By Bonnie Baranoff
April 12, 2015 (La Mesa) -- On Tuesday, April 14 at 2 p.m., 30-year La Mesa Police Department veteran and outgoing Police Chief Ed Aceves will “walk out” in what has become a traditional retirement ceremony at the La Mesa Police Department. Though officially retired in December 2014, he stayed on until his replacement, Chief Walter Vasquez, had a week to transition into the job.
In an ECM exclusive, Aceves shares how he got into law enforcement, how technology and communications have changed the field, his most memorable moments, and his plans for the future.
The Man Behind the Badge
Ed Aceves’ career in public safety began almost by accident. We usually hear about families of cops, with generations participating in law enforcement, but that’s not how it worked in the Aceves household. There weren’t any cops but there was a history of working for the public: his father was an educator and a principal for nearly 40 years.
Growing up, Ed Aceves thought he wanted to be a pilot, and while attending Helix High School in the early 1980’s, he started looking into joining the United States Air Force. It was at this time that he realized he had horrible eyesight, and that pursuing a career in the Air Force would mean doing something other than being a pilot, which wasn’t of interest to him. Like many teenagers, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up.
His introduction to law enforcement came by way of the Round Table Pizza in the La Mesa Springs shopping center, where Aceves worked while in high school. One of his colleagues had a boyfriend who worked for the La Mesa Police Department, frequently visiting the restaurant and building a relationship with Aceves that would turn into a lifelong friendship. He invited Aceves to participate in ride-a-longs, sharing first-hand experience in learning about the job. Aceves was hooked and discovered his new passion and pursuit: a career in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Coincidentally, Aceves had a friend who’s father also worked for the LMPD, and this officer helped him get an internship, gaining valuable on-the-job training experience with the department. After graduating from Helix, Aceves took several Administration of Justice classes at Grossmont College, attended the police academy and became a reserve officer. Reserve officers receive the same training and continuing education that police officers receive, so when asked the difference between a reserve officer and a full-time cop, Aceves jokingly shared, “a paycheck on Friday.” So next step: full-time employment.
Learning, Teaching and Arresting
Aceves’ entire career in law enforcement has been in service to the city of La Mesa. He rose through the ranks from being a reserve officer in 1985 to being hired full-time in 1986. In 1997, he was promoted to Sergeant, followed by promotions to Lieutenant in 2002, to Captain in 2005 and ultimately to Chief of Police in 2011.
A consistent theme in his career has been education, in both learning and in teaching. While working full-time, Aceves went back to school to complete both his Bachelor and Masters degrees, earning a BA in Administration of Justice and his Masters in Criminal Justice. Throughout his career, he has taken extensive continuing education courses and programs, including special training for the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), attending the FBI National Academy, and participating in a special overseas counter-terrorism program. On the flip side, he has also been teaching others, be it through DARE, field training, a department instructor for defensive tactics and emergency vehicle operations, or as the leader of the LMPD.
When asked if he remember his first day on the job as a police officer, Aceves says sure…he remembers that first day well because his field training officer gave him the keys to drive the car…a big deal on your first day! “Everyone remembers their first day out on their own by themselves…the first day out of the gate by yourself. It’s a responsibility not taken for granted, a big responsibility.” His first arrest was on Lake Murray Boulevard near Baltimore, taking a woman with illegal prescription drugs into custody. It wasn’t a big ordeal, but it was his first arrest and one he remembers.
One of the more memorable arrests Aceves was involved in was in 2000 when he was a patrol sergeant. Hearing about this arrest is really exciting, like watching an action film or reality TV, but it’s the real deal. His description shares both a description of a “day on the job” as well as his passion for his duty. The story goes like this: his squad responded to a “possible” robbery in progress at Al & Ed’s Autosound at Jackson Drive and Grossmont Boulevard. It was dark outside, about 8pm. He and another office arrived on the Jackson off ramp while two other officers arrived on Jackson Drive near the Pet Emergency & Specialty Center. As they arrived, it was quiet outside and nothing appeared to be going on, however the officers at the other end of the lot were contacted by the reporting party, an employee (who was not working at the time). The reporting party said he stopped by to see friend from work and it seemed odd that no one was around. When he walked to the back room, he discovered three masked men with guns who had tied up three employees. He was able to run out without anyone seeing him.
