Santa Ana Police Chief Clyde L. Cronkhite moved Friday to resolve a dispute with the city's large Latino community by announcing that longtime community liaison Jose Vargas would return to his job Monday, ending five weeks of speculation about Vargas' future.
Stressing the importance of good police relations with Latinos, Cronkhite said Vargas' departure from the department last month was due to a misunderstanding and was not an attempt to remove Vargas from his job or lessen his responsibilities.
"I am just overjoyed to have him back," Cronkhite said at an afternoon press conference attended by Vargas and several local community leaders.
Names Second Officer
As a measure of the importance he places on Vargas' job, Cronkhite said he was appointing Officer Gary Mata as a second community liaison officer to work with Vargas.
Vargas, perhaps the Police Department's most important link with the Latino community, went on medical leave about a month ago, triggering speculation that he had either been fired or demoted. The speculation heightened last week when Vargas, for the first time in many years, failed to represent the department at various Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Although Cronkhite dismissed the reasons for Vargas' absence as a simple misunderstanding, Vargas told reporters he was so depressed he had sought psychiatric help to deal with his problems.
"I told my lawyer I would rather go back to driving a garbage truck than (to) the Police Department," Vargas said. "Everybody knows I had a problem of communication with the chief."
Vargas said his problems began after Cronkhite succeeded Chief Raymond C. Davis in the department's top position last year. Vargas had enjoyed easy access to Davis and was given free rein to deal with Latino issues.
But once Cronkhite took over, all that began to change. Vargas was told he would have to report to Lt. Robert Chavez in community relations instead of dealing directly with the chief. Chavez later told Vargas he was spending too much time dealing with undocumented aliens, an area Vargas said was crucial in understanding Santa Ana's vast Latino community.
The changes left Vargas wondering if it was time to leave the department for good.
"I was depressed," he said. "I did not have the rapport with the new chief that I did with the old chief. I went to a psychiatrist because I had a problem."
Vargas admitted that he was spending too much time with undocumented workers whom he had known for years. As it turned out, many went to Vargas looking for advice on how to apply for legal status under the just-completed amnesty program. Vargas said many of them asked him to sign affidavits testifying that they had been in the country since 1982, one of the primary requirements ot quality for amnesty.
"I was spending too much time with the undocumented issue," Vargas said.
To resolve the problem, Cronkhite met with local Latino leaders and decided that Vargas would resume reporting directly to the chief on issues important to the Latino community and would be free to deal with any undocumented aliens. Cronkhite said there was never any attempt to demote Vargas.
"We recognize that we have a lot of undocumented persons in this community," he said. "Our mission here is to provide a safe and secure community for everybody" even if they are in the country illegally.
Manuel Pena, a Santa Ana insurance agent and one of the Latino leaders who met with Cronkhite to settle the issue, said he was "very pleased (by the) effective response by Police Chief Cronkhite and his willingness to set the record straight. The Hispanic affairs position will continue and Jose Vargas will play an important role in the citywide operation."
Vargas, who was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco and was arrested and deported a dozen times before finally marrying a U.S. citizen and gaining citizenship in 1969, said he had "no ill feelings about the misunderstandings with some officers in this department."
"It has been hard for me to have been away from my people," he said. "The old Jose is back. The happy Jose is back."