NAMPA, Idaho — For Boise Police Officer Ed Moreno, the decision to become a police officer happened early on, through a baseball coach who was also a sheriff's deputy.

Moreno said his coach, Greg Ceballos, would sometimes invite his friends from the sheriff's office to come to games or play catch with the players in his small agricultural hometown outside of Fresno, California.

"When you are 10 to 12 years old, someone like that makes a big impression on you," Moreno said.

Now, Moreno serves as the Hispanic liaison for the Boise Police Department. Like Ceballos, he connects with kids through sports by playing in the annual soccer game with police and the Mexican Consulate, and participates in other outreach events.

"The future Hispanic officers are at the events we participate in," he said. "I am hoping the kids see me along with the other officers and see themselves applying with the Boise Police Department in the future."

Representation in police departments is not keeping up with Idaho's Hispanic population growth. In Caldwell, for example, Latinos make up 36% of the population, but only 7% of the police force. Boise has a smaller Latino population, roughly 9%, but still sees a representation gap, with only 3% Latino officers.

Moreno's outreach efforts won't pay off for a few years — "recruiting is a long game," he said.

In the meantime, another movement is gaining steam statewide to help build trust and understanding between police and Latino communities. The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, a nonpartisan state agency, has been traveling the state over the last few months to encourage law enforcement agencies to participate in a new law enforcement summit planned for Boise next summer. 

The summit will focus on diversity and sensitivity training and cultural competency, said Juan. J. Saldaña, the Hispanic commission’s community resource development specialist.

“We hope no one sees this as a negative,” he said. “It is really us trying to bridge the two so that people feel comfortable and see the police as a friend.”

A “red flag” Saldaña has seen, he said, is a hesitancy among Latino residents to call police.

“We do not want our community to be scared to call law enforcement when they need help and don’t want them to see police as a threat,” he said. “...We have had one law enforcement agency tell us, ‘Well, we don’t get any calls from the Hispanic population, so everything is cool.’ That is a red flag — that probably means there are some situations that are not getting reported.”

No complaints of racial profiling have been filed with law enforcement agencies in Meridian, Caldwell, Canyon County or Ada County over the last year, according to public records requests. Nampa did not provide a response to the record request made Aug. 26 by end of day Friday.

The city of Boise denied the Idaho Press' request for complaints concerning racial profiling.

"Although three records were located that pertained to your request," the denial letter from the city stated, "they are considered personnel records and exempt." 

Moreno said he has seen a divide between the judicial system and the Latino community. In his experience, he said, Latinos are often eager to provide information about a crime to officers, but don't want to get heavily involved, like characterizing themselves as crime victims or going through the court process.

"I am hoping attendees at the law enforcement summit," he said, "gain the understanding that a Hispanic community that has a better understanding of the justice system and the resources available to them will be more willing to contact their local police department ... and engage with and participate in the justice system."

Boise, Nampa and Caldwell police departments are among the agencies that have committed to attend next year's summit, though details are still in the works. The Ada County Sheriff's Office and Idaho State Police also plan to attend.

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DIVERSITY IN THE POLICE FORCE

Numbers from local agencies and the Census Bureau show the under-representation of Latinos in law enforcement:

  • Boise Police Department: 3% Latino, compared to 9% of the general population
  • Nampa Police Department: 6.5% Latino, compared to 24% of the general population
  • Caldwell Police Department: 7% Latino, compared to 36.5% of the general population
  • Meridian Police Department: 5% Latino, compared to 7% of the general population
  • Canyon County Sheriff's Office: 11% Latino, compared to 25% of the general population
  • Ada County Sheriff's Office: 5% Latino, compared to 8% of the general population

Officers-in-training are coming through the pipeline. Of the 14 students enrolled in College of Southern Idaho's law enforcement program, for example, five are Latino. At least three of the 16 students in Idaho State University's law enforcement program are Latino. 

Local police departments have taken different steps to try to connect with Latino residents. Boise and Twin Falls police departments have designated a Hispanic liaison. Nampa Police Department offers a pay incentive to officers who speak Spanish — the only city police agency in the Treasure Valley to do so.

