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From the Streets of Atwater to the Next Possible Chief of the LAPD ~ Meet Robert Arcos

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he next chief of police of the City of Angels could be Robert Arcos, who grew up in the 1970s in Atwater, blocks from the L.A. River, the oldest of five children by a single mother.

He’s a third-generation Mexican American, and although born in Texas, a homegrown child of Northeast Los Angeles. On Tuesday Arcos emerged as one of three candidates to succeed Charlie Beck as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a milestone for an L.A. kid who grew up in what he describes today as a “Switzerland” neutral zone between several local gangs.

Much like residents citywide, nearly half of all rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers are Latino.

But the department and the city have yet to see a Latino police chief. Los Angeles had its first African American police chief in 1992 with Willie Williams, recruited from Philadelphia, and its first Latino mayor in modern times with the election of Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005.

Arcos is one of the finalists recommended by the L.A. Police Commission to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who could make the decision any day now. The other two finalists are Michel Moore, who is white and heads LAPD’s patrol operations, and Bill Scott, who is African American and another LAPD veteran. Scott took over the troubled San Francisco Police Department a little more than a year ago.

No women were named among the finalists, and the LAPD has never had a female police chief.

Ethnic and gender politics aside, Arcos — like Moore and Scott — is a cop’s cop, and more than qualified for the job. A 30-year veteran police officer with pivotal command positions in vice, gangs and narcotics, he rose up through the ranks in the wake of the 1992 L.A. Riots and through the federal government-imposed consent decree, in which the feds oversaw the LAPD’s reforms after the Rampart Scandal. (Read background on the consent decree here.)

Arcos is currently a deputy chief and two-star officer in charge of Central Bureau, which covers the Hollenbeck and Northeast regions of L.A.

RELATED: Three LAPD Veterans Are Named Finalists fo Chief

As much as appointing a majority-Latino city’s first Latino police chief is a tentpole moment for Los Angeles, Arcos’s back story is more compelling. One night in San Antonio, Texas, in 1971 his mother, Christine Arcos, packed him and his two brothers and two sisters onto an Amtrak train bound for Los Angeles.

Arcos in Atwater on May 7, 2018. Photo by Philip Iglauer.

L.A. Taco recently spent a day with Robert Arcos in his old stomping grounds, for an exclusive interview that took place mere hours before his name began circulating online as one of the finalists.

“My mom … simply, she just had enough of what was going on, and she was a courageous woman,” Arcos told me at the side of the road on a cul de sac, next to a Department of Water and Power work yard and a patch of grass.

'My friends were either Toonerville, they were from Frogtown, there were guys from Avenues, and even guys from Highland Park.'

We’re here so Arcos can show me where he and his friends used to play tackle football when he was a kid. The conversation returns to his mother.

“She is the most courageous woman I know, and the most compassionate woman I know. She had the will to pack five kids up in the middle of the night and move them from San Antonio to Los Angeles,” he went on. “That was a feat in and of itself.”

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]rcos grew up in L.A. from age 9 and, from age 13, his universe covered a one-mile orbit around the corner of Fletcher Avenue and Larga Avenue, on the border of Frogtown. He went to Irving Junior High in Glassell Park and John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. Arcos described his corner of Atwater as a neutral zone tucked in between gang areas Toonerville and Frogtown.

“This area, Atwater did not have its own gang. It was kind of a little bit, pardon the metaphor, but we were kind of the Switzerland of the area. We were neutral. People could travel through here,” he said.

“My friends were either Toonerville, they were from Frogtown, there were guys from Avenues, and even guys from Highland Park, because these were the neighborhoods.”

Robert Arcos, far right, with three siblings.

Arcos navigated the streets of Northeast L.A. carefully, avoiding gangs and other trouble by focusing on sports, something he excelled in. Throughout junior high school, he and his friends played tackle football on a patch of grass next to the L.A. River.

“We all had football helmets of our favorite teams, Rams, Raiders, Chargers, whatever other equipment we could scrape up,” Arcos said at the spot where he used to play. The grass has since been replaced with mulch and gravel. Back in his day, the area became known for gang crime.

Arcos and his mother.

“The fence facing the river was perched up back then,” he explained, pointing toward the river beyond the chain-link fence. “We would climb under the fence and walk along the river to this huge pipe, and walk across that to the other side. And that’s how you got to Griffith Park by Los Feliz and Riverside Drive. Sometimes we would go there and hang out all day and play.”

He would arrive home from school before his mother, because she was always working to support her five children. Arcos said one of his most distinct memories is of his mother cleaning all of the time. She always had food on the table for them, he said.

“There was always this smell of Pine-Sol or something in the bathroom and everything was always in its place. She had very little time for herself to make sure the house was in order and the kids were taken care of,” Arcos said. “And then the next day would start. She would do the same thing over again.”

He went on: “We were living in East Hollywood for a couple of years at Kenmore and Melrose next to my grandparents. When we found this house here, we moved in on my mom’s birthday.”

Once there, Arcos added, “All she did was clean the house. She didn’t take any time to celebrate her birthday. It was a big move and it was a big deal for us.”

The oldest of five, Arcos was a big brother but in many ways he was also a father figure to his younger siblings.

“I had to be the head of the household. I know they look at me as a big brother, but many times I was fatherly too because my dad wasn’t around.”

'I had to be the head of the household.'

He took more than his share of responsibility at a young age. In some ways, that’s the way he sees law enforcement. “When you are that young without a father and you are trying to make it, it’s important to have people surround you and protect you. It is a very comforting feeling,” he said.

Arcos played football, basketball and varsity baseball at John Marshall High School, graduating in 1979. After that he enlisted in the Army as a medic. When he got out, he worked at Hughes market in Pasadena, a job his younger brother got him. That’s where he met his wife, herself a single mom with a baby girl.

They were married in 1986. It was shortly after getting married in his mid-twenties that Arcos looked to law enforcement as a career.

“The law enforcement profession gives you the opportunity to protect others. I don’t know if it was an unconscious or conscious decision, but it stuck with me and that had a lot to do with it.”

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]rcos graduated from the police academy in 1988. He started out in the Rampart Division, a demanding assignment working patrol, vice, narcotics, and gangs. He worked his way up through the 1990s, obtaining supervisory positions in the Northeast Division and in the San Fernando Valley by the end of the decade.

In 2003, he was promoted to lieutenant, becoming the Wilshire area watch commander and, in 2012, the 77 Street area commanding officer. He was then promoted to Deputy Chief of Central Bureau, which includes Rampart, Northeast, and Hollenbeck.

During the recent interview at the cul de sac on Silver Lake Boulevard, he came back to the role that his mother, Christine, played in his decision to dedicate 30 years of his life to the Los Angeles Police Department.

“My mom is everything to me,” Arcos says. “Her strength and her compassion meant everything to me, those things helped shape me, and made me who I am today, in the way I have empathy for others. My story is not unique to many of these kids growing up today. If I can be a role model then I am happy to do it.”

RELATED: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck Announces He Will Retire

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