The seventh floor conference room of St. Louis Police Headquarters is windowless and sterile, but it was the designated location for an interview with officers Suleima and Rosa Rojas.
Suleima and Rosa are sisters, they live together and are very much the opposite of the uninteresting conference room environment. They're friendly, talkative, and eager to joke around.
"I had two tamales this morning," Suleima joked during a customary mic check when we ask guests what they had for breakfast.
Rosa joined the St. Louis Metropolitan Police department in 2016 and Suleima started last August. They grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Their parents are from Mexico.
Rosa said that as Hispanic officers, they help their colleagues better understand the Hispanic community.
“I have an understanding of why our community is scared to talk to the police officer when they’re victims, because of their immigration status,” she said. “I’m also helping law enforcement understand our culture.”
At the Hispanic Festival in the Soulard neighborhood last fall, Suleima discovered that people’s opinions of the police can change when they see officers who look like them.
“We were approached by so many people who were like, ‘I didn’t know we had Spanish-speaking officers.’” she remembered.
Who should become a police officer?
The question of who should become a police officer is one that people ask in picking a career, and it’s a question that protesters have asked, especially in the policing of minority communities.
Locally, the acquittal last year of Jason Stockley, a white St. Louis police officer, who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man suspected of participating in a drug deal, brought renewed focus to the question.
In 2016, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown discussed who should become a police officer after the shooting of five officers in his department. Though the shooter was not affiliated with any particular protest, a reporter asked Brown about protests against police violence.
The chief took the opportunity to directly address protesters and young people of color in particular.
“We’re hiring,” he said. “We’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we can help you solve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
Asked about former Chief Brown's remarks, Suleima agreed. The conversations she has with other people who are Hispanic or Latino and other officers make a difference.
“If you see that we’re not policing your community like you say we are, then come and join us. Speaking to your coworkers and people in the community, you can change people’s mindsets one at a time,” Suleima said.
But Rosa cautioned – not everyone would make a good police officer.
“You have to be willing to give yourself to the community,” she said.
Part of giving herself to the community involves sharing her personal experiences with people she meets on patrol – including her experience with domestic abuse.
“I’ve noticed that when we get domestic calls, they’ll call again,” Rosa said. “[People realize,] ‘She went through it – she got out, and I can do it the same.’”
She also believes that it’s important for officers to educate themselves about communities they’re not a part of. For Rosa and her sister, that includes African-Americans and people of African descent.
“We’ll sit there and watch documentaries about black history,” Rosa said. “It’s good to know the struggles, the lack of work – sometimes this is where the crime starts.
“It’s not about pointing the finger all the time. If you see a young kid, be able to give resources, and be like, ‘Hey, I’ve heard that Bruce Franks has this program for you guys to work – call him.’ But you have to know what’s out there to be able to help our communities.”
The minority recruitment program
The Rojas sisters both participated in Ethical Society of Police’s minority recruitment program, which mentored them during their time at the police academy. The Ethical Society, the police union in St. Louis that represents mostly officers of color, founded the program, and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department provided funding. Suleima said her mentors in the recruitment program continue to look out for her well-being at the police department.
“It’s a little difficult, not only getting in the academy, but staying in the academy,” she said. “Sgt. Clinton, Sgt. Ross, Keaton Strong, Heather Taylor – they’re all looking out for us every single day, and they all give us advice.”
Rosa added that the program taught them things the police academy left out.
“We did a lot of volunteering things to try to get involved with the community. And that came a long way because, not only did I get to do that before I entered the academy, [but] after as well, as a police officer,” she said.
But last fall, the police department chose not to renew the funding, and the program was put on hold. Police Sgt. Heather Taylor, the head of the Ethical Society, spoke on St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here” podcast, and said the program had a positive effect on the number of African-American officers.
“[The police department was] 34 percent African-American as of July 2016. As it stands right now we’re at 30 percent African-American. It’s going to continue to decrease,” she said.
The Ethical Society plans to restart the program at the end of February, with funding secured by state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis. The number of minority officers, and particularly black officers, continues to be a much-discussed issue after the acquittal of Officer Jason Stockley.
The sisters did not want to share their personal feelings on Stockley’s acquittal, but the Ethical Society, which represents them, supported a conviction.
“Let’s just say that not all officers have the same input on the Stockley verdict,” Suleima said.
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