Meynard “JR” Gamez was not one of those guys who always wanted to be a cop.
The son of Cuban immigrants, including a mother who left Cuba after her police officer brother was killed, Gamez entered college to train for a career in dentistry. And at age 19, he came home to San Francisco to oversee his family’s interior design business.
“I was supposedly the heir apparent of the business,” recalled Gamez, who waited six months to tell his parents about his career change into police work.
On Friday, after more than 25 years in a variety of roles with the San Jose police, including division captain, Gamez became chief of the Redwood City Police Department. And while he long ago left behind the family business, he said he has carried the lessons he learned there into his policing career.
“I tell my guys, ‘We may not be building widgets,’” Gamez, 49, said last week during an interview. “But we provide a service, and that’s customer service.’”
People who worked with Gamez in San Jose called him an affable and tireless team builder and a visible presence in the community who is quick to solve problems large and small.
“It’s never about him,’” said Daly City Police Chief Manny Martinez, a former San Jose police colleague. “It’s always about, ‘Where can I take the organization, how can I support the community?’”
As part of the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, Gamez helped clear roadblocks and was a constant and active player both on the streets and in community meetings, said Pastor Sonny Lara, who heads The FireHouse, a gang intervention program that is part of the task force. Lara said Gamez offered gang members another, more positive picture of police.
As the captain in charge of the San Jose department’s Western Division, where he commanded a force of 275 that provided police services for 233,000 people — many of them Spanish-speaking immigrants — Gamez worked with community members to help alleviate gang problems and boost community relationships, said Ruth Cueto, assistant to City Councilman Sam Liccardo.
Cueto said Gamez helped an elementary school in his division institute a walking program called Safe Routes to School and was personally involved in an intervention program aimed at steering youths away from gangs.
“It’s definitely a loss for San Jose,” Cueto said of Gamez’s departure.
Redwood City spokesman Malcolm Smith said Gamez’s community policing and gang-suppression expertise helped him beat out 25 other candidates for the chief’s job, including two internal candidates who helped lead the department after former chief Louis Cobarruviaz left in February.
As chief, Gamez will manage a budget of about $29 million and earn $186,984 a year. He also is eligible for a pension for his San Jose service when he turns 50, in September 2012.
In Redwood City, Gamez will lead a force of 129 people. He said his first priority is getting to know the officers he’ll be working with and the needs of his new community.
“I’m just really looking forward to starting my work over in Redwood City and working with those men and women,” he said.
Gamez was recently selected from among 26 candidates as the new police chief of Redwood City. He replaces former chief Louis Cobarruviaz, who stepped down last February.
Background: More than 25 years with the San Jose Police Department, where he served on the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force and was the captain in charge of the department’s Western Division
Duties: Gamez will lead a force of 129 people and manage an annual budget of about $29 million
Salary: $186,984 a year