POLICE CHIEF ERIC NUÑEZ - Los Alamitos, CA
"People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."
Officer Nuñez raced to the scene of an active, butcher-knife attack.
Inside the home, he found a teenage girl clinging to life, deep knife
wounds to her chest… the smell of gun smoke… a blood- soaked
floor… and the corpse of the attacker. An officer, gun in hand, stood
catatonic, against the wall. He had stopped the killer—a young
man, who had continued stabbing a victim, despite multiple gun
shots to his back. A shot to his head had finally ended the carnage.
“John*, it’s Eric,” Nuñez announced to his fellow officer (*name changed, for officer’s privacy). He gently wrapped his hands over John’s hands, and made sure that the officer holstered up. As protocol, Nuñez needed to take John’s
gun for evidence—but he promptly supplied John with another gun to fill his holster. “When you have to take the life of another human being, you are flooded with overwhelming emotions,” Nuñez shares. “I had to make sure that John didn’t feel like he was guilty of something. I wanted him to feel whole as an officer.”
Nuñez was no stranger to violence and its related emotional trauma. At twelve, he witnessed a gang-rumble, “like two armies clashing”; boy lay in the street, his head split open. As a teenager, Nuñez resembled a Samoan warrior; long hair and a footballer’s physique (his heritage is actually a mix of Yaqui Indian, English, Filipino and Mexican). But the only “battle” he did was on the football field.
In the L.A. riots. Nuñez was deployed into a virtual “war zone.” Fires, smoke and pillaging mobs raged. Nuñez and his fellow officers were repeatedly fired upon. In the chaos, Nuñez became lost in the maze of a gigantic, slum project. A door flew open--an elderly black lady, who prayed for his safety, and urged him to leave. “It’s crazy out there. This is no place for the police.” His heart broke for all the innocent citizens “just trying to survive.”
Urgent calls to duty can occur at any moment. Nuñez responded to one call of teenagers--armed with assault weapons--running toward a school campus. The teens raced toward Nuñez, brandishing an AK47 and an assault rifle. Nuñez shouldered his AR 15 rifle. “Drop your weapons! On your knees, hands up!” he commanded. One assailant complied. The other teen dropped his weapon, but remained standing. The teen yelled something incoherent—then reached into his waist band and extracted a hand gun. Nuñez’s heart raced and pounded; he took a deep breath, and began to squeeze down on his trigger. Nuñez beheld the teenager’s face in his rifle sights; that kid is my son’s age, he agonized, in a conflicted rush of emotions.
The teen pointed the gun… the trigger on Nuñez’s rifle was a hair’s breadth away from firing a round. “Drop it!” The teen opened his hand. The gun fell into the grass. Nuñez relaxed his trigger finger.
The teens were carrying Airsoft guns. Visually identical to real assault weapons. Nuñez later confided to his then-chief, “I almost killed that kid today.” Nuñez’s coffee cup shook violently in his hands, dousing the carpet in a deep stain.
In police vernacular, it would have been a “good shoot.” But Nuñez couldn’t rest at that. He was thereafter the catalyst to amend Penal Code 626.10, banning Airsoft and other “Less Than Lethal Weapons” on school grounds and public property.
Strapping on a gun and badge is just an officer’s superficial layer. A cop’s job is overwhelmingly profound in its physical, psychological and emotional demands. Officers must be teachers, psychiatrists, physical guardians. They are held to unrealistic standards of omnipotent perfection--despite a world of unpredictable dangers that they can’t possibly control or predict.
One of Nuñez’s special talents is bonding with other people. “Never talk down to people. Relate to them on their own level,” says Nuñez. He is known to chat for hours with arrestees, to encourage self-reflection and accountability. Nuñez has a reputation for helping to turn around people’s lives, as attested to by numerous arrestees.
Nuñez’s “good guy, heroic” character is rooted in his parents. His father, Sgt. Rudolph Nuñez, was a highly-decorated war hero. The family lived on Fort MacArthur military base, where Nuñez was surrounded by might and discipline. He was only four years old when his father deployed to Vietnam and was killed in action. Nuñez recalls his mother’s devastation. The crying of his baby brothers. Visitors paying their respects. Soldiers told him, “You’re the man of the house, now.” In subsequent years, despite a very humble household, Nuñez watched his mother take in, and aid, a stream of people. Nuñez took it all to heart, striving to be the dependable “rock” for his family—and ultimately, a “rock” for the community.
Class President at the Police Academy. Voted “Most Inspirational Recruit.” Officer of the Year. Credited with saving multiple lives. Volunteer high school football coach, where “tough” footballers line up with teary eyes to hug Nuñez after the season’s last game (thankful for his inspirational leadership). Active in innumerable children’s charities and police outreach programs, including the Casa Youth Shelter (where he is a long-term Board member). Service as President of the O.C. Chiefs of Police & Sheriffs Association (this led me to dub him, “Chief of Chiefs”). An Executive Master of Leadership from USC, including a published thesis, Recruiting for Emotional-Social Intelligence (ESI): Enhancing Leadership, Performance, Community Trust, and Savings Lives.
I asked Chief Nuñez to explain his law enforcement success. Nuñez contemplatively replies, “It’s not because I'm the smartest, strongest, or have the most courage. In some cases, I wasn't even the most qualified. I think it's because people know I care about them. I believe wholeheartedly in the credo, ‘leave no man behind.’ Growing up, I felt such a responsibility for my family. And feeling responsible for others, has permeated everything in my life. My brothers always saw me as the strict one, the serious one. People call me a natural born leader. But I don't think so. I think that I just took the values of my mother and father to heart. I try to live by those values.”
