s badge.
“I’m just so excited to be able to lead at the deputy chief level … it’s a blessing,” Panella told Behind the Badge. “I was an explorer here at 14, so this has been my home as long as I can remember.”
“Westminster has definitely been a part of my DNA,” he said.
Ornelas concluded the ceremony by thanking everyone in attendance.
“As you see, law enforcement is kind of a family affair,” he told the audience. “It’s truly a great occupation to be in … it’s a calling.”