Vargas: A memorable ride in the back seat of my patrol car

By Joe Vargas

A few weeks ago I had lunch with newly elected Montclair Councilwoman Trisha Martinez. The last time we met was back around 1986. She was a young teenage gang member taking a ride to the station in the back seat of my patrol car.

She tracked me down and reached out to me through social media. She wanted to thank me for being the “single entity” that changed her life. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to be such a powerful influence.

I’ve given a lot of kids the ride in “the back seat” over the years. In the short time I had with them they all got “the talk.” I felt since I had a captive audience why not try.

Trisha told me our conversation stuck with her while she was in Juvenile Hall over the next three days. I told her she was special and she could do better for herself. I told her about the heartache she was causing for herself and her family. She said a light came on and she made a personal decision to choose a different path.

It still was a tough path for her.

Trisha was living and hanging out in one of the worst neighborhoods in Anaheim at the time. Anaheim Jungle City was the gang she claimed; she even tattooed the initials on her hand. Her support systems were virtually non-existent.

Shortly after our talk, her mother was the victim of a violent knife attack and ended up being seriously injured. The family moved out of state, which took Trisha out of the unhealthy environment and opened new doors for her.

There is a lot more to her story including being a teenage mother, but she eventually ended up in the City of Montclair where she has been a longtime resident and community activist.

Montclair Swearing In (1)

Joe Vargas swears in Trisha Martinez on Thursday night in Montclair.

Over the years, Trisha always remembered our conversation. She explained that very few people could point to that one moment in time where their life was changed for the better. For Trisha, that moment occurred when I arrested her.

As Trisha walked into the restaurant for our reunion in Montclair, she was beaming. When we hugged, her eyes filled with tears. Over the next two hours she shared her story in a rapid Readers Digest version. Like I said, the path she took was rough and never easy.

She later would become an advocate for at-risk youth, a community activist and most of all, a wife and mother.

Trisha admits that even to this day a little bit of the “thug” is still in her and she can be rough around the edges. I guess in politics that might even be helpful.

One thing was clear as I visited with Trisha: Like myself, she is a person of strong faith. For some reason there was a point in time when God put the entire universe in sync just so Trisha would end up in the back seat of my patrol car.

On Thursday, Dec. 4, I was invited to be her special guest as I swore her in as the newest councilmember for the City of Montclair. She beamed and got teary eyed again as she repeated the oath of office.

I met her husband, children and friends. All of them had heard the story of the cop who changed her life.

As we parted, I felt so proud of the person Trisha has become. I know the obstacles she overcame to get where she is today.

I have never underestimated the power of the uniform and badge to influence the life of a child. Every police officer I know has talked to a kid at one time or another, just like I did with Trisha. I was just lucky enough to see the end result.

God bless you, Trisha. I wish you the best of success in the future. I feel honored to have played such an important part in you becoming the amazing woman you are today.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com

Editor’s note: The image at the top of this column shows Vargas with newly elected Montclair Congresswoman Trisha Martinez. Photo courtesy of Joe Vargas.