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Latino officers are helping diversify police. Can they help reform the ranks?

“I’m blue and I’m a cop and I’m super proud to be a police officer,” says Detective Arturo Martinez. But when he retires, "I'm still Mexican — you look as you are."
Arturo Martinez speaks at a march of Black and Latino officers to show their support for Black Lives Matter in Dallas on June 5.
Arturo Martinez speaks at a march of Black and Latino officers to show their support for Black Lives Matter in Dallas on June 5.Chris Martinez

In July 2016, a sniper shot and killed five police officers in downtown Dallas at a protest against the police killings of Black men. Among the dead was Patricio “Pat” Zamarripa, a close friend of Detective Arturo Martinez.

Nearly four years later, Martinez, 33, threw himself into organizing and participating in a police march in downtown Dallas to show solidarity with people who have been protesting since George Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” and died in Minneapolis police custody. Martinez called the June 5 march "Blue Lives for Black Lives Matter."

Martinez, an Army veteran with 10 years as a police officer and the son of Mexican immigrants, received backlash for the march, including angry and racist comments on his social media feeds. But many of his police colleagues and the friends and people he knows through his part-time work as “DJ Turo” backed him.

“I’m blue and I’m a cop and I’m super proud to be a police officer,” Martinez told NBC News. “When I retire, when I’m not a cop anymore, I’m still Mexican. You get fired tomorrow, you are not blue anymore. You are done. You look as you are.”

Latinos are driving police diversity

Latino officers have been driving the diversification of police departments for more than two decades, although they remain underrepresented in police ranks.

Latinos were about 12.5 percent of police forces in 2016, up from 7.8 percent in 1997, a 60 percent increase, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data. At the same time, the share of Black police officers fell slightly over the same period, from 11.6 percent to 11.4 percent

Although the prism through which Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests is viewed generally as Black vs. white, Latinos, too, are taking sides in the soul-wrenching debate over police authority that has consumed the nation.

Black and Latino officers participate in a march to show their support for Black Lives Matter in Dallas on June 5.
Black and Latino officers participate in a march to show their support for Black Lives Matter in Dallas on June 5.Chris Martinez

In a posted video, Martinez made clear that his march was not “anti-police,” as some had tagged it.

“The same way officers and citizens years ago said, maybe we should let that Black man eat next to me. Maybe he should be able to drink out of the water fountain. Maybe they should be able to go to the same schools with us … today we officers, citizens and individuals are saying, maybe there needs to be police reform in regards to police brutality,” he said.

His police department in Dallas, like many around the country, has come under scrutiny in the past for using deadly force on black residents.

The Latino community has its own stories of people killed by police, including the fatal shooting of Sean Monterrosa, 22, on June 5 in Vallejo, California. Monterrosa was kneeling with his hands above his waist when an officer shot him through the windshield of his police car. The officer mistook a hammer Monterrosa had on him for a gun.

As more Latinos join police and federal law enforcement agencies, the dividing lines are increasingly blurred. Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot 17 times on Feb. 10, 2015, in Pasco, Washington, by three officers — two white and one Latino — after Zambrano-Montes threw rocks at cars and the officers. The officers did not face charges.

'They have to play the game'

"They come in with a mentality that they want to change the system," said Martin Guevara Urbina, a criminal justice professor at Sul Ross State University in Del Rio, Texas, who has studied Latino police. "They get a little more power and more unity, but the structure is not with them."

Urbina said that police officers he has taught have told him that if they push for change without support in the upper ranks, they become isolated, end up in more dangerous, less desirable assignments and aren't promoted.

"To go up the hierarchy, they have to play the game, and that's unfortunate," he said.

A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Buffalo and the Washington University in St. Louis found that Latino men were "over 2.6 times as likely as others to be killed by officers from agencies with relatively higher percentages of Hispanic officers" and faced higher risk of a fatal encounter with police in neighborhoods with high income inequality.

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Latino legal group founded in New York, said his organization spent over a decade fighting for the integration of police forces. It succeeded in erasing barriers for Latinos and African Americans, such as entrance and promotion exams. It even sued the New York Police Department to eliminate the 5-foot-9 height requirement.

The fight was about economic justice, because police jobs came with good pay, pensions and benefits. But the subtext of the fight was that “Black and brown police officers would have a better opportunity and chance to police Black and brown people,” Cartagena said.

