One family fight, one woman, one arrest changed the way Ruben Ortega felt about domestic violence.

He remembers being amused as he made his way to the drive-in movie theater where a dispatcher said a couple was fighting. When he got there he met the woman, who'd been beaten by her husband in their car and then left at a concession stand."She was eight months pregnant," he said more than 30 years later. "She said she was OK, that she wanted to go home."

What he saw angered him, and he asked a sergeant about arresting her husband. The more experienced officer warned him not to waste his time because the woman would never press charges.

Reluctantly, Ortega drove the woman home and then went to his office to write reports.

He'd seen worse, but for some reason he couldn't get the beating or the injustice of the situation out of his mind. So he did what he said he's never done before or since. He disobeyed a supervisor's directive.

He asked another officer to back him up, drove to the couple's home and arrested the man for aggravated assault.

"He couldn't believe he was going to jail for beating his wife," Ortega said, smiling. "I knew he'd be released the next day, but it felt great putting him in the car and taking him to jail."

That incident changed Ortega from a cop who accepted the way things were to one who believed he could make things better.

"It was my own personal policy that if there was any physical evidence of violence, someone was going to jail," he said.

When he took over the Phoenix Police Department in 1980, becoming the youngest police chief in the city's history, he changed how officers handled domestic calls. That was a stepping stone to serving twice, under two different attorneys general, on the federal Commission on Domestic Violence and the Violence in America Study Group.

Supporters point to his aggressiveness on issues like domestic violence as an example of his progressive leadership ability.

"The chief has been an outstanding leader on issues such as domestic violence and community policing, and he has made a real contribution to law enforcement throughout the country," says U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. "He was an advocate of community policing long before it caught on nationally."

Ironically, it is that same aggressiveness that critics of the Salt Lake police chief characterize as rash and impulsive, especially when it comes to disciplining officers.

Some say his discipline is heavy-handed and unfair and that it is aimed more at making an example out of officers rather than correcting problems or meting out punishment fairly.

"His punishments are too heavy. . . . We win when we appeal (Ortega's disciplinary decisions)," said Jann Farris, president of the Salt Lake Police Union.

It's been five years since Ortega, 58, took the helm of the Salt Lake City Police Department, and he has been here one year longer than he promised he'd stay. Rough waters are unusual in the chief's tenure in Salt Lake City, where he enjoys mostly widespread public support and faces very little criticism.

Ironically, the chief's most vocal critics are those who work for him.

It is no secret that Ortega has always had tense relations, at best, with the unions organized by the officers he leads - both in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Ortega said some tension is inherent in the relationship, but he said his trouble with unions comes when they begin to deal with more than negotiating for better pay and working conditions.

"The interests of unions has expanded into other areas," he said. "A big one is discipline. I've always been a strong disciplinarian. The one control a police administration must have is discipline.

"No person has more power and authority than a police officer. A police officer has the authority to stop you, restrict your movement, physically restrain you, jail you, search you, and if he feels justified, he can take your life. That is tremendous power.

"So there have to be some controls. . . . Every time a police officer violates the oath (of office), a broad brush is painted across all of our faces."

He said the union "feels officers can do no wrong."

But union officials disagree.

Farris said problems between Ortega and the union go beyond natural tension. He disagrees that Ortega is just a strong disciplinarian, saying the chief's efforts to discipline are aimed more at making examples of people than at correcting a problem or meting out fair punishment.

"It all comes down to actions speak louder than words," he said.

Farris points to a recent survey of union members in which the overwhelming majority say it's time for a change in department leadership. (See related story.)

The woman who sought out and then hired Ortega, Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, said she's very familiar with his problems, past and present, with unions.

Corradini said both sides could do more to improve the relationship, and she's determined they will. She said she will not let Ortega get away with ignoring the union, and she will not let the union push her into looking for a new chief.

"There's no question there is an issue of concern between the union and the chief," she said. "It's been rough on and off for years. . . . My objective is to improve that situation. . . . I think we can definitely improve communication on all sides. People can agree to disagree, but I think it's critical they talk."

Despite the criticism from the rank and file, Corradini said she doesn't regret hiring Ortega. She saw him as just what the floundering department needed.

The mayor said when she began looking for a new police chief in 1992, she asked people around the country to give her the names of the 10 best police chiefs.

"Ruben appeared on everybody's list," she said. "He's a can-do person with a lot of ideas about how to solve specific problems whether it's gangs or drugs or crime prevention.

"He hit the ground running. He made some major changes right away that I thought made a difference."

She knows making those changes, which included breaking up special units and cutting some administrative positions, made some in the department unhappy.

"Change is always difficult," she said. "People are afraid of it."

Not Ortega. He's made a career out of changing the way police officers do their jobs, and he's proud of it.

His first order of business when he took over the Phoenix Police Department was to revamp the way domestic violence calls were handled. He said it was hugely unpopular at first but was later lauded as one of the most innovative moves in the country.

Police chiefs around the country praise Ortega for his innovative solutions to age-old problems.

