PLEASANTVILLE — When Jose Ruiz Sr.’s family relocated to Pleasantville from the Bronx during the early 1970s, they were one of the few Latino families in the city.
And when Ruiz joined the Pleasantville Police Department in 1983, after serving six years in the U.S. Army, he was the department’s only Latino officer. He was met with support from some people — but opposition from others — as he climbed the ranks over the next three decades.
“There were some obstacles in the beginning, and there were certain things that some people didn’t think I could do,” Ruiz said of the role his Puerto Rican heritage played in his career.
But now there is only one obstacle left for Ruiz to conquer.
Mayor Jesse Tweedle Sr. recently announced that Ruiz will succeed former Police Chief Duane Comeaux, who retired last month.
Ruiz will become the city’s first Latino police chief and — according to Mitchell Sklar, the executive director of the state Association of Chiefs of Police — also the first in all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties, once the state’s Civil Service Commission confirms the appointment.
“I had one goal in mind when I joined this department, and I’m this close to accomplishing it,” said Ruiz, 53, who is already serving as acting chief.
While Tweedle said he was proud to play a part in Ruiz’s groundbreaking appointment, he said he did not make his decision to make history.
“His ethnicity and color have nothing to do with it, and this was no knee-jerk reaction,” Tweedle said. “My job as the leader of this city is to put people in place that can best protect our city, its residents and can best help our officers to protect each other. He is the best person to have in that position. And when your peers highly revere you, like ours rally around Capt. Ruiz, it speaks volumes.”
But Tweedle admitted that Ruiz’s ethnicity could prove to be an asset.
“I believe it is very important for our administration and employees to mirror the demographics of the people they represent,” Tweedle said. “This might help encourage some members of our community to be more cooperative with our Police Department.”
According to the 2010 census, more than 40 percent of Pleasantville’s 20,249 recorded residents were Latino. This is double the 4,148 who lived in the city in 2000 and almost five times the 1,690 who lived in Pleasantville in 1990, when Latinos represented less than 11 percent of the city’s population. Pleasantville has the highest percentage of Latino residents in Atlantic County, which as a whole has 46,241 Latino residents.
Officials from the U.S. Census Bureau said the agency’s data does reflect people living in the country illegally. But in February, the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Research Center estimated that there were 550,000 unauthorized immigrants living in New Jersey in 2010. Pew Research Center spokesman Russ Oates said the estimate accounts for immigrants of all races and ethnicities, and that the research center does not have more localized data.
Ruiz said fostering a relationship with the city’s undocumented Latino population is important for Pleasantville’s future.
“We have a large population of people living here who are skeptical about cooperating with police because they are either here illegally, or have other documentation issues, and think we would question them on their status,” Ruiz said. “But we have more important things to do than worry if people are living here legally or not. Our foremost concern is the safety of all the people living and visiting here.”
The city has also hired a Latino chaplain in an effort to bring the Latino community and the Police Department closer.
Ruiz’s other objectives include: continuing partnerships with outside law-enforcement agencies to make the city safer, keeping the department’s technology up to date and maintaining the department’s ranks at appropriate levels.
“My main focus is this Police Department,” he said.
Sklar said Ruiz’s hiring could also inspire others.
“Obviously, the most important thing is that he is a good chief and serves the city well. But with the city’s burgeoning Latino population being what it is, he may have the opportunity to also serve as a role model,” Sklar said. “And with him being the first person of his background to reach this level, it may open some doors for others behind him.”
Ruiz’s pride in his heritage, career and family can be seen all over the walls of his office. But the 1977 Pleasantville High School graduate is also proud of the city he protects.
“Coming out of the Army, I could have gone anywhere. But I came back home and I am very, very proud of what I was able to accomplish here,” said Ruiz, who was stationed as far away as Alaska. “I hope that younger people will see this and see that with education and belief in yourself, you can accomplish anything.”
When Ruiz is finally sworn in as chief, it will be a testament to the faith that Tweedle, Comeaux and especially former Mayor Ralph Peterson had in him.
Peterson was one of Ruiz’s biggest supporters.
“I was criticized a lot back then for hiring a Puerto Rican detective. We, and by ‘we’ I mean black people, went through hell during the civil rights movement. And I saw the same thing happening to him,” said Peterson, who became the city’s first black police chief in 1982. “He didn’t have to go through what I went through, but he has had obstacles.”
While Peterson said he is proud of how Ruiz took advantage of the opportunity, he does not take credit for it.
“He put his own foot in the door and opened it himself,” Peterson said. “And because of his own hard work and dedication, he is about to accomplish his goal.”
One morning last week, Ruiz was where many high-ranking police officers can often be found — behind a desk, dealing with administrative issues.
But after answering calls and sorting through the stack of papers, Ruiz sprang up from the desk and hit the streets.
This is the part of the job he enjoys the most, and something he vows to continue doing as chief.
“I like supporting the guys,” he said.
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