“It’s really unfortunate that an organization like LatinoJustice spends its first, what, 10 to 15 years of its existence back in the 1970s to integrate the New York Police Department,” Cartagena said. “We’ve internalized this anti-Blackness. It permeates how we talk about Black people back in our home countries. It permeates the fact that when you turn on the TV to watch the news in any of our home countries, all you see is light-skinned Latinos.”

Similar attitudes to white officers?

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey of 7,917 sworn officers in 54 police and sheriff’s departments with 100 or more officers found that Latino officers tended to hold views more similar to white officers when asked about high-profile interactions between Black people and police.

Notably, 7 in 10 Latino and white officers said fatal encounters at the time between police and Black people were isolated incidents, rather than a broader problem. Fifty percent of Black police officers saw them as signs of a larger problem. Also, only 42 percent of Latino officers and 27 percent of white officers thought protests were motivated by a genuine desire to hold police accountable, versus 69 percent of Black officers.

But Latino officers aligned more closely with Black officers' views on the issue of working with federal authorities on immigration laws. Sixty percent of Latino officers and 64 percent of Black officers said it should be up to federal authorities to identify undocumented immigrants, versus 59 percent of white officers who said police should take an active role in identifying undocumented immigrants, the Pew study found.

Across the country, the Floyd protests have drawn many young Latinos to protest police violence. At a recent rally in heavily Latino part of northern New Jersey, young protesters chanted, "Tu lucha es mi lucha (Your fight is my fight).”

Martinez made similar comments.

“I don’t know the Black plight, but I know the oppressed plight. We know what it is like for brown people," he said. "The brown plight is the Black plight. The Black plight is the brown plight."

More diversity, leadership?

The push for integration and inclusion continues in Latino police organizations, and it's still seen as a way to eliminate racial bias and racism in policing, along with building trust and bridges with Hispanic communities.

Leaders in Latino police associations told NBC News there needs to be a doubling down of recruiting of more Latinos and African Americans to the police ranks as well as promoting them to top tier police positions; they also emphasized expanding community policing.

After Floyd’s death, the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association denounced the Minneapolis officers involved.

Anthony Chapa, the association’s executive director, said police departments can’t ignore the changing culture in communities and the country as more cities, towns and states become majority minority.

Along with diversifying ranks, Latino officers have to be placed in command positions, Chapa said. His group helps train and prepare officers for leadership positions.

“If we don’t have Latinos in command positions, what impact are we making with this change?” he asked.

Campaigns to "defund the police" will mean cuts in personnel, Chapa said, and that could mean firings of Black and Latino officers, who are more likely to be newer to police forces.

In a House Committee hearing Wednesday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is Latino, said police “must acknowledge that law enforcement’s past contains institutional racism, injustices and brutality” and that policing has had a disparate “treatment and impact” on poor communities and those of color.

Acevedo has been drawing national attention for marching with activists and calling for greater police accountability in unjustified killings; Floyd grew up in Houston. But Acevedo has faced questions about transparency and accountability in his own department.

Acevedo rejected calls to defund the police, saying calls to the Houston Police Department disproportionately originate from communities of color. Cutting funds also could have disastrous consequences, he said, including affecting training on implicit bias and on de-escalating violence to avoid the use of lethal force.

“The civil unrest occurring throughout our nation … is a sobering reminder of how quickly we will lose public trust and the consequences of that fact,” said Acevedo, who is president of Major Cities Chiefs Association.

New York Police Department Sgt. Johnny Nuñez, founder and president of the Global Alliance of Hispanic Law Enforcement Professionals, said that often, Hispanic officers are not included in discussions on police reform. A major police union recently contacted his group to discuss how to move forward — the first time he's gotten such an invitation from a major police union, he said.

Nuñez said he has no problem with a ban on chokeholds, since New York already does so. He also said Minneapolis should have been quicker to arrest the former Minneapolis Police officer charged wirh murder in Floyd's death, Derek Chauvin. Nuñez also said bail reform should be considered.

With his group, Nuñez holds workshops in his community and sets up role-playing with citizens to put them in situations officers face, as well as teach them their rights when facing arrest.

Martinez said he was 17 when he was caught doing something stupid with friends. A white cop who stopped him "had every reason to take me to jail," but let him go with a warning that if he got caught in trouble again, he'd arrest him. Martinez said he went home and a few months later was in the Army.

"Five years later, I was a cop," he said. "This is what became of a white cop giving us a chance."

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