La Habra native makes good use of 30 years at police department

By Shawn Price

Lieutenant Mel Ruiz’s last day as a regular member of the La Habra Police was Dec. 22, and he’s still not sure how he feels about it—except for knowing that he’s walking out the door a very lucky guy.

Ruiz was born and raised in La Habra, and joined the police department at age 19. Since, he’s become a shining example of what community policing means for La Habra PD.

“I’m a fourth generation La Habra resident,” Ruiz says. “I got interested in being in the police department at age 12. My cousin got me into it when he was an explorer.”

“I thought, ‘that sounds kinda neat’ and when I was 14, I joined the explorers,” he says. “I got hired as a cadet when I got out of high school. I was 19 when I got hired as police officer.”

La Habra PD Lt. Mel Ruiz poses next to a photo of the agency’s original Special Investigations Unit, taken in 1991, which includes himself, second from left.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In the early 1990s, Ruiz joined the gang unit and became a pivotal player in changing La Habra’s youth culture toward more positive exploits.

“I remember the former police chief telling me to be a role model for kids in the community,” Ruiz says. “So, I started going to the Boys & Girls Club, coaching little league, and working with a group that fixed blighted areas of town, and thats where it started.”

Lt. Mel Ruiz of La Habra PD works with community outreach efforts, including Coffee with a Cop.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Around that same time, Ruiz got married and became a parent, devoting his free time to his own family. But he had already set something in motion for himself and for his community.

When his kids were old enough, Ruiz began to put serious time back into building the police department’s relationship with the public. In 2015, he joined the Lion’s Club. Then, he joined the board of directors of La Habra’s Chamber of Commerce.

In December 2014, he started Coffee with a Cop to create opportunities for the public to meet members of La Habra PD away from typical law-enforcement situations.

Lieutenant Jeff Swaim, left, Sergeant Mel Ruiz, and Detective Jose Quirarte, three officers who grew up in La Habra and and are now long-time veterans in leadership positions at the La Habra Police Department.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I saw that the city of Hawthorne had started it,” he says, “and I thought it was a good community program.”

First with the full support of Police Chief Jerry Price, then a strong reception from La Habra citizens, it’s been a monthly fixture for three years.

Then in 2016, with the help of La Habra Community Service’s Assistant Recreation Manager Katie Elmore, he started Cool Cops.

“I started to think about what we could do for the kids in the community,” he says. “Katie said they had water slides.”

But Ruiz insists fellow La Habra native officer and recent retiree Jose Quirarte was also devoted to building community relations. Ruiz thinks he was just in the right place at the right time.

“I don’t know if I was the best guy to do it,” he says of programs like Cool Cops. “Maybe I was just thinking more about letting them know we’re here for them. That there’s no them and us. Especially for the kids. The uniform can be intimidating to kids, but when you can break down those barriers, it’s really cool.”

The city’s desire for togetherness has helped Ruiz be able to build the relations he has with other parts of the community.

“We always talk about community, not only at the police department, but at city hall,” Ruiz says. “We all work together at community events. It’s just a joint effort and the community works great together. It’s not Mayberry, or that everybody knows everybody, but it’s close.”

With the days counting down, the last 30 years have left Ruiz feeling pretty blessed.

“I have no regrets whatsoever,” he says. “This is a dangerous job and you put it aside and you think, ‘Wow 30 years and I’m OK.’ It’s a combination of so many things. Your training, your supervisors, your experience, the community. The main thing is just learn from your mistakes. And have a good attitude.”

Ruiz says he’ll take a little time to “decompress” and plans to do work as a reserve officer, but beyond that?

“I might look for a second career,” he says, “and I’ll be picky. Something that is in my skill set. I have to do something. I’ll get bored.”

He rules out politics, but he’ll be sticking around. He’ll stay involved, because Mel Ruiz loves his hometown.