14 YEARS OF FIRE : Outspoken Police Chief Ends a Sometimes Controversial, Often Lauded Reign

Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana Police Chief Raymond C. Davis hoisted his sizable frame from behind his desk to greet a visitor. "Before we start, let me say that you won't have Ray Davis to kick around anymore," he said.

He's right in one sense. Davis will retire in April, ending a 14-year stint at the helm of the police force in Orange County's most crime-plagued city.

But he's way off target in another. Nobody kicks Ray Davis around.

The 54-year-old Davis is frequently controversial, internationally known for innovative policies on law enforcement, well-liked by many upper-level police officers, and is both criticized and feared by many of the rank and file police officers. And he is always willing to tell you exactly what he thinks. "That's probably one of my biggest faults," he said. "I tell people what I think."

Once, for example, he responded to criticism from within his department by saying, "I'd love to be respected; but in the absence of respect, fear will do nicely."

When a citizen argued to city officials in a letter a few years ago that Davis was breaking the law by not cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the chief fired off a letter.

"Should you make any further accusations that I have violated the law, you shall do so at your own civil peril," he wrote, concluding with a warning to the accuser that "my advice to you is to tread lightly."

During a recent interview, the outspoken police chief showed that he has lost none of his penchant for breathing a little fire.

When questioned about that letter, which is by no means the only missive he has fired at critical constituents, Davis made no apologies.

"My response is 'courtesy begets courtesy,' " he said. "I'm not going to sit there and have somebody write a letter to me full of falsehoods and accusations and write them back a letter saying 'thank you for your thoughts.' You be courteous to me, I'll be courteous to you. But if you're not courteous to me, I don't care who you are, political figure or whatever, I'm going to tell you what I think."

Of the "fear will do nicely" comment made a few years ago, Davis said he was joking. But he proceeded to characterize his foes within the department as officers who have been disciplined and have an ax to grind. "Those people, I don't really care whether they like me or not," he said, adding that, "If you're loved by every person in the Police Department, then I don't think as a manager you're doing your job."

Many of his critics, gleeful at the prospect of a new chief, say they hope to see the Police Department declare a truce with the INS and reverse Davis' policy against cooperating with immigration sweeps in Santa Ana, where at least one-fourth the city's population is estimated to be undocumented aliens. But Davis predicts nothing will change.

When an illegal alien jumps the fence in San Ysidro, he commits a federal misdemeanor, Davis pointed out. But to arrest someone for a federal misdemeanor, a police officer has to actually witness the violation, a tough job for a policeman in Santa Ana, he said.

Davis' policy "sends the wrong message out that if you're an illegal, you're safe in Santa Ana," said Robert Moschorak, INS associate regional commissioner. "The chief's policy gives the false impression that the city is a sanctuary."

Davis argued that his policy is in no way an open invitation to come to Santa Ana. Latinos come to Santa Ana because of the city's Latino heritage and available housing. "They're not going to go to Beverly Hills," he said.

Deportations Useless

Sweeps and deportations of undocumented residents are useless, Davis said, because most will be back within 72 hours. The only result is that they'll have to pay "coyotes" to bring them back into the country, putting them deeper in debt and more easily prone to crime, Davis argued.

Although the department doesn't keep such statistics, he admitted that "a lot" of undocumented residents are involved in crime. However, he argued, crime is inevitable for any large transient population.

The solution, he said, is to put more money and more men on the border. Sweeps, he said, are "like bailing your boat when you've got a big hole in your boat, and you continue to bail instead of trying to fix the hole . . .

"But to try to make people think that you're going to help the community because you do a sweep at an intersection--what you're doing is you're letting people take their frustrations out upon a group of people that are different. They're a different culture, a different color, a different race, a different language."

Return Is a Matter of Days

Harold Ezell, the INS' Western regional commissioner, admitted that most of the people bused back over the border return to the United States in a matter of days. But he defended the sweeps anyway. The government cannot simply turn its back on the problem, he said, adding that a new immigration bill passed by Congress last year will make a big difference by beefing up border security and providing for sanctions against employers who knowingly hire the undocumented.

Ezell said he believes citizens are outraged by Davis' appointment of an undocumented resident as a Neighborhood Watch block captain and the employment of a police officer, Jose Vargas, who acts as "an advocate" for that group of residents.

The pressure in Santa Ana, which he described as "a city under siege," is so great, Ezell said, he believes that city officials will look for a new chief who will cooperate with the INS. "I don't think Santa Ana is going to miss Ray Davis more than 24 hours," he said.

However, Mayor Dan Young stressed that he and other officials have no agenda for a new chief. Young said the city's policy is going to have change anyway in light of the new laws, and city officials will have to analyze what the role of the Police Department will be and which residents will qualify for amnesty.

"You have to realize that, even if Ray were to stay, a lot of (the Police Department's policy) would have to change," Young said, adding that he believes that policy was "right at the time, given the circumstances he was dealing with."

Withering Fire of Criticism

Davis stresses that he doesn't advocate complete non-cooperation with the INS. In the case of criminals who are illegal aliens, the department seeks prosecution and jail time. If they can't be tried, the INS is alerted for possible deportation. If they're jailed, the INS is asked to deport them upon their release.

But the withering fire of criticism keeps coming.

