Written by Donna Lander | 2020
How does one determine what makes something valuable? Sgt. Villegas, a recent retiree of the Alhambra Police Department, believes that the documentation of history has worth and value, and it is because of this conviction that he decided to create the first yearbook for his department. He wanted to give accuracy and validity to both the heroic and ordinary actions of his fellow officers, recognizing their daily decision to sacrifice for and serve their community. He views police officers as living historians, and he documents what happens in his department and in the community through the method of pictures and storytelling.
However, the beginning of his journey to create a yearbook did not start smoothly. The things that are truly valuable tend to take immense fortitude and resolve to complete, and this project was no exception. At first glance, Sgt. Villegas would not be considered as a Yearbook Project Leader, particularly because of his inexperience in the field. During high school, he was not involved in a yearbook class, but rather participated in the explorer and police cadet programs that were offered. During these programs, he got valuable experience in dealing with people, and he found that he was skilled in helping people sort through their problems. He began considering law enforcement as a profession, but also realized the dangers of the job. He wanted an education in another field as a back-up, in case he ever got injured to the point of having to quit the police force. So, Villegas decided to study business at California State University, Los Angeles. However, after only two quarters, he realized that business confined him too much. He decided to switch, graduating with his B.A. in criminal justice and, later on, with his M.A. in organizational leadership from Woodbury University.
Sgt. Villegas has over 30 years of experience in law enforcement: 25 years as a police patrol officer, and another 5+ years as the coordinator of the field training program of the Alhambra Police Department. This position employed his organizational skills, with Villegas collaborating with other trainers and ensuring that all officers received their bi-annual law enforcement updates and training. He trained the officers not only to protect and serve, but also to excel and build upon their skills. According to Chief Timothy Vu, these organizational skills were enough to qualify Villegas for leading the yearbook project.
Chief Vu had been introduced to the idea of a yearbook for his department after seeing several other similar agencies successfully execute it. In particular, the Tustin Police Department created a 100th-anniversary commemorative yearbook, and the Chief was so impressed by the value of it that he jumped on the idea for his own agency. Approaching Villegas, he assigned him to the task of researching how to put a yearbook together, configuring the costs, contacting publishers, and persuading the officers, both current and retired, to join in on the project.
In his spare time, Villegas, along with a small yearbook staff of six people, started the journey to making a commemorative yearbook. However, it wasn’t long before the six members dropped out and Villegas was left to shoulder the responsibility on his own. After proceeding with calculating the cost and communicating with Chief Vu, a misunderstanding occurred. In the process of correcting the error, another disgruntled employee of the department presented wrong information concerning the cost and motivation for making the yearbook. This episode tainted the process and spread through the ranks of the department, making officers suspicious and wary about having a yearbook at all. A petition was drafted, and signatures were gathered from every officer in the department to try and stop the yearbook from happening. After Villegas submitted several emails to try and clarify and regain unified support among the team of officers, the Chief agreed to him pursuing the production of the yearbook outside office hours. The Sergeant expended a tremendous amount of energy, contacting every person who had signed the petition and explaining the clear purpose of the yearbook. In addition, he also clarified how much it would cost for the book to be published, how much one could be expected to pay for a copy, and why the disgruntled employee had been against the production of the book in the first place. After all his efforts, a few still requested not to be included, but 95% of the force agreed to participate.
After experiencing this shaky beginning, Sgt. Villegas connected with two publishing companies. The first contact never returned his call. The second contact, TSE Worldwide Press, explained the process of what it would look like to partner with its United Yearbook Printing division, and a contract was signed. United Yearbook provided the software and resources, and the Sergeant was on his way! The most surprising facet of the process for Villegas turned out to be the software itself. Having no prior experience, the task seemed daunting and a little overwhelming, but the software turned out to be user friendly! As he became familiar with how it worked, his confidence and innovation grew, and the job became easier.
In addition to the creativity and ease of the software, Villegas enjoyed a particular part of the process, namely the collecting of photos from his fellow officers, especially from those who had already retired. Each photo and discussion with the retirees instigated a walk down memory lane, and Villegas recognized how time changes some people but not others. Current employees also contributed their photos, and Sgt. Villegas created the layouts for each page using the software United Yearbook provided. One particular aha moment happened when he discovered that he could take a photo and use it to create the backdrop for the page layout. He took full advantage of this option, turning a photo of police cars into a background rather than using one solid color. This ability to personalize and customize the details of the book, even in something as small as selecting the look and texture of the pages, made the process enjoyable and fun!
Out of all the spreads he constructed, Villegas’s favorite features the department’s Honor Guard. The Alhambra Police Department Honor Guard was created to represent the department during formal civic ceremonies and at funerals. The first time the Honor Guard performed, they provided ceremonial services to the family of a police officer who had died of a heart attack. That performance cemented the role and purpose of the Guard in the department. To Villegas, the yearbook acts as a memorial in honor of the Alhambra police officers who have died in the line of duty.
The Honor Guard had rudimentary beginnings, with only a few officers who had prior military training taking it upon themselves to march and conduct flag-raising ceremonies at City Hall. They had not previously done formal events or funerals, but after they provided the ceremonial services for the aforementioned officer’s family, they laid a solid foundation. Currently, they perform for city government and the private businesses that request their services. Many agencies do not have their own Honor Guard, which sets Alhambra apart as unique. The Honor Guard instills solemnity, dignity, honor, and pride into a specific event through formal ceremonial presentation and representation of government. Their portion of the yearbook reflects the traditions and historical image of the Alhambra Police Department.
Another purpose of the yearbook was to recognize the community within the department and keep those familial ties alive. Life moves along and people come and go – some retire, some die, and some sacrifice many years to the force. The needs of the Alhambra community never stop. Time passes too quickly, and accolades or recognition are very seldom ever given to those who serve. The yearbook is a centerpiece, a unifying place to offer recognition and acknowledgement, leaving a footprint in the record of history.
For these reasons, Sgt. Villegas highly recommends other agencies or departments to publish yearbooks. This publication documents history, preserves records, and gives accuracy and legitimacy to what occurred in the past. The advice he gives to other agencies who want to publish a yearbook is centered on one main point: determine the purpose of the book. He encourages other agencies to remember that the yearbook is commemorative and reflects a career path. Officers will take it home with them, and it will be for their children and grandchildren. His creation is unique to the Alhambra Police Department, and it represents the officers who have made a difference and have lived their lives to help others.
Villegas’s yearbook surprised a lot of people! A few have seen the finished product, including the Chief of Police. Former and current officers have responded positively to the completed edition, and three former Assistant Chiefs wait patiently and excitedly for their copies. Many officers were active at the start of the process and retired before it reached publication, but they continue to keep in touch with people in the department and look forward to receiving their books. Villegas dug up old photos from years gone by in his research, and the retirees especially look forward to holding their own copy of these moments in history.
Sgt. Villegas feels sorry for those who chose not to be in the book, and he believes that in the end they will feel badly that they had not participated. However, he believes this will not be a one-time event, and has faith that others will record the history and legacy of their years on the force, trusting that future generations of officers will follow suit and immortalize their experiences. The value and significance of the Alhambra Police Department is contained in this yearbook, which Villegas has spent much time on: the volume is a treasured compilation of faces, experiences, and exhibitions of blood, sweat, and tears poured out for others. These should not be forgotten. Here is to the production of many more yearbooks in the years to come!