Oscar Martinez grew up in Santa Ana, a gentrified city in Southern California, near Anaheim, where his single mother cared for three children.
Martinez lived in poverty and was surrounded by violence and drugs, he said. He and his two sisters often spent nights in their car to take shelter from the violence his stepfather inflicted on his mother.
It was his dream to become a policeman, he said, but he never saw it come true. His family has had negative experiences with police officers, as many Latinos do. But eventually, Martinez decided he wanted to be a support system for people, like his family, who don’t trust the police.
“That’s why I’m here, because I want to help, I want to make a difference,” Martinez said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman. “I want to be a support system for people who are not being heard.”
Martinez is one of nine Latino officers with the Caldwell Police Department, who patrol a town that is 36% Latino. But the Caldwell, Idaho police force is only 14% Latino, according to department data.
Police Chief Rex Ingram, who joined the department in July, told the Statesman he was trying to “bridge the gap” between the Latino community and the predominantly white force.
Ingram, who is part-Hispanic, said in an interview in August that the department was working to hire more officers of color and speaking Spanish. But Ingram said the community must first trust the department.
“You have to hire from the community and you have to bring in people from your community who look like you and you look like them,” Ingram said.
Caldwell Police spokesman Char Jackson said by email that Caldwell had 12 vacancies, including 11 for officers.
Last week, the Caldwell Police Department formally sworn in four new officers – all of whom are people of color.
Many Latinos are slow to trust law enforcement
Nationwide, many Latinos trust the police less than non-Latinos. According to a survey by the Cato Institute78% of non-Hispanics say they would definitely report a crime, compared to 57% of Hispanics.
Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said many Latinos across the state struggle to manage their relationships with police. There is a language barrier between people who only speak Spanish or prefer to communicate in Spanish, while most agents in Idaho do not speak Spanish.
Many Latino immigrants without permanent legal status also worry about how local police work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and harassment from officers, Gonzalez said.
Martinez and his family felt the same way about the growing police, he said. One day while living in Santa Ana, Martinez said his mother called the police because people were smoking marijuana outside their house. He said police responded two hours later, long after the smokers had left the area.
“She has a bad taste for the police,” Martinez said. “It was a bit of a tradition: people don’t call the cops because they’re always late for everything.”
Ingram said he saw a “racial disconnect” between white officers and Latino residents.
“How many victims don’t report crimes because they just don’t trust the badge?” Ingram said.
Martinez said many Latinos are concerned that local police will hand over undocumented people to federal immigration police for deportation.
This belief is not unfounded. In 2019, a Idaho Press Report found that Canyon County Jail staff members worked closely with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they believed they had booked someone undocumented.
Caldwell officers will not report undocumented immigrants to ICE unless there is a criminal charge against them, Ingram told the Statesman. This is not a change in policy, he said, but an approach to dealing with past mistreatment of immigrants.
While immigration law is a federal responsibility, ICE fugitive operations officers rely heavily on local law enforcement agencies to illegally return to the United States people ICE has identified as wanted.
An undocumented Caldwell resident can call the police to report a crime without fear of deportation, he said.
“What I want the community to know is that they don’t have to worry about calling the police to report something and the officers asking them, ‘Hey, do you have your papers?’ “, Ingram said, referring to legal residency. documents.
Ingram said that in Los Angeles, the LAPD — where Ingram previously worked — and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department also don’t work with US immigration authorities.
“It’s the environment I come from,” Ingram said. “You do your thing, but we’re not going to help you.”
How Other Canyon County Agencies Compare
None of the law enforcement agencies in Canyon County have an ethnic makeup that fully reflects the Latino communities they serve, according to data provided to the Statesman.
The Canyon County Sheriff’s Office staff is approximately 14% Latino, although Latinos make up 26% of Canyon County’s population.
In Nampa, the police department does not track racial or ethnic data, spokeswoman Carmen Boeger said. She estimated that of the department’s 207 employees, about 20 to 25 are Latinos. Nampa is nearly 25% Latino, according to census data.
It is not uncommon for data to be incomplete. In Idaho, it’s up to individual agencies to collect their own data on the number of Latinos working in their departments, because no state agency collects the data, according to a report generated by the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
‘You just see the wall breaking’
Boise Police Department Hispanic Community Liaison and Officer Ed Moreno has spent seven years working with the Latino community. After years of speaking Spanish to Latinos who interact with police and interacting with them at events other than police incidents, Moreno said he’s finally starting to see a difference.
“When you start interacting with them in their language, you just see the wall come down,” Moreno said over the phone. “Then when you start educating them about our justice system and the services available to them in the department, you start building trust within the community.”
Latinos are also underrepresented in the Boise Department. The department is 3% Latino, while the city is 9%, according to data from the department and the Census Bureau.
When Moreno started as a liaison, he said he didn’t receive support from department partners in Canyon County.
“I haven’t really gotten much help from our partners in Nampa or Caldwell,” Moreno said. “I’m like, ‘You’re at the epicenter.’ There’s a high concentration of Latinos there with agriculture, that’s where they’re at.
Today, approximately 12 Caldwell Police Department officers speak Spanish.
Ingram, who speaks Spanish, has done interviews on LaGranD, a Spanish radio station in Treasure Valley.
“I talked about not only getting more Hispanic officers, but really solidifying the relationship that my community needs to have as a police department and being able to trust us,” Ingram said.
Gonzalez, whose state agency hosted the first cultural competency training for Law Enforcement in 2020, said she hopes Ingram makes changes to Caldwell. But she said she had been let down for years by Canyon County law enforcement when it came to pursuing outreach to the Latino community. She said she would believe the push when she sees results.
“I’m more than willing to help them out if there’s really genuine interest,” Gonzalez said. “The need is there, but is there a real interest?
When Martinez started working at the Caldwell Police Department nearly five years ago, he fought as one of the few Latino officers who spoke Spanish.
“When I started, and throughout my career, I was forced to try to help everyone,” Martinez said.
The department received a few applications from people who heard him on LaGranD, Martinez said.
Martinez said he sees the number of Latino officers improving under Ingram.
“I think it will not only benefit (the department) but also the community,” he said. “So maybe we can start building that trust again. We need to reflect the population of the community.
Caldwell Police fill four vacancies
Since the statesman interviewed Ingram in late August, the Caldwell Police Department has hired four people of color, including Deputy Chief Shawn Sopoaga.
Sopoaga, who is Polynesian, joined the Boise Police Department where he was a lieutenant and worked as a recruiting coordinator and shift commander, according to a press release from Caldwell.
“I knew this guy was something special,” Ingram said Thursday, Oct. 20, at a meeting of Caldwell City Council.
Ingram sworn in as Caldwell Police Chief in June.
The other new officers are Moises Montes, Nilton Melara and Dwight Penkey.
Penkey, who is African American, previously worked for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office as a jail deputy.
Montes and Melara are Latinos and Spanish speakers. Their hiring increased the Latino composition of the department from around 10% to 14%
Montes previously worked as a deputy in the Owyhee County Sheriff’s Office. Melara worked with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and then as a corrections officer with the Idaho Department of Correction.
“As you can see, we have a very diverse group of men here,” Ingram said during the council meeting. “It should be an example (of) my commitment to my community on diversity that this police service will become in the near future.”