When former Santa Ana police chief Ray Davis spoke with the Weekly last month for a story looking back at his embattled tenure, it proved to be his final interview. The late lawman passed away on Mar. 29 at the age of 85, just day after our article on his legacy published. Davis lead the Santa Ana Police department from 1972 to 1987 during an era of demographic changes in the city, one he met with innovative policing policies.
Though Davis had many supporters, such as the FBI and Governor Jerry Brown, he also made many enemies, primarily due to battles with federal immigration officials over sweeps in the city. Davis thought it unlawful and counterproductive to have his officers participating in deportations. His provocative stance of noncompliance made Santa Ana a proto-sanctuary city long before it formally declared itself one last year. And for all the frothing at the mouth these days about such successor policies endangering public safety, Davis took on a Santa Ana with the highest crime rate in the state and in four years turned the city around into having the largest reduction in crime in the nation.
In our recent interview, Davis stated that prior to being Santa Ana’s top cop, he witnessed strong enforcement of undocumented residents during his decade with the Fullerton Police Department. He credits his evolution on the negative impact of deportations on his work with the late Santa Ana police officer Jose Vargas and intensive community engagement. Vargas himself had crossed the border 15 times before earning his citizenship. “I guess it was learning over a period of time that it was not productive,” Davis said. “I think it came along with the idea of community policing.”
The core of Davis’s policing philosophy was that strong community relations makes for a safer city for everyone. Davis became a thought leader in the emerging community policing movement, putting Santa Ana on the map nationally for its progressive policies. Since Davis’ time in the department, many cities across the nation have used Santa Ana as a model for developing their own community policing programs.
One of the cornerstones of this multi-pronged approach was diversifying the police force. Santa Ana PD went from having just 3 percent officers of color to 25 percent in three years. These moves were as much ideological as they were pragmatic. Officers who were un-sworn were also cheaper for the department to employ as well as less threatening to residents. Having more bilingual and unarmed officers on the force was aimed at improving community trust and communication. “It is important for a police officer to be able to talk to a Hispanic person without a view of fear,” Davis said. This blend of pragmatism and community mindfulness was central to his success.
Prior to becoming Santa Ana’s police chief, Davis headed a force in Walnut Creek in Northern California after having spent a decade with the Fullerton Police Department. Davis is survived by his family including his wife, who, in May, would have celebrated being together with him for 67 years. The two lived in the same house in Santa Ana for forty years. The Davis family has deep roots in the city. His son is even a retired Santa Ana fireman.
While a person’s life can’t be summed up solely based on career accomplishments, Davis’ own carry a specific weight. His legacy shows the potential power of discretion and creativity that public administrators can yield. Or as Davis himself stated at the end of our conversation summing up his life’s work, “it’s an important thing, you know?”
An earlier version of this article reported that Davis lead the Walnut Creek Police Department prior to working with the Fullerton Police Department. Davis actually worked at the Fullerton Police Department before becoming police chief of Walnut Creek. The Weekly regrets the error.
Adam J. Samaha is a writer and journalist living in Fullerton, California.