Richard Mendez didn’t grow up wanting to be a police officer, nevermind picturing himself as chief of Lancaster’s police department.
Yet, this 22-year veteran is Mayor Danene Sorace’s choice to lead the department after last month’s unexpected resignation of John Bey, who was chief for just 18 months.
“If you'd asked me 22 years ago, because I set it out: I wanted to be a patrol officer for 25 years,” Mendez said Tuesday. “I just wanted to be out doing my thing. Things change. Here I am. Grow and learn.”
The city-born Mendez applied to be an officer at age 24 at the suggestion of a relative in the department. At the time, he was an auto dealer’s reconditioning manager, having worked his way up from washing cars.
Before that, the 1992 J.P. McCaskey High School graduate wanted to become an artist, so he took classes at what is now Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. It wasn’t for him; creating art on his own was fun, but being told what and how to draw wasn’t.
So he followed up on his relative’s suggestion and applied to the police department and passed the test. He recalled the process as “grueling.”
And Mendez had a harsh welcome when he arrived at the police academy in December 2000.
“The training sergeant pulled me aside … and told me I'm not going to make it out of the academy,” he recalled.
“But for me, it was like a challenge… And I graduated the academy as the number one cadet in the class,” said Mendez, 46.
Self-admittedly, his career in law enforcement wasn’t always satisfying. For a period of about five years, he said, he wondered if he even had a place in the department.
He recalled being nitpicked by certain supervisors. Eventually, Mendez went to a supervisor and asked what could be done. He got on another platoon and began to find some success. He worked on the bike patrol. He became a K-9 officer, despite never having a dog before. Later, he became a member of the county’s Special Emergency Response Team, or SERT.
Eventually, Mendez tested for sergeant, then lieutenant. He recalled certain officers saying he had no business aspiring to those positions.
Mendez said he always felt he had to work twice as hard as anyone else in the department.
He could be wrong, he said, but he thought it was because he is Puerto Rican; policing, he noted, is traditionally a white male occupation.
Mendez is half Puerto Rican and half white.
His father, Carmelo Mendez, came over from Puerto Rico when he was 15. Carmelo Mendez worked at the former Champion Blower until it closed, then got work in restaurants, drove a taxi and ultimately ended up driving a truck for Goodwill Industries until he died in 2005.
”My dad was alive when I first became a police officer and he was unbelievably proud of that,” Mendez said.
His mother, Rose Mendez, who was from the southern end of the county, worked for the county as a secretary.
For much of his childhood, the Mendez family rented on the 400 block of South Queen Street.
They had the front half of the house and another family had the back.
“There was a door in the middle of the house that literally just locked on both sides … So it was a crazy set-up,” Mendez said. “I do remember sometimes, though, if we accidentally left that door unlocked and they opened theirs, they could literally come through.”
It’s the kind of upbringing that stays with a person.
“We always had a roof over our head. We always had food, so I hate to say like, I was poor, but you know, my house was roach-infested,” Mendez said. “When I pour cereal now, I still check it to make sure there's no bugs.”
Sorace said she first met Mendez shortly after she was elected to city council in 2014 and went on a ride-along with him.
“I’ve known him a long time and there have been different points in time when I’ve had to interact with him,” she said Tuesday. Sorace approved Mendez’s promotion to captain in January 2021.
Mendez was patrol captain, meaning he was in charge of the largest captains’ division. Other captains handle investigations and administration.
Sorace said Mendez is very responsive and shares a similar philosophy on community policing.
Mendez created a “painting with police” program and helped revive bike patrols.
“His leadership of the community engagement team was significant,” Sorace said. “It was clear to me in the transition that he was well suited for this role if it was what he wanted.”
Sorace expects to present Mendez to the city council for approval on July 11. In the meantime, Mendez has been meeting with council members.
Mendez said community engagement is an important part of policing that was instilled in him early on by his platoon sergeant, Brian Wiczkowski.
Wiczkowski “was big on community policing and getting out, getting into stores, knowing your residents. He preached on that and he made sure we were doing that and he talked about the bonds you would make with the community and how it would pay off long term,” Mendez said.
Wiczkowski held his officers accountable, Mendez said.
“If you didn't go into your stores and he found out or if he got a call from a neighborhood block captain or something (and they said) they haven't seen Mendez in a while, you heard about it,” he said.
Wiczkowski is now West Lampeter Township’s police chief. He recalled being impressed with Mendez as a rookie, and traded to get Mendez onto his platoon.
