Veteran La Habra officer is familiar face of agency through vast community involvement

By Greg Hardesty

Veteran La Habra PD Lt. Mel Ruiz is a big Elvis Presley fan.

Agency sources say he has been known, at times, to belt out some of the legend’s hits at karaoke joints and other venues, and that he’s a very good singer.

Given Ruiz’s profession, you might assume one of his Elvis standards is “Jailhouse Rock.”

He’s actually more partial to “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

Ruiz has a picture of the King in his office.

And when it comes to community involvement, he’s the king of the LHPD.

Forget “Viva Las Vegas.”

For this hometown kid, it’s Viva La Habra.

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

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

“It’s very rewarding,” Ruiz says of his community involvement, politely declining to sing an Elvis tune while Behind the Badge OC video rolled.

“This is the town I grew up in,” Ruiz says, “and it’s nice to have that involvement and to interact with members of the community — especially the kids.”

Since January, Ruiz has been running the LHPD’s Professional Standards Unit. He shares an office with Cpl. Paul McPhillips. Both attended La Habra High School and knew each other then, but ran in different circles.

Now they oversee critical functions of the agency, such as internal affairs, hiring and training.

Ruiz, 49, plans to retire at the end of the year, capping a career that began when he became a La Habra PD explorer at age 14.

He may stay on as a reserve police officer.

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Lt. Mel Ruiz (far right) at a La Habra PD Coffee With a Cop event at Northgate Market. Also pictured are K9 handler Officer Amsony Mondragon (in the far back), Sgt. Brian Miller on the left, and Det. Mucio Sanchez, center. Photo courtesy of LHPD

What won’t change, Ruiz says, is his deep connection to La Habra. He is a fourth-generation resident on his mother’s side. His great-grandfather set up roots in the city in the early 1900s, when most of La Habra was orange groves and avocado trees.

If you’ve seen Ruiz at community events throughout the city, you’re not alone.

A little more than two years ago, he established the Coffee With a Cop program at LHPD, with the blessing of Chief Jerry Price. Ruiz had heard about the program and thought it would be a good way for the agency to strengthen ties with residents and business owners.

Now, every other month, about 20 or more locals show up at coffee shops to meet patrol officers and talk to them about problems with neighbors, with their kids, and to ask them about community programs and traffic issues.

“It strengthens our relationship with the community,” Ruiz says of Coffee with a Cop.

Mel Ruiz, board member of the La Habra Chamber of Commerce and lieutenant with the La Habra PD, forth from right, talks to chamber members at an early morning chamber meeting. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Lt. Mel Ruiz (fourth from right), a La Habra Chamber of Commerce board member, talks to chamber members at a recent meeting.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

And last summer, Ruiz came up with the idea of Cool Cops, a community event for kids held at Montwood Park in which police partnered with the city’s Community Service Department.

Attendees got free ice cream, courtesy of Venegas Ice Cream, and enjoyed a water slide, games, food, entertainment and displays. A former LHPD explorer’s father owns the ice cream truck — yet another connection in this tight-knit community.

Ruiz is working on plans to bring back Cool Cops for a second run this summer at a park yet to be determined.

A little over two years ago, Ruiz joined La Habra Host Lions Club, which is part of Lions Club International, the global organization that preaches the value of community service.

Ruiz also sits on the board of directors of the La Habra Chamber of Commerce.

His passion for community engagement began when he was in his early 20s and assigned to the LHPD’s gang unit.

“At that time (the early 1990s), lots of kids were getting into gangs, and I was encouraged by (then) Chief Steve Staveley — he’s the one who turned on the lightbulb for me,” Ruiz says.

“Chief Staveley told me, ‘Mel, you grew up here in the community, and it would be good for you to get out there and be a positive influence, especially for these kids.’”

Ruiz started volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club of La Habra, which he attended growing up. In full uniform, he would go to the recreation room and shoot hoops with youngsters and play other games.

Ruiz also coached La Habra Little League for five years, and was involved with Neighborhood Housing Services, a now-defunct agency that helped spruce up blighted neighborhoods.

Ruiz became interested in a career in law enforcement when he was 12.

His cousin at the time, 16, was an explorer for the LHPD and told him stories about ridealongs he had been on.

Ruiz was intrigued.

“I thought that sounded pretty cool,” Ruiz says.

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Lt. Mel Ruiz serves funnel cakes for the Lions Club at last year’s Corn Festival. Photo courtesy of LHPD

That cousin, Javier Godinez, now is an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office after a career as a reserve police officer for Santa Ana and Orange and as a full-time officer in Cypress.

Ruiz was hired as a full-time LHPD officer in 1987.

“I remember writing police reports with a pencil and paper,” he recalls. “When I was a cadet, we tracked reports by typing case numbers on index cards.”

Times have changed.

What hasn’t changed is the LHPD’s family vibe and commitment to forging strong ties to the community, says Ruiz, a married father of three who loves baseball. He and his father have season tickets to Angels games.

Ruiz met his wife, Diane, when she worked full time at the LHPD as a dispatcher. She now is a court clerk at the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange, but continues to work as a part-time dispatcher for the agency.

Not likely to change, even if he retires, is Ruiz’s presence at a host of La Habra community events.

“I grew up here; this will always be home to me,” Ruiz says of his love for La Habra.

Lt. Mel Ruiz of La Habra PD. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Lt. Mel Ruiz of the La Habra PD.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC