Jerry Batriz greeted fellow Nogales Police Officer Mark Ramirez before a meeting last Tuesday afternoon, referring to his co-worker as “patrón,” the Spanish word for boss.
Once inside the briefing room, they continued chatting in Spanish and English with fellow officers with surnames including Galindo, Morales and Flores. Aside from their police uniforms, they looked just like any other group of Nogalians: usually Hispanic and bilingual.
Like these officers, at least 90 percent of employees at the Nogales Police Department are Hispanic and all but two are bilingual, said Chief Roy Bermudez. At the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, the staff is also at least 90 percent Hispanic, Sheriff Antonio Estrada said.
While law enforcement agencies in Santa Cruz County reflect the ethnic and linguistic background of the community they serve – 83 percent of the county and 95 percent of Nogales is Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census – “very few” other Arizona police departments reflect the demographics of their jurisdictions, a recent Cronkite News investigation found.
For example, the study, called “Racial Divide,” found that in Phoenix, where 41.3 percent of the population is Hispanic, only 18 percent of the city’s sworn police officers share that ethnicity. In Sierra Vista, 27 percent of the population is Hispanic, compared to just 7 percent of the police department.
A number of experts interviewed for the Cronkite investigation expressed the belief that representative law enforcement agencies can help overcome language barriers and improve perceptions of the police, a conclusion echoed by Estrada and Bermudez.
“(The community feels) comfortable communicating with us knowing that we understand the language and we understand the culture,” Estrada said. “As a border community it’s definitely very helpful.”
“It is important because it’s a reflection of not only the population, but it’s an understanding of the cultures, of the language, it’s an understanding of the values,” Bermudez said.
“This diversity thing, along with the body camera issue, came out back in Ferguson because it’s white-on-black or white-on-Hispanic or vice-versa (policing), but we don’t have that issue,” he added, in reference to Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis where the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in 2014 sparked angry protests.
Still, Bermudez said, a representative agency alone won’t improve policing.
“Even if a police department is a reflection of the population, we just can’t take that for granted, we need to go out there and make sure that we’re seen and make sure that we make contact with residents, businesses (and) most importantly, the youth of our community,” he said, adding that’s why NPD has outreach programs such as Coffee with a Cop and D.A.R.E.
Some of the experts cited in the Cronkite study said a representative police force doesn’t guarantee fair policing because officers are more influenced by their occupational, not racial identity. The investigation pointed to the Baltimore Police Department, which is 42 percent black, but disproportionately stops, searches and arrests people of color, according to a 2016 U.S. Justice Department report.
But the Cronkite investigation also pointed to a 2017 study that found white officers used greater force on black suspects than they did on white suspects.
On a more local level, the Cronkite report cited research showing that Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans in Arizona are two times more likely than whites to be searched when they’re stopped while driving a car.
Santa Cruz County law enforcement agencies are representative of their communities because it’s mostly locals who apply, Bermudez said. He called Sierra Vista a “different situation” because people from around the country move to the town to serve on the military base and may later join the police force.
The fact that most officers are native to the area is just as important as their cultural background, Estrada said.
“We were born here, we were raised here, we are part of the community, we are not strangers to the community,” he said.
Estrada and Bermudez said even if their agencies had fewer Hispanic officers, they would still maintain positive community relations and practice fair policing. Bermudez pointed to his agency’s outreach programs while the sheriff referenced county residents’ generally positive view of law enforcement and friendly personalities.
Having a non-representative workforce could be a problem if most of those non-Hispanic officers don’t speak Spanish, Bermudez said, noting that some English-only speaking dispatchers had to switch jobs after having trouble communicating with callers.
Bermudez and Estrada said they welcome applicants of all backgrounds, but most people who apply are locals and Hispanic.
Batriz, the NPD officer, said he thinks it’s beneficial that his department reflects its community.
“Being from Nogales helps, knowing the area, knowing the lingo, knowing how people talk … the Spanglish, I think that helps a lot with the rapport and getting people to be a little bit more comfortable,” he said.
William Morell, one of the few white and non-local officers at NPD, agreed that it’s helpful when a law enforcement agency mirrors its community. But he says his background hasn’t gotten in the way of his policing.
“I treat everybody the same,” he said.