‘Almost surreal’: South County native Jorge Zamora prepares for his new role as Watsonville’s top cop
The longtime Watsonville police officer will become the department’s 16th police chief on Jan. 10, bringing the city native to the forefront of a challenging time for policing and the community at large. Zamora said he aims to build the department based on “good people,” not “perfect people.”
Jorge Zamora is still slightly in shock. In just a few weeks’ time, on Jan. 10, the longtime Watsonville police officer will officially start a new role with the department, becoming the Watsonville Police Department’s 16th chief.
“Most of my successes have been unplanned, and this is certainly one of those,” he said. “But, as time went on, I realized that a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing throughout my career prepared me for this role.”
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Zamora first entered the department at just 16 years old in 1991, joining a police cadet program for aspiring officers. Since being hired full-time as an officer in 1996, Zamora has held many assignments, including patrol, gang and narcotics enforcement, hostage negotiation and youth mentorship. As he prepares for his new role as chief, Zamora mostly feels gratitude for the doors that have opened right here at home.
“This town, this place has offered me so much opportunity — for someone like me, with my background, to be in the position of chief of police, it’s almost surreal,” he said.
A native son who learned hard work
Zamora’s parents immigrated to Watsonville from Michoacán, Mexico, and that was where their first-generation 10-year-old son learned the value of hard work, joining them in picking fruit and vegetables in the fields.
“That is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had,” Zamora said. It was his mother who imparted the message that ”through that type of struggle, you will gain perspective on the meaning of purpose in life.”
The family lived in the farmworker camp in Las Lomas, just over the Monterey County line near Prunedale, and his parents saved up with other family members to buy a home in downtown Watsonville, on Kearney and Rodriguez streets, as Zamora approached his teenage years.
Zamora recalls dreaming about becoming a police officer before the move, but those dreams faded away in a new environment laden with gang violence, drug dealing and the like. Zamora said he fell into the patterns of the area initially, noting his experiences as a gang member and drug user and seller, while also being subjected to domestic violence at home.
“My parents were hard-working immigrants, but these things infiltrated our family somehow,” he said.
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It took the guidance of a wise English teacher at Watsonville High School to straighten out his course.
“Mr. Wong told me, with the level of energy I had, I could either screw up the world or make it a better place,” Zamora said. “He saw me for who I wanted to be instead of who I was.”
His teacher then steered him toward a member of the Watsonville Police Department, who convinced the 15-year-old to apply for the police cadet program.
Maria Zamora, Jorge’s younger sister, felt involved in her brother’s career from the start, and has seen him grow into his role as a community representative over the past three decades.
“I remember just admiring the hustle,” she said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to have him in the police department, patrolling and helping the community.”
His giving and humble persona shines through outside of the department as well, she said, with Zamora grilling cheeseburgers with jalapenos, mushrooms, bacon and onion at family functions. Maria said the opportunity to bond over food makes all the more impact considering Zamora’s busy schedule and the stress associated with his position.
“He’s a really strong support system for all of us — he’s such a positive person and a positive soul,” she said. “The passion he has with his family, you can feel it in the police force … that’s such an amazing feeling to know we have someone like that running the police department now.”
Councilmember Francisco “Paco” Estrada first met Zamora through his nonprofit work, focusing on youth well-being. Estrada noted it was “rare” to have law enforcement at some of the nonprofit meetings, but Zamora was “different” and created a positive vibe through his attendance.
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The pair connected again in 2020 as members of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity, formed by the city with community members and city staff to address the future of policing in Watsonville. Estrada said Zamora’s connections to many of Watsonville’s important institutions helped Zamora bring forward suggestions based on his love and knowledge of the community.
“I think he’s just incredibly empathetic,” Estrada said. “That’s always something I’ve admired about him. He’s really trying to be a force of good in the community.”
The challenges of entering the role
With his deep background in Watsonville, Zamora is well aware of the challenges he’ll face in his new position. Nationwide and right here at home, the conversation around policing has led to tense and uncomfortable community moments — and it will involve further discussions about what reforms are needed.
“You have to have a duality of aggressive, focused policing and at the same time have a genuine connection to the community, and really engage in a meaningful way,” he said. “If you can mend those two together, that is powerful.”
County Supervisor Zach Friend — who first worked with Zamora as a public information officer for the Santa Cruz Police Department — noted that Zamora has often been at the forefront of making departments better, from active engagement with the Criminal Justice Council to his connections within Watsonville.
He is exceptionally well-respected within, not just the law enforcement community, but in the broader nonprofit and community-based-organization community. I think he’s an outstanding choice for the role, and the right person for this time.
— Zach Friend
“He is exceptionally well-respected within, not just the law enforcement community, but in the broader nonprofit and community-based-organization community,” Friend said. “I think he’s an outstanding choice for the role, and the right person for this time.”
The reexamination of law enforcement practices across the country has led to divisions, Friend said, with community members either blindly defensive of law enforcement or overly in favor of reform. Friend believes Zamora has what it takes to build bridges between those two groups.
“This can really set the course,” he said, for how “law enforcement and community interactions are going to occur moving forward.”
Local activist Joy Flynn — who worked with Zamora briefly as a consultant for the ad-hoc committee earlier this year — hesitated slightly when asked what change he could bring to the new role. But Flynn said his community connection will be a great asset.
“I like that Jorge is a longtime community member, born and raised, and I think he really does have a heart for this community,” she said. “I think the most important thing, though, is for him to recognize the history of policing and understanding the trauma that policing has historically caused Black and brown people.”
I think the most important thing, though, is for him to recognize the history of policing and understanding the trauma that policing has historically caused Black and brown people.
— Joy Flynn
Flynn said she hopes Zamora will approach the position with that understanding, and focus on investing resources away from policing into more community programs. She’s grateful that Zamora has experience in restorative justice, but Zamora should understand what he represents when he wears the uniform.
“There could be a lot of potential for him to be the best chief that the city has had,” she said. “From my experience, he’s a very good man and operates from a high level of integrity — that’s something that has to be at the forefront.”
How he sees the future
Compared to when he started on the force, Zamora believes the present is the “best time to be a police officer.” With advancements in training, body armor, medical technology, access to higher education and officer wellness, the department — with 72 officers and 18 professional staff members — can create “critical thinkers and better service.”
“I really believe that this community loves and respects what we do,” he said. “There are certainly pockets of people who don’t understand police culture and those who just don’t like us — I was one of them. … We’ve done a lot of work around that, but we need to do more. There is so much opportunity to do things better.”
In 2022, Zamora hopes to bring back programs postponed by the pandemic, including Agua Con La Chota (Water with a Cop) — connecting with fieldworkers on what matters to them — and Buenos Dias/Buenas Tardes (Good Morning/Good Afternoon) — with community members connecting with officers monthly. He further aims to reestablish the cadet program for the area’s youth, and to implement the recommendations from the ad-hoc committee.
“We need to really think about what we’re doing, in service of a better community,” he said.
Zamora recalled how the lessons from his high school English teacher still resonate all of these years later, and will be the model he strives to continue in his new role.
“What our officers do so well here, they show who they are as a person first and then as an enforcement officer,” he said. “We’re not looking for perfect people, we’re looking for good people.”
Zamora’s official badge-pinning ceremony will take place on Monday, Jan. 10, beginning at 4 p.m. The event will be held at Watsonville City Council chambers, and will be open to the public.