Ask Anaheim Police Capt. Joe Vargas why he became a cop and he doesn’t hesitate: “My Dad.”
His father, Jose Vargas, was Santa Ana Police Department’s first Hispanic Affairs Officer and one of Orange County’s most beloved community leaders. He was credited with creating trust between the Latino community and the police department at a time “when police officers were to be feared,” his son said.
In many ways, Joe Vargas modeled his 30-year law enforcement career after his father’s. But when he retires in May, Joe Vargas will leave behind a legacy of police and community innovation all his own.
“With Joe, there were a lot of firsts,” said Capt. Bob Conklin.
He founded the Anaheim Police Activities League, now known as Cops 4 Kids, which helped the city gain the upper hand during the 1990s drug and gang crisis. Over the years it has served thousands of at-risk children. An outgrowth was the first community-oriented policing team, which he led. Perhaps most significant was Vargas’ effort in professionalizing and improving police relations with the media.
John Dunphy, an Orange County Register editor, recalls that police departments weren’t very open back then.
“He realized before others that it would be good for us – and for the police department – to let us know about some of the good things they were doing,” he said.
His effort led to positive stories that humanized police officers – and even resulted in social change. He alerted journalists to the dangerous living conditions facing young children in residential motels. The reports that followed led to a countywide strategy that has helped thousands of motel families.
As a supervisor, Vargas served as incident commander during the Anaheim Angels 2002 World Series championship – 14 months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also oversaw the investigation of several high profile murders.
Conklin said there’s a common theme behind Vargas’ successes.
“Our job is people,” he said. “Everywhere he goes – no matter what assignment he’s in – people in our community and in our department – turn to Joe. They trust him. They respect him. They look up to him.”
Vargas’ interest in police work started early. At 13, he was a scout at the now-defunct Stanton Police Department. After just a few ride-alongs, he realized the way his father interacted with the community – and even criminals – was special. His father’s perspective was different, Joe Vargas said.
A Mexican immigrant, Jose Vargas was deported 13 times. He fed seven children on a trashman’s salary before becoming a police officer.
“He was very decent to people,” Joe Vargas said. “In terms of community policing, he was before his time. For him it was all about the people.”
Vargas joined Anaheim PD in 1980. Like his father, he worked hard to connect with the community.
“We would be out patrolling densely-populated apartment communities, trying to catch people selling drugs, and kids would come up and say, ‘Hi Officer Vargas,’” Conklin recalled.
But they weren’t only focused on neighborhood dealers. In 1989, the narcotics team made the second biggest bust in California history, seizing more than 2,200 kilos of cocaine after figuring out how cartels used big-rigs for distribution. Joe points to a picture of the team in Sgt. Fred Nichols’ office. His hair was longer – and darker – back then.
“Joe is a very strong partner,” said Steve Swaim, Anaheim’s Community Services Manager and former Drug Czar. “He made a made a significant difference.”
Vargas’ younger brother, Phil, followed his father and brother into police work. He is an investigator on Anaheim PD’s Crime Task Force.
He said there’s “a lot of pride” in the Vargas family for all Joe has accomplished.
“Even bad guys have nothing but good things to say about him,” Phil Vargas said. “He was decent to everybody – even people he put in jail.”
Although he is retiring, Joe Vargas said he plans to continue training media relations to police leaders. On a recent afternoon, Vargas walked through the second-floor investigations bureau and chatted with several of the detectives he oversees.
One investigator updated him on a new lead in an old homicide. Another discussed how some home burglars who “hit the jackpot” were about to be locked up.
“We have so many people here who are so talented and passionate about what they do,” he said. “Anaheim was the only department I applied to work at because it had a great reputation. Almost thirty years later and it’s still a destination department.”
Vargas lives in Corona with his wife Jennifer. They have three children. None plan to become cops. They are planning careers in the ministry.
“What I learned from my Dad is that it’s all about giving,” he said. “Now is a good time to retire. It’s time to give others an opportunity. We have some brilliant, energetic people waiting in the wings.”