When Lt. Joe Gomez, who serves as the media liaison for the Fresno Police Department, was at the scene of an armed standoff near downtown in 2015, he was asked by a reporter if he considered the area to be a dangerous neighborhood.
Without pausing, Gomez pointed to a building about half a block nearer than the area under siege by a SWAT team and an armored vehicle.
“I grew up in a house right there.”
On another occasion, Gomez recalled running through the streets with his young friends in the area, long considered a breeding ground for violent gangs, such as the Bulldogs. He credits the strong influence of his mother, positive experiences with police and the Marine Corps for keeping him out of trouble.
For the past two years, Gomez has been a face of Fresno police. In his role as spokesman, the 30-year department veteran is in front of cameras and notepads more often than Chief Jerry Dyer. His straight-ahead, off-the-cuff style is notable.
He sat down with The Bee for a far-ranging Q&A:
Q. Where did you grow up, and what schools did you attend?
A. When I was very young, up to 4 years old, I was raised at a house on Mono Street just east of Chestnut Avenue. We then moved to 315 N. Clark St. (just north of Community Regional Medical Center), where we lived until I was 12 years old. While I lived on Clark Street, I attended Jefferson Elementary. We then moved to 3542 E. Flint Ave., near Dakota and Millbrook avenues, where I lived until I went into the United States Marine Corps when I was 17 years old, in 1977. When I lived on Flint, I attended Centennial Elementary and then went to Sierra Junior High School, which no longer exists. I attended McLane High until I went into the Marines.
Q. What about college?
A. The last year of my tour of duty in the Marines I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and while there, I attended East Carolina University briefly. Once I was honorably discharged from the Marines, I used the old G.I. Bill and attended Fresno City College. I then transferred to Fresno State, where I received my B.A. in public administration. I also completed 36 units in the graduate program in public administration at Fresno State. Lastly, I have also completed the Supervisory Leadership Institute and command college as a police lieutenant.
Q. You lived in a neighborhood at Clark and McKenzie Avenue known as a rough part of the city and the home of many gang members. What kept you away from gangs?
A. That neighborhood is not significantly different now than it was when I lived in it as a young boy. In fact, it may have improved from that time because of Community Regional Medical Center (construction) taking up much of that neighborhood. One of my earliest memories living in that neighborhood was my stepfather coming home with his friends at midnight and bleeding all over the kitchen floor because he was stabbed in the torso. Also, the eldest son of a Filipino family that babysat myself, my brother and sister daily was hooked on heroin. The son would often come home under the influence of heroin, glue and other drugs and cause many problems, which we all witnessed.
When I was in fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary, I was getting involved with a very bad crowd. These young kids were starting to use drugs and were already starting to have sex. My mother did her absolute best to stop me from getting involved with this crowd, but it was becoming a struggle for her. I believe there were three reasons I did not get involved with drugs and gangs at that time.
First, as I was becoming of age and starting to hang out with people that were a bad influence for me, my family moved from that neighborhood to 3542 E. Flint. Secondly, my mother was a very strong influence on me and did her best to keep me away from the wrong crowd. Lastly, growing up in that neighborhood I was able to see the Fresno Police Department in action on many occasions, with most of the interactions involving my family. What I witnessed was always positive. … The impact was to such an extent that when I got out of the Marine Corps and started to attend college, I chose criminology because I felt that all I wanted to do was be a cop, especially a Fresno police officer.
Q. Why did you choose the Marines over another branch of service?
A. My tour of duty in the Marine Corps was from January 1977 to January 1980. In my high school years, my family believed I needed more discipline. My grandfather was in the Marines in the Korean War, and he felt it was a good life-changing experience for him. He had a long talk with me about the Marines and I later agreed to enlist. I really cannot recall if I ever considered any other branches of service.
Q. What are your most important takeaways from the Marine Corps experience?
A. To be perfectly frank, the Marines prepared me very well to be a law enforcement professional. Sometime after I was discharged from the Marines, I attended the police academy and the para-military structure of the academy was somewhat laughable to me compared to the extreme discipline and military structure of the Marines. I was very knowledgeable in weaponry and, of course, the Marines focused on physical fitness, which all contributed to success in the academy. My Marine training did contribute to being successful not only in the academy but beyond in the field training program and being a tenured police officer.