Denver Police Chief David Michaud met Ortega through the Major City Police Chiefs, a group that brings together the chiefs of the country's 45 largest cities.

"He's very, very knowledgable, very well-respected," Michaud said. "He is many times our spokesman at the White House, with Congress . . . which shows how we view him."

It is Ortega's experience (more than two decades as a chief) and his creativity that earn him the ear of his colleagues and the praise of those outside law enforcement.

"When Ruben Ortega talks, I know I always listen," Michaud said. "His recommendations are always thought-provoking."

Ortega has been asked by other cities, other police departments, to help them solve problems. Among others, he's served on a special committee in Chicago, created by Mayor Richard Daly, which examined the hiring and promotion practices of the police department.

Ortega might be best known for his support of community-oriented policing, which assigns officers to work with specific communities and is aimed more at prevention of problems than reaction to specific calls.

It's an idea that took a while to catch on among rank-and-file officers, but it has been very popular among residents.

Evelyn Johnson has lived in Central City for more than 20 years and for the past six she's headed that area's community council. She said community-oriented policing has made a difference not just in the crime rate but in the way she and her neighbors view police officers.

"I think that's the best thing that's happened to change the way the police department is viewed by the (residents) in my lifetime," Johnson said. "We feel like we have someplace to go."

A straw poll of community councils found that most are fairly satisfied with their police service. Many said that service has gotten even better in the past five years.

And to the man on the hot seat, that's what counts.

"As long as the citizens have faith and support in us, that's what really matters," Ortega said.

The son of farm workers, Ortega had childhood aspirations that were as expansive as the fields where his family toiled. But circumstances would change his boyhood plans of being a doctor or lawyer.

"I didn't have the resources to go to college," he said. "There wasn't a lot of opportunity."

So when he graduated from high school, he got a job at the local lumber mill with plans to save enough money to pay for a college education.

"I knew I could get money by working, but I was not giving up on what I wanted to do."

He married his wife, Nellie Ann, in 1958, and a year later, as the couple waited for the birth of their first child, the mill where he worked went on strike. He knew he couldn't afford to be without a job, so he applied for one as a police officer.

"It was supposed to be a temporary job," he said. "I figured rain or shine, I could work."

He was hired in 1960, becoming just the fourth Hispanic employed by the Phoenix Police Department. He spent a lot of time interpreting for other officers, feeling discrimination at first.

"But that was the beginning of my realization of the issues of minorities in law enforcement," The father of two said. He acknowledges that often he was the "token" minority representative on law enforcement committees, but he saw that as an opportunity to make a difference.

He and a black officer started the community relations division in Phoenix, which not only became extremely popular with residents, it now numbers more than 40 officers.

It's such innovations that earn the praise of his counterparts in other cities. He was recently asked by the city manager in Austin, Texas, to apply for the chief's job there.

It offered more money, a bigger department and possibly a chance to rid himself of the union problems like the ones he's having in Salt Lake City.

He wouldn't even apply.

"He's got a great reputation," said Jesus Garza, Austin's city manager who met and then asked Ortega to apply for the job. "He's got a proven track record. Unfortunately, I think the city of Salt Lake made a pretty good pitch for him to stay there."

Part of the reason Ortega has stayed, despite numerous offers from other departments, many of them bigger and with more money, is the support from the criminal justice community.

He was a semifinalist for the job of running Los Angeles' police department earlier this summer when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked him to withdraw his application.

Ortega said he was flattered and hopeful that meant he could bring substantive change and help to local crime fighting efforts.

"He's simply the best," Hatch said. "He's one of the most in-demand police chiefs in the country."

Hatch said he asked Ortega to stay because "he fits every need we have. He reaches out to every community." Ortega has a "total knowledge of law enforcement," he said.

"It's tough to find people with all the qualities he has," the senator added. "I couldn't be higher on a person than I am on him for law enforcement purposes."

And Hatch isn't the only federal official who respects Ortega.

"I speak with the chief regularly and have benefited from his practical advice and experience," Reno said. "He is a wonderful public servant."

Case in point. When Hatch held a crime summit on Utah issues, Ortega complained about the problems Salt Lake City has with illegal immigrants committing violent crimes - including nearly a half dozen murders - and then going back to Mexico where extradition is next to impossible.

Within minutes, a member of Reno's staff passed him a note asking for the names of those suspects and details of the crimes. Within a month, a program was in place and promises were made that Mexico would be more cooperative.

Corradini acknowledges that Ortega's reputation has "paid off literally and figuratively."

Ortega said he stays simply because he has more to accomplish. He points to the instability of police chiefs as a reason for problems in police departments nationwide.

Because Ortega's life work doesn't match his childhood dreams, the chief sometimes gets restless, thinking that maybe he could still go back to school to become a lawyer or go to work for a corporation.

But then he goes to work.

"The job itself just gets into your blood," Ortega said. The work is "so interesting, I got caught up in it. . . . I looked forward to going to work because of how interesting it was, and sometimes I didn't even want to go home."

And after a while, there's nothing else that interests a person with police work. "You start to live and breathe police work."