José Ruíz, 53, went from being one of the only Latinos living in Pleasantville, NJ in the early ‘70s to being the first Latino officer in the city’s police department. Now, this Puerto Rican will be the city’s – as well as the surrounding four counties’ – first police chief, in an area which, like many parts of the country, is seeing a rapidly-growing Latino population.
“It’s an honor for me that I get to represent the police department,” Ruíz says. “I love my job. It means a lot that the mayor had enough confidence in me that he could appoint me to that position. The biggest thing is to serve the community and be an inspiration to Latinos.”
Ruíz has been working at the Pleasantville Police Department, in the southern part of New Jersey, for the past 28 years. “I could have retired three years ago, but I still look forward to coming to work. No two days are the same.”
Ruiz’ interest in law enforcement stems from his time in the military, from 1977 through 1983. He was impressed with the respect the military police received and the responsibilities they took – as well as their sharp uniforms. He spent his last three years in the U.S. Army based in Fairbanks, Alaska. But the craving to be near his tight-knit Puerto Rican family, who had left the Bronx, NY and was one of the few Hispanic families in Pleasantville, lured him back home.
“I wanted to come back here and regroup, and see what I could do,” says Ruiz. “It’s a small town, and it worked out that when I came back, the police department was offering an entrance exam.”
Ruíz recalls his challenges as the city’s first Hispanic police officer. He spent a lot of time proving people wrong, he explains.
“Some didn’t have the confidence in me and didn’t think I had the ability, but that was just people’s opinions, in my view,” he says. “There was nobody that was going to get in my way.”
When he was promoted to detective after three years, it wasn’t exactly without controversy. “There were people who criticized the chief at that time for making that move,” recalls Ruíz. “He told me, ‘I’m getting a lot of flack,’ and I told him, ‘It won’t be something you’ll regret.’” Ruiz did his job well and was a detective for 21 years.
Though he has been rising in the ranks of law enforcement, Ruíz says his heart still remains in the same grounded place, and he can’t seem to stay off the streets of Pleasantville.
“I haven’t been able to shake being a street cop,” he says. “I still go out there. I recently made an arrest. I’m not above any of that. I take joy and pride going out in the street, and that the guys can still count on me.”
Just as importantly, Ruiz hopes his Latino background can help bring increased trust to many of the town’s new residents. In the past decade, the Hispanic population in the area has nearly doubled from 21.9 percent to 41.1 percent, according the the U.S. Census. Many Latinos have recently moved to Pleasantville from all over Latin America, including Central America and the Caribbean.
“A lot of people come from places where they fear law enforcement,” he says. “They’re afraid to get involved. I want to break that. I don’t care about your legal status, that’s what immigration is for. I want to provide the same security for them. I want them to report crime and be more involved with their kids in the school system.”
As the city’s population has changed, Pleasantville has increased its numbers of Hispanics in the police department. Ruiz says there are now eight Latinos out of a staff of 48.
“We even hired a Hispanic police chaplain to help bridge that gap between our department and the growing Latino community,” says Ruíz. He says they are also trying to get more Hispanics involved in the organization Stop the Violence of Atlantic County, which was put together about two years ago to address violent crime.
While Ruiz’ new position will make him an even more visible role model to the region’s growing Latinos, Ruiz has already served as an inspiration, say fellow officers.
“When I came to this police department 22 years ago, Chief Ruiz was the only Latino,” says Captain Rocky Melendez, who became the second Hispanic on the Pleasantville police force. “I admired his work skills, his interviewing and investigative work, and how tenacious he was.” More importantly, Melendez credits Ruiz with leading the way.
“It’s paid off, I made it up to captain,” says Melendez. “To every good success you need a good foundation, and he was instrumental.”