Mendez “wants to see the department succeed,” Wiczkowski said. “I spent 24 years there. I want to see the city succeed and the department succeed and I think Ricky will do a good job with it.”
Reactions to pick
Steve Owens became president of the Lancaster Police Officers Association in January 2021, when Mendez became a captain and, therefore, was no longer a union member.
Owens said he thought it was a good move for Sorace to select someone from within the department.
“Chief Mendez knows the people. He knows their personalities. He knows their families. He’s empathetic to things going on in their life. That being said, he gets done what needs to get done,” Owens said.
Owens said there are two captain positions to fill as well. In addition, there are lieutenant and sergeant positions to fill. “It’s going to be a big reset” in the department, Owens said.
Other former colleagues also spoke highly of Mendez.
James Zahm, a retired officer and former county detective, supervised Mendez when Mendez was on the K-9 unit and then on the county's Special Emergency Response Team.
“He’s got experience. He came up through the ranks. He stumbled along the way, but he was very good about straightening himself out,” Zahm said.
Asked to elaborate, Zahm said there was nothing serious, just the kind of mistakes any young officer could make in the difficult profession of policing.
Mendez said he took ownership of his shortcomings and worked on them, such as handling required paperwork.
“They don’t tell you that 90% of your job is paper,” Mendez said, chuckling.
Millersville University police Chief Pete Anders said Mendez was a great pick for the community and the department. Anders was captain of the criminal investigative division before retiring in 2010 and becoming Millersville’s chief in December 2010.
“As a younger officer, Rick embraced community engagement, he spoke with pride about growing up in Lancaster and his want to make the city and the department better and he did this through his getting out of the patrol car and talking with children, with parents and corner shop owners in the neighborhoods he patrolled or responded to calls,” Anders said in an email. “Rick Mendez has bettered every unit he has worked on within the department and continued to find time to engage residents in the neighborhoods.”
Todd Brown, first assistant district attorney at the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office, said he’s familiar with Mendez from working with him or seeing him work with other assistant prosecutors. He called Mendez prepared and professional.
“Ricky has the reputation of being a straight shooter — he calls things as he sees it — addressing things in a clear and direct manner,” Brown said in an email. “... I expect that his relationships and experiences in the department and the community will go far in establishing a solid sense of trust and stability that will serve him well.”
Jose Lopez, president of the Spanish American Civic Association, met Mendez a couple weeks ago when Mendez was meeting at Tec Centro’s cafe. Tec Centro provides bilingual education and skills training for low- to moderate-income individuals.
“He seems like a very capable guy. The mayor has tremendous confidence in him,” Lopez said Tuesday. He described Mendez as personable and approachable.
“Those are attributes you need to have not only to engage with the police department itself, but also out in the community,” Lopez said.
Mendez said he’s tried to improve every position he held in the department.
When he was promoted to patrol captain in January 2021, Mendez said he “spent what felt like eternity cleaning up a lot of personnel problems.”
He said he wanted to improve accountability.
“We want to be held accountable and the community wants us held accountable. We want the same thing. I think sometimes we just don't understand that we want the same thing or how to get there. And community engagement was always big with me. And it goes back to when I first was put on bike. Being told to get out of your car, get off your bike, go into stores, your community. So for me it was trying to get patrol back to that.”
Mendez said that despite his struggles and having to fight to get each position he’s had, he now feels he has the department’s support.
“The support from the department that I have, and in the community, has been overwhelming. This department has been great to me right now. The officers are supportive,” he said. “I'm sure there's a few here that aren't happy, but I would say the overwhelming majority of officers support me and my vision of what I want to do.”
Besides focusing on community policing and engagement, Mendez said he wants to develop strong leaders.
“We have a lot of great young officers and you know, the future is great. And what I would love to do is start building this department,” he said.
Mendez would also become the city’s first Puerto Rican chief, though he discounted its significance. Lancaster’s population is about 38% Hispanic or Latino, 40% white and 17% black, according to recent census data.
“I think what helps is when officers are out and they're treating people with respect, they're doing their job professionally. I think that helps more than whether I'm Hispanic or a person of color,” he said.
Until recently, Mendez lived in the city. He and his wife, Bobbi Mendez, moved to the Manheim area because she had the opportunity to buy her grandfather’s farm and wanted to build a house.
“The wife won out,” he said.
Mendez has three children from his first marriage and a 10-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl with his current wife.