Postscript: I had the great honor of serving as Keynote speaker at the Los Alamitos Police Officer’s Appreciation Luncheon. The experience was humbling and deeply emotional. It felt as if I were speaking to a room of officers, all of whom were part of Chief Nuñez’s family. He told me, “They are.”
Michael L. Baroni
PROFILES of OUR HEROES - by Michael L. Baroni
POLICE CHIEF TOM KISELA - Orange, CA
"You’re a human being and you’re entitled to respect, professionalism
and our Constitutional legal protections."
“Law and Order”
In policing, “law and order” used to mean tough, no-
nonsense cops patrolling the streets and busting “bad guys.”
A flaw in this simplistic approach to combatting crime, is
that it can create an “us versus them” mentality in the
minds of certain citizenry--especially those in poorer,
In Orange County, California, however, police departments
have long-embraced the concept of “community policing”
(i.e., building close bonds with the community, to foster
trust and cooperation, resulting in more successful crime
control). Initially, police had to break their myopic view of
“law and order” and begin to think “outside the box.” They retrained, re-budgeted, enhanced volunteerism, and searched for ways to create positive interactions with the community.
For example, Orange County police perform K-9 (police dog) demonstrations, visit schools, host fairs and public events, engage in gang prevention and neighborhood watch, keep the public connected with newsletters and social media, teach safety programs (bicycles, coyotes, firearms, etc.), perform an astonishing array of charitable endeavors, and more.
Tom Kisela, Orange's Police Chief, tells me, “In policing, we used to arrest our way out of problems. Now we invest in our community, and prevent crimes.” He offers an apt analogy: “If flies are swarming in your house, you need to find the cause and address it. You don't just keep going after the flies, one-by-one, allowing the underlying problem to fester.”
Orange Police & Hispanic Outreach
A prime example of successful, community policing is the City of Orange's Police Department Hispanic Outreach, launched in 2005. This program brings together a bevy of Orange officers with dozens of Orange’s Hispanic residents. Most of these citizen “recruits” come through the Friendly Center, a non-profit established in 1924, which provides a variety of services to low-income families (see www.FriendlyCenter.org).
Hispanic Outreach participants attend a three-hour, evening class once a week, for several weeks. Spanish-speaking police instructors help guide every class. They learn about all facets of “their” police department. They get up-close-and-personal with crime scene investigative tactics, gang behavior, K-9 unit demonstrations, the inside of a police car, effectuating arrests, calling 911, and understanding the ever-present dangers officers face. They become comfortable with police officers, building trust and bonding with them as fellow human beings. They grasp the enormity of a police officer's dangers, stresses and challenges. And they learn the value of police-community relationships.
"The wall comes down," one officer tells me. "Instead, we stand united, to everyone's greater benefit."
Chief Kisela shares his philosophy behind the Hispanic Outreach effort. “We have a significant Hispanic population, here in Orange. Many do not speak English. Some are not here legally. But I don’t care what your status is. You’re a human being and you’re entitled to respect, professionalism and our Constitutional legal protections, just like anyone else. Realize that some of our residents come to this country with a fear of law enforcement. We want them to know that here in America, in Orange, we are here for them.”
Chief Kisela and Captain Jeff Burton both emphasize that the personal interaction between officers and attendees is a “beautiful thing” to witness. “Many begin the program a little nervous and intimidated,” says Kisela. “But with friendly officer interactions, they quickly warm up and then they light up.”
The sincerity of Chief Kisela’s message resonates with other Orange officers and the program participants. At a recent graduation ceremony, Chief Kisela handed out diplomas to each participant, and told them, “You are part of our community. This is your police department just as much as it is anybody else’s.” Chief Kisela proudly recalls: “They are wildly excited about the graduation ceremony. They feel so much pride. They get all dressed up. They feel so invested in the community. Then they share the information with their children and neighbors, and continue to build bridges for us as a united community.”
Police Captain Jeff Burton echoes these sentiments. “The participants get close and friendly with the officers. They get to see how much we care, and that we’re people too, with challenging jobs. They lose that fear and distrust of law enforcement. They’re more likely to call us or assist us, and that good will spreads in the community.”
Citizens Academies at Other Orange County, California Police Departments
Orange also offers a generalized Citizens Academy (open to all residents), which is similar in structure to its Hispanic Outreach. Likewise, most O.C. police departments have their own Citizens Academy, including Irvine, Laguna Beach, Anaheim, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Costa Mesa, Westminster, Santa Ana, San Clemente, and the O.C. Sheriffs Department (which provides supplemental services to the smaller townships). Tustin has a Spanish Academy (to cater to their large Latino population). La Palma has a Citizens Academy focused on their Korean population. Newport Beach has a Teens Academy. In sum, these programs provide unique, “inside” looks at policing, with jail tours, simulated car stop, firearms instruction, ride-alongs, SWAT tactics, booking arrestees, fingerprinting and more.
“Community” is a Partnership
All of the Orange County police chiefs I’ve spoken to in the last year have commented that their police department exists to serve their community, and that the police and their community must have a “partnership” to effectively prevent and combat crime. They all emphasize that “building trust” is critical to serving the community, and how this mentality in policing has fueled numerous initiatives to spur personal connections between officers and community.
Chief Kisela says, “I just love getting out into the community, talking to people, and seeing graduates of our Hispanic Outreach, who smile and wave when they see me. For some, it’s like they’ve come out of the shadows. They have a sense of belonging and citizenship. Seeing them happy makes me happy.”
Honoring all of the Brave and Honorable
Men & Women of Law Enforcement