"This policy is obsolete," said Mike Sokolski, a resident and vocal supporter of INS sweeps. "It didn't bring any relief in the crime rate. Our robbery rate grows at 50% per year. This is the most dangerous crime because you have a personal encounter with a criminal who threatens your life."

Many rank-and-file police officers believe that increased cooperation with the INS will help them battle the high crime rates in the undocumented community. "We'd rather work with them than against them," said one officer who asked not to be identified.

INS associate regional commissioner Moschorak said he believes that a majority of Santa Ana's police officers tend to cooperate with sweeps despite Davis' order and added that INS officials are attempting to "rebuild what was a good relationship" through informal contact with upper-level management in the department. "I think that any law enforcement activity is made much stronger if everyone cooperates," he said.

Plenty of Supporters

The heavy-set Davis has plenty of supporters, though, and most council members praise him as a highly competent administrator who has brought reknown to the department through his innovations and saved the city millions of dollars by "privatizing" many police functions. Mayor Young called him one of the top five police chiefs in the nation.

His support is such in the community that, after the police association had issued a no-confidence vote in 1983, civic and business leaders held a press conference to lavish praise on Davis.

Immigrant activist Nativo Lopez noted that his position on the INS runs "against the current of opinion even within the police force. . . . It was a very admirable position that endeared him to (Latinos) who had been critical of the department."

Former Santa Ana Police Lt. Woody Williams, now the police chief of Porterville, Calif., called Davis a "genius" of management abilities. Williams stressed that a secret to Davis' success is his ability to listen and incorporate the ideas from his top managers.

Another big admirer is former Santa Ana City Manager Robert C. Bobb. Speaking by telephone from his new post in Richmond, Va., Bobb called Davis "one of the best police chiefs in the United States, bar none." Bobb said Davis' close friends know that his tough guy stance covers a softer side. "He's just a big pussycat," Bobb said.

Bobb said Davis' Community Oriented Policing (COP) program--which stresses Neighborhood Watch programs, police patrolling on foot, assigning teams of officers to specific areas of the city and hiring more civilians--changed the role of the cop from the "hard-nosed police officer who's strictly (for) law and order to one who is also hard-nosed and (for) law and order, but also cares about the community."

Inadequate Backup

However, Sgt. Donald Blankenship, president of the Santa Ana Police Benevolent Assn. which represents officers in labor negotiations, said civilianization and Neighborhood Watch programs mean little to an officer facing criminals without adequate backup. The reverse side of Davis' programs is that there are fewer officers on the street in relation to the number of crimes, Blankenship said, adding that some graveyard shifts have only 6 to 10 officers on patrol.

"Crime has unfortunately become a way of life for Santa Ana citizens," Blankenship said. "As one sergeant put it . . . the other night--on most weekends, we experience more action in Santa Ana than in Beirut. That may be a joke . . . but the fact of the matter is, we're dancing as fast as we can."

Blankenship noted that Santa Ana was the crime capital of Orange County when Davis arrived and upon his retirement it still holds that position.

FBI statistics show that total "Part One Crimes"--homicide, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft--increased from 20,657 in 1982 to 23,204 last year. Although burglaries dropped, robberies rose and auto thefts more than doubled.

Over the same period, however, the population of Santa Ana rose from about 214,500 to 225,774. And that figure doesn't include the burgeoning population of undocumented residents, whose numbers range from 30,000 to 100,000 people, depending on which agency is doing the estimating. On a per capita basis, there's been a reduction, Davis argues.

In any case, Davis brushes off calls for change.

Go Back to Knocking Heads

"You always have your 10% who'd like to go back to knocking heads. And you'll hear them say, 'Well, let's go back to the traditional way,' " the chief said.

"Well, what's that? It's knocking people down and spread-eagling them. You know, we were killing about 12 people a year when I first got here. Now, we only have two or three police-involved incidents a year and we've doubled in size. You know it used to be, 14 years ago, you'd hear it in the locker room--'Who are we going to blow up tonight?' or you'd hear 'Put chalk on the front blade of your sight cause it shows up good on a black back.' "

An imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and well over 300 pounds, Davis began his career in 1954 as a motorcycle officer in neighboring Fullerton. In those days, the department had only one bike and two officers shared it, one riding during the day and the other at night.

While in Fullerton, Davis had his biggest scare when he struck a car that pulled in front of him while he was rushing to an accident scene. He flew over the car about 30 feet in the air, breaking an elbow and several other bones.

He suffered no head injuries although he recalled that he only wore the required cloth cap (there were no helmets at the time). "The (Police Benevolent Assn.) will say that's what happened to me--I landed on my head," Davis joked.

He went on to become chief in Walnut Creek in Northern California, where he served for eight years. He assumed the top job in Santa Ana in 1973.

Plans to Fish

Davis and his wife, Mary Jo, make frequent trips to his favorite vacation spot, Bullhead City, Ariz., where they bought property about a year ago and have a mobile home. For the immediate future, he plans to take it easy and spend a lot of time fishing. "I can have the boat in the Colorado River in about 15 minutes from my place and be fishing in a half-hour," he said.

As for rumors that the longtime Santa Ana resident might try his hand in the local political arena, Davis said he hasn't given it much thought--yet.

"I don't know," Davis said. "Anything you do in this city is political. I'll have to meet with folks in the community and see what I can do. I've got the time and I've got a pretty good investment in this city."

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