Some 80 people gathered in the Watsonville Civic Plaza Monday evening to welcome in Jorge Zamora as Watsonville Police Department’s new chief.
A homegrown officer who started with the department as a cadet at the age of 15, Zamora said in a speech before being sworn into his new role that his promotion from acting assistant chief to the city’s top cop was a result of the support system he had around him.
That included some two dozen family members sitting front row at Monday’s ceremony, and another dozen officers from various agencies across California, including Daly City, Salinas, Scotts Valley and Capitola.
Zamora is the city’s 16th chief, and the first, first-generation Mexican-American to hold the role.
As a 26-year veteran of the force, Zamora brings invaluable experience from his time with gang and narcotics enforcement and SWAT. He has also served as a detective, a field training officer and a hostage negotiator, and spent time as a Regional Occupational Program instructor and youth mentor.
Another big asset, Assistant Chief Tom Sims said while introducing Zamora Monday, was his connection to the community and his lifelong commitment to the force.
“Honestly, I don’t know what you guys were doing when you were 15, but I know that I was not thinking about police work,” said Sims, who served as interim chief over the last six months. “[Zamora] was, and that’s why he’s here today.”
Zamora says that he grew up just down the street from Watsonville’s city hall. Before that, he and his family lived in a labor camp on the Central Coast as his mother, Margarita Fernandez, worked the agricultural fields.
“[My family] worked the fields, we were poor,” Zamora said. “If you would’ve seen me as a kid, you would’ve never thought ‘that guy is going to be a police chief one day.’ It didn’t seem like it was in the cards for me—even to be a police officer. That’s why I keep telling people that if they’ve been touched by [hardship], ‘I am you’ because I went through that. And it’s OK to say it and talk about it because that’s what makes you stronger.”
Fernandez in an interview after the ceremony said that she still remembers the day her son told her he wanted to sign up for the cadet program. She was worried for his safety but saw that he had a passion for protecting people.
“I would bless him whenever he left the house,” she said in Spanish. “I was happy he was happy, but I was worried about him.”
When Zamora told her he had been appointed chief, she said she was overcome with emotion as she reflected on his journey to success.
“I was overjoyed,” she said. “He grew up with gangs around him, he grew up with drugs being dealt around him. He lived and grew up in a very tough area. It must have been hard for him to say no to all of that. It makes me so happy to see him now. I always told him that if he wanted anything in life that he needed to go to school. All I wanted for him is for him to not have to work in the fields as I did … This is a sweet moment.”
Zamora attended local schools and graduated from Radcliff Adult School. He holds a bachelor’s in criminal justice management from Union Institute & University and a master’s in leadership studies from Saint Mary’s College of California.
His appointment follows the retirement of Chief of Police David Honda, who served Watsonville from 2016 through 2021, and fills one of the city’s high-level vacancies.
Watsonville just last month welcomed in a new city attorney after the retirement of longtime legal counsel Alan Smith. In the near future, it will have to replace City Clerk Beatriz Vasquez Flores and former City Manager Matt Huffaker, who is now the chief executive for the city of Santa Cruz.
Mayor Ari Parker said that she likes the direction the city is heading in and is excited to see Zamora use both his experience as a police officer and passion as a Watsonville native to try to solve some of the city’s big issues.
“The goal of the process was to find the best person, and it turned out the best person was born and raised here and came up through the ranks and really knows this town and is passionate about it,” Parker said. “There are challenges to communication but he recognizes what a great community this is. We’re diverse. We have diverse opinions about equity, engagement and accountability and how to do it. But he’s willing to listen.”
Zamora said the role of police chief has undoubtedly changed in the past few years because of compounding societal issues that have been hoisted upon officers’ growing list of responsibilities.
But Zamora also said that because of advancements in technology, access to higher learning and partnerships with vital area nonprofits that there has never been a better time to be a police officer. In addition, efforts such as the city’s recent policing and social equity committee and the consistent support the department receives from numerous residents give him hope that WPD can help solve some of the city’s toughest challenges.
“I’m a big believer that we can solve these issues but some of these issues take time,” Zamora said. “I’m not being naive here. I know that there’s challenges. I know that there’s people that don’t want to engage with us. That’s fine. My position: let’s engage, let’s continue to try to do that. And if they don’t want to, OK, I’m still here. I’m here with open arms.”