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Police Move to Calm Latino Liaison Uproar : Santa Ana Go-Between Had Departed Abruptly

Times Staff Writer

When Jose Vargas, the Santa Ana Police Department’s link to the city’s burgeoning Latino community, took a sudden leave of absence last month, the local Spanish-language press wanted to know why.

“Donde esta (Where is) Jose Vargas? " said a headline in El Sol Latino, a Santa Ana weekly.

“Que pasa con (What is happening with) Jose Vargas? " asked Fernando Velo, publisher and columnist for Azteca News in this week’s edition.

La Opinion, an influential Los Angeles daily, thought it had the answer: An article published April 30 said Vargas, through his attorney, had said that Santa Ana Police Chief Clyde L. Cronkhite “has initiated a racist campaign against the Latino community of that city” and was encouraging the Immigration and Naturalization Service to round up illegal aliens.

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Vargas and his attorney, Carolyn Ann Young, said they never said anything remotely close to that.

So what happened to Santa Ana’s most celebrated police officer?

Vargas said he was not at liberty to talk about his case. But his attorney and several friends who have rallied around Vargas said his abrupt departure was a result of a gradual deterioration of his status that began with the retirement last year of Chief Raymond C. Davis, to whom Vargas had easy access.

Vargas’ slide hit bottom several weeks ago when Lt. Robert Chavez, his new supervisor, tried to rein in some of his activities and told him to reduce his ties to illegal aliens, his supporters said.

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Vargas was ready to leave the department for good, according to his friends. But a group of Latino community leaders met with Cronkhite and worked out a solution that will bring Vargas back to work Monday, a spokesman for the group said.

They have scheduled a press conference today with police officials, who have thus far refused to comment, to announce that the problems have been solved, at least for now.

“I don’t know if people realize this, but Jose Vargas has become a tradition in this community,” said Al Amezcua, a longtime Santa Ana resident active in Latino issues. “Anytime there is an issue having to do with police and Hispanics, the first person we think of is Jose Vargas.”

Born in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Vargas has an unusual background for a police officer. He was arrested and deported a dozen times before finally obtaining legal residency after marrying a U.S. citizen. He worked on a garbage truck while learning English and going to school, and he joined the Stanton Police Department when he became a U.S. citizen in 1969.

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In 1975, he came to the Santa Ana Police Department. Two years later he was named one of the top 10 police officers in the country by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police. In 1979, Chief Davis made Vargas the first full-time Latino affairs officer in the county--essentially giving a title and official credibility to the work he was already doing.

Through a multitude of personal contacts and his own column in the weekly newspaper Miniondas, Vargas has become the department’s most visible bridge to about 80,000 illegal aliens, as well as to the established Latino community in Santa Ana.

In his columns, Vargas tries to teach recent immigrants about differences in law and custom between the United States and Mexico. Drinking beer in public or shooting guns into the air are crimes here, Vargas writes, and auto insurance is required of every motorist.

At his office next to City Hall, Vargas fields dozens of calls and visitors a day, answering questions, offering advice, explaining to a distraught spouse that marital infidelity is not a prosecutable crime.

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City Councilman John Acosta, one of two Latinos on the council, said he has personally referred dozens of people to Vargas.

“His whole life was working with the undocumented population. It was an arrangement that made the undocumenteds feel very, very comfortable reporting situations such as nonpayment of wages, unscrupulous car dealers. . . . You name it, Jose was there to help take care of it.

“I’m just sorry to say he’s not on the job performing his duties,” Acosta continued. “I certainly look forward to him being back on the job.”

Under Davis, Vargas had a considerable amount of freedom to do his job as he saw fit, reporting directly to the chief or to Capt. Robert Stebbins, who is now head of investigations.

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With Davis’ retirement, that changed. A box of business cards was dumped on Vargas’ desk last spring. The new cards no longer said Vargas worked for the office of the chief; now, he was squarely in the community services department, under the supervision of department spokesman Chavez, said a source close to the situation.

Sources close to Vargas said Chavez began demanding a strict accounting of Vargas’ time and questioned some of his activities. On one occasion, Vargas had been requested to show a Mexican official from the Los Angeles Consulate the pickup spots in Orange County where illegal aliens congregate daily to look for work. Chavez said he could not do that, the sources said.

“He was told that he couldn’t talk to undocumented workers,” said Young, Vargas’ lawyer, who filed a worker’s compensation claim on his behalf. “He’s very concerned about that community, and he wasn’t going to be able to communicate freely.”

Chavez would say only that “there was apparently some confusion, and that’s going to be brought out” at the press conference today.

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Cronkhite also declined to comment.

The press conference came as a result of a meeting that included Latino community leaders, Cronkhite and City Manager David N. Ream to discuss Vargas’ role in the department.

Those attending the April 22 meeting were Manuel Pena, a downtown insurance agent; Manuel Esqueda, a retired banker; Ramon Curiel, a former UC Irvine administrator; Luis Gaona, a local businessman; community activist Sam Romero, and Zeke Hernandez, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Pena said the meeting produced a “win-win situation” that will bring Vargas back to work, provide him with assistance when needed and more actively involve the Latino community in monitoring the department’s Hispanic Affairs Office.

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“We wanted to make sure that the Police Department recognizes that the Hispanic population is here to stay,” Pena said. “We’re part of the community, we’re part of the American way. For the Police Department to take care of the problems in the community, more people are going to have to become involved--Anglo, Hispanic, whatever.”

Putting Rumors to Rest

At the press conference today at City Hall, Pena said that he would put to rest the rumors that have been circulating--to a large extent in the Spanish-language media--about Vargas and that he would announce the terms under which Vargas will return to work Monday. They include having him once again report directly to Stebbins or to Cronkhite.

Pena applauded Cronkhite’s approach to the problem as “visionary.”

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“They acted very quickly,” Pena said of the police leadership. “We’re not blaming anyone. We’re not even attempting to . . . try to tell the chief how to run the Police Department. But we are taking up his suggestion that we become involved.”

Vargas, contacted at home in Santa Ana, said: “I’m glad to be coming back to work because we have some big challenges ahead of us. What is going to happen to all these undocumenteds who did not qualify for amnesty and are not going to be able to find jobs? They’re still out there on the street corners.”


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