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Latinos in Utah County

'We're here to help everybody, no matter what': How law enforcement interact with Utah's Latino communities

From the Latinos in Utah County series
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Police Chief Gary Giles

Orem Police Chief Gary Giles speaks at a press conference at the Provo City Center in 2019.

Even though Jorge Morales has been interested in joining law enforcement for most of his life, he didn’t see many Latino police officers growing up.

After his family moved from Mexico City to Utah when he was young, Morales said he knew many of the deputies at the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office where he grew up.

“They were all good officers and they’re the ones that guided me in this direction,” he explained. “But even when I moved up here to Utah County, I didn’t see a whole lot of us.”

Morales graduated from Spanish Fork High School, became a U.S. citizen a few years ago and completed his peace officer training at Utah Valley University.

Now serving as a patrol officer with the Spanish Fork Police Department, he said many Latino and Hispanic residents feel more comfortable talking to him than other officers.

He is the only Hispanic officer in the department, although several other officers speak Spanish.

“That’s kind of why I wanted to become an officer in the first place was to get more of us out there,” he said. “Some of them are afraid to talk to law enforcement period. So when they see one of their own, it gives them more confidence to come up and talk to me.”

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, Hispanics are the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in local police departments in the United States.

A large majority of black, Latino and white officers agree their work often or nearly always makes them feel proud, the report states, and Morales is no exception.

Recently, he persuaded several of his friends to go on a ride with him while he was on duty. After seeing the job of a law enforcement officer, Morales said they wanted to join the force.

“We’re just there to help,” Morales said. “I wish they would know that. We’re not bad people. We just want to help.”

One of the most common questions he faces is whether or not police officers will ask about immigration status when responding to calls. He is quick to reassure that is not his job.

“We’re there for a reason and it’s not to clear up their immigration status. We’re not there for that at all,” he said. “Everyone here is such a good person and they only want to help. They don’t care about anything else except helping.”

The Associated Press reported major immigration raids were common under President George W. Bush and avoided by President Barack Obama, who limited efforts to low-profile audits.

President Donald Trump has resumed workplace raids, including earlier this month when U.S. immigration officials raided seven Mississippi chicken processing plants and arrested 680 mostly Latino workers, according to the AP.

Orem Police Chief Gary Giles stated even though Utah does not have sanctuary cities, he believes his officers never ask about immigration status.

“That’s for the politicians to deal with,” he said. “As long as people aren’t committing crimes, I don’t care what their status is, we don’t even ask them.”

He remembers a time when only himself and one other police officer spoke Spanish at the Orem Police Department. Now, there are 15 officers who speak Spanish and one Latino officer who often works undercover.

When a resident calls 911 anywhere in Utah County, dispatchers can connect to a translation service immediately, Giles said. That allows officers to respond quickly to any situation even if there are no Spanish-speaking dispatchers or officers working at the time.

After an emergency is over and a resident needs help navigating the legal system, there are Spanish-speaking victim’s advocates who work together to serve Hispanic and Latino populations across the county.

“If someone calls in, no matter what language it is, we have resources that we can get them in touch with somebody that will translate,” Giles said.

But the language barrier is not the only hurdle law enforcement officers face when working with local Latino or Hispanic communities. Giles, who served a church mission in Mexico City, explained there are cultural barriers with those who come from other countries.

“In those countries, police are not necessarily trusted and viewed as the good guys. They are feared,” Giles said. “We want to get the word out there they can come to us. We don’t care about immigration status.”

He added there are times when Hispanic or Latino residents stay in a domestic violence situation because they are afraid of reaching out to law enforcement for help in fear of being deported themselves.

“We’re not immigration officers. We are police officers and it is our job to keep everyone safe, no matter what,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak. It doesn’t matter what your legal status is. We as police officers are here to protect you.”

In the past, the department has tried to create outreach programs or community meetings to interact with minority populations. But Giles said each event was usually poorly attended.

Now, officers work to build trust with Latino and Hispanic residents by attending local cultural events and holding Spanish-speaking classes like a traffic school.

“That’s the message we want to get out there,” Giles said. “We want people to know that we’re here to help everybody, no matter what. No matter who they are, no matter what language they speak.”

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