My biggest takeaway from the Marines was appreciating success by way of being disciplined and exhibiting a strong work ethic. After the Marines, I understood I could accomplish whatever I wanted if I focused on a goal and worked hard to achieve that goal. Yes, the Marines is a life-changing experience. I am not sure where I would have ended up in life if I had not gone into the Marines.
Q. What police departments have you worked for?
A. I was hired by the Clovis Police Department as a provisional police officer in 1984 while I was in the middle of my academy. In July 1986, I transferred to the Fresno Police Department from the Clovis Police Department. My first choice was always to be at the Fresno Police Department, but in 1982 I was disqualified in the hiring process because I was born with an extra vertebrae in my lower back. Back in 1982, the city was disqualifying applicants with this condition because of the belief that the extra vertebrae would cause additional stress on the lower back related to wearing a gun belt.
Q. What special units have you been part of?
A. In my last year at the Clovis Police Department, I was on a special DUI team where I worked from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. My only duty was to locate and arrest DUI drivers.
At the Fresno Police Department, I was assigned to the now-defunct patrol tactical team. I worked on this team from 1990 to 1994 and that was back during the time when there were very few special units at the Fresno Police Department. Crack cocaine sales were rampant during this period and much of our duties focused on arresting crack dealers. An undercover officer would drive up to a street dealer, purchase rock cocaine, and then signal another undercover car or van occupied by officers that would chase the dealer and arrest him. The team was also involved in many other operations such as auto theft, prostitution, serial rapists and arresting robbery and murder suspects.
As a sergeant, I supervised a district crime suppression team in the central policing district for two years.
As a newly promoted lieutenant, my first command was the special units bureau, which consisted of Bulldog Tactical Team, West Fresno Tactical Team, Parole Apprehension Team, MAGEC Metro Tactical Team, and MAGEC Investigations Team.
In June 2010, Chief Dyer created the Violent Crime Impact Team. Lt. Mike Doyle and myself were the commanders. We had 60 officers we commanded with four uniformed teams and two undercover teams. The focus of VCIT was to stop gang violence.
Q. What is it like working with the news media in an era when police are under special scrutiny in the wake of Ferguson?
A. Law enforcement and the media are involved in a very symbiotic relationship. We benefit from the media as the media benefits from us. We need to see one another as partners instead of opposing entities. My finding has been that those in the media are just trying to do their jobs, which I believe is quite difficult in many circumstances. Law enforcement should be as open as possible, as transparent as can be, and as responsive as we can be with all media inquiries. I have enjoyed all those I have dealt with in the media with very, very, few problems encountered. I have been most fortunate to meet many very nice people in the media while I have been the department public information officer. Truly, I have nothing but nice things to say about local media and they have been quite fair in their coverage of the Fresno Police Department. Even considering the current climate for local law enforcement nationally, I can only say that local media has been fair and supportive of law enforcement in Fresno County. We appreciate that very much and I never forget that.
Q. You seem to be able to keep your sense of humor in a high-stress job. What is your secret?
A. My mother was a very young manager at Pacific Bell, later AT&T, and she did not retire until after she was 70 years old. When I was young, I remember her telling me several times that you need to get a job that you will enjoy. I was very fortunate to get into a profession that I have always loved. I don’t feel any different now than when I was initially released from the field training program in 1985. This job is so interesting, different every day and enjoyable that I still love it even after all this time. Because I am in the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program) program, I am required to leave the department in March 2019, and until that time I am going to get as much out of this job as possible because if I don’t I know I will regret it once I leave this agency. Thus, the secret is loving what you do.
Jim Guy: 559-441-6339
Lt. Joe Gomez
Fresno Police Department: July 1986 to present
Marine Corps: January 1977 to January 1980
High school: McLane
Family: Married to Shurene; three daughters, Natalya, 24, Sinead, 9, and Sinclaire, 6