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Long Beach gets its first Latino police chief

Robert Luna, 29-year Long Beach Police Department vet, takes over as chief as Jim McDonnell becomes sheriff

Long Beach officials announced Tuesday that a top deputy police chief has been selected to head the city's Police Department and will become the first Latino to run the law enforcement agency.

Robert G. Luna, a 29-year department veteran, takes over from Jim McDonnell, who sailed to victory last week in the race for Los Angeles County sheriff.

Luna's career with the department has seen him work in gang investigations, homicide and SWAT, among other assignments. He currently oversees the Patrol Bureau and has been second in command to McDonnell.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said that while Luna's appointment is an important moment for the city's Latino residents, the new chief will focus on the safety of the city as a whole.

About 41% of the 52-square-mile city's 463,000 residents are Latino, officials said.

"I have 100% confidence that Chief Luna will lead our department with integrity, strength and commitment to community policing," Garcia told reporters as he announced the appointment. "He will ensure that we build a department for the 21st century."

Luna, 48, said he was raised in East Los Angeles and that his family lived in poverty.

"I never knew I was poor," Luna said. "Everyone was kind of the same, so you couldn't really tell."

He said many residents where he grew up were distrustful of the police.

"It was an us-versus-them mentality," Luna said. "Some of my interactions with the police as a young man weren't very good."

Luna said those experiences would help him when handling some of Long Beach's communities that he says remind him of his childhood neighborhood.

The city's Police Department has about 800 sworn officers and a staff totaling more than 1,200, officials said.

Luna, who will make $238,000, said that as chief he would continue the work of his predecessor.

McDonnell was an outsider in 2010 when he took over as the head of the department. He came from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he had worked as a top assistant to Chief William J. Bratton.

He quickly won praise in Long Beach for leading the city's Police Department through budget cuts and reducing crime to a 41-year low. Many credited him with being accessible and forging strong ties with community leaders.

But the department also came in for criticism after several controversial officer-involved shootings.

Among them was the 2010 killing of Douglas Zerby, 35, as he sat playing with a pistol-grip water nozzle. Officers mistook the nozzle for a weapon and opened fire when he pointed it in their direction.

The two officers who shot Zerby were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation, and the Los Angeles County district attorney concluded they had reasonably feared for their lives. But Zerby's family won a $6.5-million civil judgment in a civil rights lawsuit filed over his death.

Luna said that officer-involved shootings were down this year, and that he would hold officers accountable for their actions.

Luna became interested in law enforcement when he started watching police shows like "Adam-12," he said.

At 18, he attended a career day at Long Beach Community College, where a sergeant told him how he could become an officer.

"To think you dreamed of being a police officer, and then to now think you've reached the top of an organization you love," Luna said. "I owe the city so much, and what a great way to repay it."

Luna holds a master's degree in public policy and administration and a bachelor's of science from Cal State Long Beach.

He will officially take charge of the department on Nov. 22.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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