Captain discusses path to SCV, building relationships

Capt. Justin Diez, left, speaks with deputies at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Capt. Justin Diez came prepared with a plan when he took over the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station on March 7.

Diez returned to Santa Clarita already familiar with the station, having previously served as the operations lieutenant at the station under then-Capt. Robert Lewis, who was promoted to commander of the county Sheriff’s Department’s Special Operations Division.

And Diez’s career prepared him for his latest assignment. But he had a very specific goal in mind when he took over about six months ago.

“I had a good grasp of the station,” Diez recalled, noting there were some small changes, but nothing major from when he last worked in Santa Clarita. “But my main, main, main thing was that in … my first few months, I was going to get out to any community event that I could possibly show my face at and, really, you know, just embrace the community.”

But, as the expression goes: “The best laid schemes of mice and men. … ”

Diez took the first opportunity he could, which happened to be speaking with the Canyon Country Advisory Group, back in March. Most people remember what happened next: On March 11, L.A. County officials reported the county’s first coronavirus death. By March 19, a statewide stay-at-home order prevented Diez from organizing any public get-togethers, along with about 40 million other Californians. 

In-person gathering became impossible, but with technology and tentative protocols emerging, Diez has started up once again, now with virtual outreach. He discussed his different earliest inspiration, assignments with the Sheriff’s Department that led to his current station and the importance of relationships throughout his career — a path that started with “CHiPs,” then a study of sociology, then the Pitchess Detention Center, courts, gang patrols, internal affairs and a number of other stops that all played a role in bringing him here.

Capt. Justin Diez at Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Station. Dan Watson/The Signal

First memories

Diez knew he wanted to be in law enforcement from a young age, he said, recalling  “CHiPs,” a popular NBC TV show filmed in and around the San Fernando Valley where he grew up, as one of his earliest influences.

“Ponch and John were my heroes,” Diez said with a laugh, recalling watching reruns of the crime-fighting motorcycle cop drama. “They made me want to get into the police business — and ride a motorcycle.”

Not long after graduating from Cal State University, Northridge, with a degree in sociology (with an emphasis in criminology), Diez decided to join the training academy for the Sheriff’’s Department with two goals in mind: “The only thing I knew I wanted to do was 1), be a ‘motor’ (a ‘motor deputy’ is a term for a motorcycle officer) ; and 2, work gangs.”

Diez’s first assignment was a little more stationary. Not long after graduating the academy in April 2002, he was assigned to the North County Correctional Facility at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. 

Like many deputies working in custody, Diez described the experience as a bit of a “crash course” for studying criminology. For someone who wanted to work to suppress criminal gang behavior, the jail offers a number of lessons. 

“When you’re in custody, you’re young, generally right out of the academy, right out of college … it’s a time to mature. It’s a time to learn department policies, procedures and, basically, interact with inmates. And when you interact with inmates, you learn how to speak with them, you know, you’ve learned their lingo.”

Capt. Justin Diez, right, with Sheriff’s Station clerks in the Records Department at Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station. Dan Watson/The Signal

On the road

In less than a year, Diez was on the move again, this time with the Transit Services Bureau, during a critical time for such security. Coming not long after the nation was attacked by terrorism and constantly on alert, Diez was patrolling for potential domestic threats in what he called “high-visibility security work.”

“There’s always a heightened awareness for any sort of terrorism on the transit system,” Diez said.

Community policing

Diez’s next assignment was with the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, teams as part of the department’s “use of prevention, intervention and enforcement techniques,” per the LASD website. The team’s work with local stations to address “quality of life” issues can include everything from gang-related crime like graffiti to outreach programs. This was Diez’s first of several tours with the Compton station, which had him assigned to what’s called a “High Impact Team,” considered a “proactive” force that went on patrols and operations, as opposed to responding to service calls.

After about a year, Diez said he was fortunate to gain another experience working on gang suppression with Operation Safe Streets’ Gang Enforcement Team.

While the HIT work would put Diez in contact with a number of different types of crime, the GET allowed him to focus on one of his primary motivations for joining the department — working to stop gang-related crime.

Santa Clarita’s then-Mayor Laurene Weste talks to Capt. Justin Diez and a Santa Clarita staffer at the groundbreaking ceremony for Los Angeles County Fire Station 104 on the corner of Newhall Ranch Road and Golden Valley Road. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Gaining perspective

While Diez worked in areas that have reputations for prolific gang crime, like Compton and South Los Angeles (which was formerly Lennox Station), and areas known for their safety and million-dollar properties like the Lost Hills/Malibu and Santa Clarita stations, he found parallels in all communities.

“I mean, it doesn’t matter where you work, if you just treat people with respect — firm, but fair with people, is what I tell the deputies out here … and treat people with respect, and you’ll develop those relationships. I think that’s universal of any city, any area, any station I’ve ever worked.”

After working with the gang detail in Compton, Diez was promoted to sergeant, and served at the Lancaster station, drawing on experience from working with a number of different agencies through his various assignments.

“I think that, really what I learned from there — I was young, of course, working in a city that, at the time, had a lot of gang violence. … I just learned how to talk to people and build those relationships. And again, that’s everybody, that’s a random community member, that’s outside entities like L.A. County mental health; that’s probation; that’s parole; that’s gang members. That’s anybody, just learning how to interact with people and form those relationships.”

Change in assignment

After spending a couple of years working as a patrol sergeant in Lancaster, Diez returned to COPS as a parole compliance sergeant for a year, and then returned to the High Impact Team, which he worked for about nine months, before heading to administration for the Sheriff’s Department, working in Internal Affairs.

His new Internal Affairs assignment was a little different than what he was used to, but he credited it with giving him more of a “global” view of the department, as well as a much greater understanding of policy and procedure.

After a promotion to lieutenant in June 2015, Diez, who had also obtained a master’s degree at that point, returned to Lancaster as a watch commander, the person who supervises deputies actively on patrol for the station. 

He then briefly returned to Internal Affairs, and then came to Santa Clarita as operations lieutenant in June 2017, which is essentially the No. 2 to the captain, serving under then-Capt. Lewis. Diez met Lewis when the two worked overtime together not long after the Chatsworth courthouse opened in 2002, describing Lewis as a mentor.

Before coming back to the SCV as captain, he served as aide to Chief Dennis Kneer, who oversees the North County Patrol Division, and then a relatively short stint as watch commander at Lost Hills/Malibu, before he was named to the SCV Station in March. 

Diez said he was very grateful for the large show of support the station receives on a daily basis, and shared that when it’s safe to do so, he looks forward to being able to host community events, as well as ride-alongs, in order to maintain a robust outreach effort.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Diez said, “and to be successful in whatever job you have, certainly building those relationships along the way with different entities in the Sheriff’s Department, different entities outside the department, really, really benefit you down the road.”

Deputy Steffen, left, and Captain Justin Diez in the holding cells at the Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Station on Tuesday. 090820 Dan Watson/The Signal

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