Over his 36 1/2 years in law enforcement, Ralph Ornelas has seen the benefits of working closely with communities to help reduce crime and serve residents.
Now, as the Westminster Police Department’s new police chief, his commitment to community is unwavering.
“Developing a relationship and trust equates to effectiveness,” said Ornelas, adding that to “provide excellent service” to the community is part of that relationship building.
Gregarious and quick to smile, the 59-year-old Ornelas spent his law enforcement career at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he held various assignments, including at Men’s Central Jail, the Recruit Training Bureau, the Gang Unit, the Narcotics Bureau and even on international gang and drug initiatives with the FBI.
He came out of retirement after taking a year off from law enforcement on March 13, his first day as the new head of Westminster PD. He wasn’t quite ready to officially retire from law enforcement.
“I think I have something I still want to give,” he said, adding that the 2016 shootings of Dallas and Baton Rouge police officers also played a role in his decision to return to police work. “I feel I can contribute.”
During his first week, Ornelas has been getting the lay of the land – driving around the city, attending city and police events and agency briefings. He’s impressed with the amount of community outreach the agency is already involved in and wants to continue that level of open communication with residents.
“We need to continue building bridges,” he said.
He’s seen first hand how community-based policing can help law enforcement do its job while protecting the city.
Ornelas recalled when he was a special assignment sergeant at the Bellflower substation that there was an area gang terrorizing a neighborhood. Gang members vandalized roofs of homes, stole property and cars, and generally scared residents.
“They were living in fear,” he said.
Ornelas, who first learned about the concept of community policing from his late uncle, Gabriel, who worked for the LAPD, thought it was time to involve residents. He and his team knocked on doors to let individuals know they would be having a community meeting at the substation. About nine residents showed up and let the officers and sergeant know what had been going on. Because gang members had been shooting guns off, one resident even told of how she put her baby in her bathtub for protection from gunfire.
After a couple of the substation’s investigators got to know the granddaughter of one of the residents, who they learned was being taken advantage of by gang members, the granddaughter took her grandfather home with her, out of the neighborhood.
City code enforcement got involved and also started helping clean up the area.
“Community and police working together to come together to solve it,” Ornelas said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Some of Ornelas’ community outreach goals at the WPD include reaching out to faith-based organizations in the community, as well as to the Latino and Vietnamese populations, to expand the agency’s social media efforts, and also to reinstate the Citizens’ Academy – which he sees as a great way for residents to learn about how local law enforcement trains and about the work they do.
Beyond community outreach initiatives, Ornelas plans to work to get employees trained on the most up-to-date techniques and tools for conflict resolution, survival methods and on handling mental health calls, among other forms of training. Another important goal for Ornelas is encouraging increased female representation at the agency. There currently is one female sergeant and five female officers working at the agency.
Ornelas’ career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began in 1979, which is also the year he moved to California from New York. After becoming a deputy sheriff, he was assigned to Men’s Central Jail, Carson Station and Recruit Training Bureau. In 1992, he became a sergeant, serving at Lakewood Station, the Recruitment Unit and Recruit Training Bureau. When he promoted to lieutenant in 2000, he was assigned to Lennox Station, Operation Safe Streets Bureau – the Gang Unit – and Detective Division, where he served as chief’s aide.
On Friday, June 24, 2005 at 3 p.m., when Ornelas was a lieutenant, Deputy Jerry Ortiz was killed in Hawaiian Gardens.
“Jerry was one of my recruits … great young man,” said Ornelas.
Ortiz had been married a month. The news hit Ornelas hard. He requested to initiate a federal investigation into the deputy’s death because of its link to gangs in the area.
“It turned out to be one of the most successful federal investigations in the history of the United States,” Ornelas said, adding that the FBI was among the federal partners his team worked with on the case.
In November 2006, Ornelas was asked to work on an assessment of the El Salvador Police Department, which was a coalition of academia, military and guerrilla groups. From that, he and two FBI agents had the idea of working collaboratively with Central American countries on gang and drug initiatives. The Central American Law Enforcement Exchange Program was formed in 2007 and still exists.
“We have to share communication with each other,” he said regarding the idea behind the program. “The pandillas [gangs]are communicating every day.”
In 2009, Ornelas promoted to captain and commanded the Narcotics Bureau. He was later in charge of the Men’s Central Jail. He was promoted to commander in July 2013, at which point he oversaw four jail facilities at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic and later, the mental health facility at Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the women’s facility at the Century Regional Detention Center.
During his year off in 2016, Ornelas taught middle management courses on leadership, ethics, and on the role of a middle manager as a part-time instructor at The Regional Training Center in San Diego. He also started a lacrosse league in Los Angeles for children in the Compton/Willowbrook area, which he used to patrol in the early ’80s. Residents in the area who now are parents recognize him from his younger days as a deputy.
Ornelas, a resident of Huntington Beach for 32 years, has been married to his wife, Susan, for 37 1/2 years. They have two adult children, Kristin, 31, and Gabriel, 29.
He is excited about his upcoming swearing-in ceremony on March 29 and only wishes his parents and uncle could be there. His father, Rafael (known as “Rocky” by friends and family), who worked for the NYPD, passed away Oct. 28, 2000. His uncle, Gabriel, passed away Jan. 8.
“My heroes,” he said. “Two great men.”