When Aceves and his partner received this information, they were behind a chain link fence, and remember: it was nighttime. As they were trying to see inside the garage bay, a car in the parking lot just a few feet in front of them and on the other side of the fence started. Suddenly, three men wielding handguns came running out of the garage bay, holding large duffle bags stuffed with items. Aceves and his fellow officer were partially concealed by brush, but were not behind cover as the three men ran toward the idling vehicle right in front of them. As the suspects approached the vehicle, Aceves and his fellow officer both began yelling, “police…stop!” He shared that they “may have used some more colorful words at the time, but you get the idea.”
The three masked men were so surprised that they just stopped in their tracks and dropped what turned out to be their loaded handguns on the asphalt parking lot, surrendering and putting their hands out as they dropped to the ground. Aceves says, “the funny part (not at the time) was that we were on the opposite side of the fence, which they did not know…they could only hear us.” The vehicle sped off, but was met by the other two officers at the end of the parking lot. Aceves and his partner jumped the fence and took everyone into custody without any injuries. It was discovered that the four suspects were wanted in a series of violent robberies throughout San Diego County, including the robbery of a DEA agent, whose handgun they had stolen. That same handgun was in one of the robber’s possession. The employees were found bound with duct tape, but were not injured. The four suspects were later sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Aceves says there were a lot of highlights over the course of his career, but the three“coolest” things he’s ever done happened elsewhere: working the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, attending the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and attending a counter-terrorism program in Israel.
In 1996, he joined 5,000 other cops from around the world for 35 days to be the security team for the Olympics in Atlanta. Being a “big sports enthusiast,” he recalls, it was a “blast I will never forget.” Later in his career and like new Chief Vasquez, Aceves graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, having been a member of the class of 2009. The FBI National Academy is a pretty big deal in law enforcement, a professional development course that is by “invitation only.” Only the best of the best are nominated to participate.
Quantico was an “incredible experience,” but the experience that had the most profound effect on Aceves was in joining 250 other law enforcement executives from around the world on an October 2013 trip to Israel to participate in a counter-terrorism program. Like the FBI Academy, you don’t just decide you want to participate in this program; you have to be recommended. Of the 250 participants, there were 19 representatives from California law enforcement, including Chief Walt Vasquez. This trip occurred just before the Syria uprising started, and Aceves says that his experience was “eye opening…it’s not like it’s portrayed in the media. Israel is a country that has always been under attack, and the citizenry respect law enforcement and the military. The United States has 18,000 police agencies; Israel has only one.” Their overall mission, if you will, is in handling both day–to-day crimes with the ongoing threat of terrorism.
Aceves says that “standing in the Golan Heights and at the border of Syria is an interesting experience,” especially since San Diego is a border community and one can draw parallels. On the Gaza strip, bombs are “lobbed” into Israel every day. What if folks in Mexico started launching missiles into Chula Vista? How do we think the US would respond?
Changes in Law Enforcement Over the Years
When asked about notable changes in law enforcement over the life of his career, Aceves answers without hesitation: technology, especially in the areas of science, equipment/weaponry, communication and social media.
Scientific changes he has witnessed and experienced over the years are “unbelievable.” Fingerprints are a great example. They used to dust for fingerprints with powder and a brush and today, you can add fingerprint evidence to a machine to help identify someone. Now there is DNA; results from a cheek swab can reveal who you are. And the equipment has changed substantially as well. Guns used in the field have evolved from revolvers to semi-automatic handguns to rifles.
On the less lethal side, they stopped using stun guns in favor of taser devices, and the pursuit of less lethal options continues with the use of pepper ball and beanbag guns. Aceves sees the less than lethal option as a good thing for their profession. But how does an officer decide which weapon to use in each situation? Aceves explained that officers are trained in stress inoculation, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy using drills to help officers determine when to enforce either lethal or non-lethal options in a stressful situation. They also focus on training with firearms at the range and on quarterly tactics training. Their combined training puts them in scenarios that are repetitive in nature, but help the officer determine which weapon to use in different situations.
Other huge changes have been in communication: 24-hour news and social media.
