Nine questions with Chief JR Gamez, who was after a :
Patch: Tell us a little about your background.
JR Gamez: I grew up in San Francisco and I’m of Cuban descent.
At 14 years old, I started working in the family interior decorating business being the “small guy,” the one loading rolls of carpet in the vans, washing the vans. Then I did it as a side job in college where I wanted to be a dentist. Being a police officer was nowhere on my radar.
Then my dad got sick and I had to run the company with 85 employees and a $2 million budget as a 19-year-old. I learned so many life lessons from that and took those business components and applied it to this job.
In a way, we’re a customer service organization with the adage that you take care of your employees and the customer is always right.
How did you get into law enforcement?
I was still in college when a friend and San Jose police officer invited me to a gathering and told me all about his job: the adventures, meeting people every day. Then he said, “you’d be the perfect fit.”
I was hired by the San Jose police department, and my parents were initially worried for me. My uncle was in law enforcement and was killed in the line of fire. So there I was, the heir apparent to the family business becoming a police officer, but they were really supportive of me.
And so there I stayed for 25 and a half years. I hadn’t even considered the police chief. I was either going to retire or go into the private sector for something different.
What are some experiences you bring to this job?
Working in west San Jose, there was diversity similar to here in Redwood City, with a large Latino population. There was mentorship for the Hispanic youth and community interaction because you can’t just send all the “bad guys” to jail.
I worked on an undercover narcotics team that partnered with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. We attacked the crack-cocaine epidemic when it was at its height. We worked on large scale operations internationally.
I was also a detective in the homicide unit. Your phone is never off. When my family and I would go to events like weddings and birthday parties, we’d always drive two cars. I’d give my wife “the eyes” then she’d know that I would have to go. It’s just part of the lifestyle, our lifestyle, and she knows it.
I commanded a special ops division for approximately 13 years and dealt with various cases. So I have many tools to do this job.
What is your philosophy towards being a police officer?
It’s definitely case by case because you’ll meet different types of people: those who will never change and have chosen a life of crime. It’s our duty to put those people in jail and keep the community safe. Then there are those who just don’t have a direction, both parents are working, there’s no role model or siblings. It’s our duty to try and mentor these individuals.
We’ll never arrest ourselves out of a problem though. You can go out there and arrest every single gang member but that won’t solve the problem. You have to use a multi-faceted approach and, though cheesy, use community involvement. You educate the community: that with their involvement, their neighborhoods can be that much better.
How do you plan to collaborate with other organizations in Redwood City?
It’s not common to see this kind of collaboration in other law enforcement circles. They’re pretty self-sufficient and there’s no need to borrow a canine, for example. But with resources dwindling, everyone is building up relationships.
Why was Redwood City appealing to you?
It was not only a decision if I was the right fit for the job, but if the job was right for me and my family. I did my research and looked into the make-up of the community.
It was diverse, which is really important to me because of my background, and this was a progressive police department. I spoke to other police chiefs, district attorneys and other people on the inside, and this department has an exceptional reputation in San Mateo County.
I visited the city, and every day I felt that this was the right place. I also felt it was important to live in this community, but I’ll wait until my son (a junior in high school) graduates so we don’t have to yank him out.
What are your priorities for the department in these first few months?
1. Staffing for response 911 calls: This is our core service, and we need to respond at an exceptional level. I’ll have to assess if we have adequate response time and if we need to make any changes.
2. Community policing: Everyone defines this differently, but we have to look at any potential problems and then how we, the police, can partner with community members to solve it. We can’t go in with any preconceived notions so I’ll begin an advisory group with community leaders to come up with a five-year plan. Staff will look at it next year to form a clear strategy behind it.
3. Issues with juveniles and gang violence: There’s always the option of “suppression,” but we’ll also have in-house experts who work directly with these youth. You also get out there and speak to the community. Your phone is always ringing, and you respond to those calls. Once the community is open to listening, all sorts of great things can happen.
How does it feel to be the new guy?
This is a fresh start for me and for the men and women of the police department. Everyone gets a fair opportunity to start anew.
In the next 90 days, I want to meet with everyone in the department and ask them “What do you love about this community? How do we fix some of the problems we have? And how do we make this the most elite police department in the country?" It’s an ambitious plan but I’m up for it.
I also want to get to the know the community more because people have not only welcomed me with open arms, but also my family.
Is there anything about Redwood City that has surprised you?
Just yesterday [at the P.A.L. Toy and Book Drive], I was blown away. The caliber of the officers in this community is incredible. They do this year-round in addition to everything they’re doing. I told [firefighter and engineer Justin Velasquez] that a major corporation would love to hire you, with your organizational skills and able to load a thousand presents onto the trucks then ship them to the right homes.
The police and fire departments are constantly giving back, and it speaks to the core of their service.