“The number of Spanish-speaking officers does not mirror the Hispanic population of our community,” Nampa Capt. Curt Shankel said in an email. “This is an area we are working to improve our outreach and recruiting.”

Eleven Nampa police officers speak Spanish, receiving a 2% salary bump, while several others understand some Spanish, Shankel said.

Idaho State Police offers a 30-cent-per-hour bump in pay for those who can speak Spanish; ISP spokesman Tim Marsano could not provide the number of officers who receive the bump. 

For Caldwell, which recently lost two Latino officers to retirement, raising pay for all officers is a goal rather than creating an incentive for just bilingual officers. 

"We're always looking for people who fit the culture here and are going to serve the public," said Caldwell Police Chief Frank Wyant. "I think it is super important to reflect your community."

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AN IMPROVEMENT

Recently retired Judge Sergio Gutierrez, who was Idaho's first Latino judge, said he has seen an improvement in the hiring of Latino and bilingual officers in the Treasure Valley, though “there is continued work to be done.”

“In Boise, you have police at gatherings in the Latino community, you have the Hispanic liaison,” Gutierrez said. “Nampa has the Mexican Consulate soccer game fundraiser. That is the way in and how to connect with the Latino community in a non-law enforcement contact way.”

Last week three Boise police officers attended Latino Fest in front of the state Capitol, Moreno said, practicing their Spanish, dancing to mariachi, tasting food from across Latin America and handing out police stickers to kids.

“That is where we have progressed," Gutierrez said, noting local events. “But there is the continued work to be done. You have Latinos who are not very confident in dealing with government in general, and in particular, with law enforcement.”

He said the lack of confidence in law enforcement in immigrant communities may have something to do with how police are perceived in the countries the immigrants left.

“For those Latinos who come from, say Mexico, there isn't the same view of law enforcement in Mexico that U.S. residents have of law enforcement here,” Gutierrez said. “They are going to come with that idea of what law enforcement represents.”

NATIONAL POLITICS

Natalie Camacho Mendoza, city of Boise director of the office of police oversight and owner of Camacho Mendoza Law Office, said she attributes much of the mistrust between Latinos and law enforcement to the national conversation.

“I think clearly what is happening on a national level has a lot of people on edge, particularly immigrant groups — not just Latinos but all kinds of immigrant communities,” Mendoza told the Idaho Press. “I think that police chiefs and sheriffs out there understand that what is happening out there may keep people of color and immigrants from calling the police. We, in the Latino community, want to be safe, and that is the job of the police, to serve the community.”

Gutierrez agrees that national politics loom large.

“The current condition of our country's political atmosphere has set us backwards on these issues,” Gutierrez said. “There is a sense of fear in the Latino community I have never seen before. We are more cautious and apprehensive, and that has a psychological and emotional impact.”

“It is something that is so obvious in its impact that it presents a hurtle,” he added.

Mendoza was nearly in tears over the phone with the Idaho Press when she described watching the news following the mass shooting in El Paso, in which Mexicans were targeted by the shooter at a Walmart.

“A reporter was talking to two Latinas and one said, ‘They think we are monsters,’” Mendoza said. “Another said, ‘It is hard to believe people hate us just because of the color of our skin.’ I thought of my nieces and nephews out there, raising their kids and how they are being sent messages like this and are starting to look at themselves in a way they shouldn't. It is awful how young people believe people think we are monsters.”

ENCOURAGING CONFIDENCE

Mendoza said community policing is a priority for the Boise Police Department, meaning police try to work with communities to decrease crime and restore confidence in officers.

The city of Boise’s Office of Police Oversight exists as a separate entity to review and investigate complaints of misconduct by Boise police. Mendoza said people can file complaints with her office or with the department.

“We exist to help be a bridge between the community, the city and law enforcement,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said Moreno’s efforts to recruit more Latino officers, Boise Police Department’s Spanish classes and Boise and Meridian police department training on implicit bias have been helping departments bridge the gap between Latinos.

The implicit bias training aims to help officers realize the unavoidable subconscious human biases they have and the ways in which those biases might affect their actions as police officers. The training began in 2017.

“It will be a challenge for a while, but building bridges and being intentional will help,” Mendoza said. “But we have to have constant dialogue.”

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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