When asked about situations we see in the news everyday and all day--for example what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri--Aceves shared that “as a leader of an organization, you constantly remind officers of the good work they are doing in our community,” because things happening with law enforcement in other places can affect the morale of all the good guys working here.” No matter where bad press happens, the ripple effects are felt throughout law enforcement.
As far as social media is concerned, it’s a forum that allows really anyone to voice their opinion and enter into online debates and discussions, but what are the effects of this communication on communities and on law enforcement when it comes to high-profile cases like Ferguson or in the case of Walter Scott? What if we had the social media we have today when in 1985, Sagon Penn was acquitted of killing a San Diego Police officer? How about when California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer Craig Peyer strangled to death SDSU student Cara Knott in 1986?
Lastly, staff psychologists and chaplains are an important change as well. Aceves said it seems easier for the new generation of cops to communicate their feelings, that they aren’t ashamed to admit needing help and when they do, there’s less fear or stigma associated with reaching out to a psychologist or the clergy for help.
Changes in La Mesa Over the Years and Thoughts on Future Challenges
Aceves says that La Mesa “has grown up over the years from a sleepy bedroom community to a full service city. Our population, demographics and development have changed the most over the years.”
From his perspective, challenges for the city are mostly financial and legal in nature. Financially, the city has a number of challenges in regards to employee costs, factors La Mesa needs to consider in order to stay competitive in the region. He also commented that “every time the city starts to look good financially, the State comes along and changes the rules,” citing redevelopment laws having a significant impact, as well as the changes in the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and other State mandates that have significant negative affects on the city.
From Aceves’ point of view, Chief Vasquez’s biggest immediate challenge will be with hiring new officers. There is constant attrition through retirement, family changes, medical retirement, or officers moving to other agencies. But a huge benefit Walt Vasquez brings to La Mesa is that he knows San Diego law enforcement; they sit on the same agencies and he’s well known in the region. He has support from the larger law enforcement community.
Deciding to Retire: “It was the perfect time.”
After dedicating 30 years to the force and upon reaching the retirement cap, Aceves made the decision to retire. This also happened to be at the same time his wife retired.
“A lot of chiefs don’t get to make the decision (to retire) for themselves on their own terms, “ says Aceves, but he did. “I’m thankful that after 30 years, I’m still in one piece… for the most part.”
Aceves reflected that while his career has been rewarding, he has seen a lot of “horrible things” over the years, tragic things that aren’t fun to remember, but you remember them nonetheless. That in many instances “police work is not pretty…violence, death…it’s part of the job…deaths of young people, kids…whether it’s a traffic collision, suicide…it’s horrible.” As a father of two girls, he takes comfort in the fact that “something like this hasn’t happened to his children, by the grace of God.”
He also pointed out how many good contacts between law enforcement and citizens happen every day that don’t get reported. We always hear about the few and far between bad apples and experiences that occur, but in spite of all that—the risks, the violence, the stress, occasional bad press—people still want to be police officers, helping people and doing good for their communities.
A smile crossed his face when he said that there’s nothing that pleases him more than sitting across the table from a new recruit and sensing their excitement and enthusiasm. An agency goal is to keep that passion burning, to keep the mind, body and spirit in one piece, hanging on to the same spirit of wanting to help people until they retire. It’s not easy to do!
With 30 years of dedication in serving his community under his belt, now his full-time job is his first priority: his family. He says that he “owes them a lot of time.” Travel is on the horizon, with a trip to New York in May to see one of his daughters graduate from college, and to travel to Milwaukee to visit his other daughter who was recently nominated “best teacher of the year,” one of three finalists. A big family vacation is slated for the summer and he said he is going to treat his wife to “something nice” for their 25th wedding anniversary this June. Aceves had a lot of praise for his wife, stating that her support over the years has been key to his success. The “patience, guidance she always provides…her calm perspective” was and continues to be appreciated, and he says that it’s “a great partnership…I owe her a lot of time!”
Aceves loves the teaching aspect of law enforcement, and it’s something he’s interested in exploring. Longer-term plans may include some kind of involvement at “major institutions in our county,” for example in criminal justice or leadership. Not necessarily full-time work, but teaching a class “here and there.”
But that’s later. For now, he’s taking some time to relax.