He has never watched “Breaking Bad”( the television series about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who turns drug lord), but Robert Ross knows firsthand about the drug culture in San Mateo. He was a San Mateo policeman for 15 years during which he spent a good part of his time in undercover narcotics. He retired from the force in 2009 and was elected to the City Council. Today, he is running for his second term and, if re-elected, will probably be named the city’s next mayor.
Ross was born in Kentucky but moved to San Leandro when he was 4. He graduated from Castro Valley High, then took some courses at Cal State Hayward and San Jose State. Initially, he wanted to be in electronics but most of his friends wanted to be policemen. So he took the test along with them but he was the only one who passed. He worked as a police assistant in Hayward, then financed himself through the Police Academy in Modesto. There he was friends with five recruits from San Mateo. That’s how he ended up in the San Mateo Police Department in 1984.
Ross says he’s been lucky. His first job in Hayward was to run the jail where he learned how to deal with angry, violent and drunk people, “how to bring them down and manage them.” In San Mateo, he started off as a patrolman but was soon assigned to the North Central neighborhood. It was in the 1980s when the Martin Luther King Jr. Center was a magnet for drug dealing. Ross watched what was going on, made friends with neighbors, was able to identify the families of the teens involved and, most important, received helpful tips from residents. As a result, he was able to make an unusual number of arrests and, after just 18 months, was assigned to investigations as an undercover narcotics cop. Because the work was dangerous, he started a real estate business — buying and fixing up houses and apartments — so his family would be financially taken care of in case something happened to him.
I asked Ross if he had ever killed someone in the line of duty and he has not but he was shot at when he was talking to some gang members when a rival gang drove by and opened fire.
He and his department worked with 13 different agencies on some major cases. One involved seizing a kilo of cocaine and a couple of Mercedes; another finding $800,000 in cash stashed in the trunk of a car. Ross was then assigned to investigations involving homicides, child abduction and child abuse. When he was promoted to lieutenant, he ran community policing for the city and did double duty monitoring North Central. He also worked on fraud cases, the most famous — busting identity thefts at a Hillsdale gas station where two guys set up a camera to read customer’s PIN and a skimmer so they could get the card number. One was found and jailed; the other is still at large.
Ross was also lucky when he decided to run for council. But not the first try when he applied for an appointment to an open seat that went to Fred Hansson. When Hansson ran for election to keep the seat, his parents were both in the hospital dying. He couldn’t run much of a campaign. Ross was elected to his first term along with David Lim and incumbent Brandt Grotte.
What are the main qualities for being a good policeman? I was surprised when Ross answered having a good heart, knowing how to treat another person as you would like to be treated. Letting people know you are not out to get them but willing to give them a second chance. When neighborhood children got in trouble, Ross would handcuff them, then bring them back to their families before taking them up to juvenile hall. When asked by the judge for a recommendation, Ross would often advise giving the kid a break. Also important is being a good observer, like watching television without sound. You may not hear but you can see everything.
Today, Ross lives alone. His two children are grown and on their own. He is divorced from his wife of 28 years but they are still good friends. His main job is that of a councilman. And if his luck holds and he is re-elected, he will be mayor, very much in the public eye and no longer undercover.
The League of Women Voters and the American Association of Women will be hosting “Envisioning the Future of San Mateo County” at 1300 S. El Camino Real tomorrow from 1 p.m.-3 p.m.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.