A year ago, not a day went by that Jairo Calle didn’t spend at least part of his shift working as a liaison between Tulsa’s Hispanic population and his fellow police officers.
Calle is one of only 28 Hispanic officers among about 750 officers in the department. Tulsa County is home to an estimated 80,000 Hispanics and a booming Latino population in the eastern part of the city, making the ability to speak Spanish a valuable asset for officers.
But the life of a bilingual officer can be a weary one. A soldier who did a number of tours in Afghanistan, working as a translator was not exactly the career Calle had envisioned for himself when he moved to Tulsa to take a job at TPD in 2011.
After two years in east Tulsa’s Mingo Valley Division, Calle was burned out, something not uncommon among Spanish-speaking officers there. It’s a major public service, because a large segment of the population there speaks little to no English, but it’s not a high-profile assignment.
An officer can make a career out of translating, but to advance to one of the bigger assignments he craved, Calle felt like he needed to make more of a splash.
So Calle found himself being pulled in two directions: Stay in east Tulsa, with its distinctly Latin flair and a population he can help in ways unlike other officers can, or go north to the Gilcrease Division, where high-profile crimes and high-profile arrests often happen.
“It was a tough call, you know, because I knew I could help out east, I knew I was helping,” Calle said. “But I felt like I had to look out for myself.”
Call of the north
For Calle, the call of north Tulsa was too strong.
“I think a lot of other Hispanic officers I talked to said ‘Man, you’re going to get burned out doing only that (translating,)” Calle said.
“I guess, your stats, your arrest history, that needs to be high to get into those specialty assignments. Obviously I speak Spanish, that’s great, but that’s not enough. So, that’s a big reason why I went up north was I just because I need to get away from being pigeonholed. I want to go out there and look for some bad guys.”
Sure, there are some neighborhoods here that resemble certain largely Hispanic sections of east Tulsa: Cops break up the Gilcrease district into two sections, Calle said. “Deep north” consists of mostly black families, while “short north,” an area from Pine to 11th Street, has many Hispanic families.
To illustrate, he detoured through some neighborhoods in the “short north” area.
In an area of rundown homes, one home stood out. A new Jeep Wrangler was in the driveway, the lawn was clear of debris and while every house nearby was constructed of aging vinyl siding, this home was completely bricked up.
“That’s a Hispanic family,” Calle said. “They probably got that house for 20 grand and fixed it up. You can tell it’s Hispanic because of the bricks, they all brick their houses up out here.”
Sure enough, every street he drove down had at least one similar home.
“There are Hispanics up here for sure,” Calle said. “There was an influx of Hispanics up north, then it stopped. The problem is they’re victimized here, people know they’re working, so they know they can break into their house. They know they won’t call the police, so (criminals) take advantage of them.”
Jesse Guardiola, a recruiting officer for TPD, said it’s well known that there are two main reasons many Hispanics won’t call police: fear of deportation and corrupt police in their home countries.
“We tell them that we do not deport,” Guardiola said. “We tell them we are not interested in their status, we just want to help them, but I know that’s hard for them to believe. And many of these people are here from, say, Mexico City or Juarez, you know, and they’re used to the police there. We have to make sure they know we are not like that.”
There is one thing Hispanics will call police about, Guardiola said — a stolen vehicle.
“If their car gets stolen, that deprives them of their ability to get to work,” he said. “They will call us about that.”
The fear is so great, he said, that Hispanics have a term for property crimes like burglaries or even robberies.
“They call it the ‘Living in America’ tax,” he said.
‘That won’t pay off for years’
For the last several years, Guardiola’s mission has been to bring Hispanic officers to TPD, a feat that’s easier said than done.
One problem, he said, is that the community here is largely divided. There are adults who do not want to be police officers, there are those who might want to be cops but do not have the education required (TPD officers must have a bachelor’s degree,) and there are children who are not yet old enough.
“The chiefs want more local recruits, but that can be a shallow pond,” Guardiola said.
So Guardiola has assumed the role of “road warrior.” For three to four days a week, he travels, sometimes to local schools, sometimes to state colleges, and sometimes out of state, preaching the gospel of the Tulsa Police Department.
It’s a two-pronged approach, or as Guardiola puts it, a long-term plan and a short-term plan.
“These kids here, their parents don’t want them to be cops, a lot of the time,” he said. “My dad didn’t want me to be an officer, so I understand that mindset. We have to talk to these kids when they’re young, to let them know that being an officer is an honorable job. They can go and talk to their parents and start working on them.
“But that won’t pay off for years.”
In the meantime, Guardiola recruits from out of state, at colleges like the University of Texas at El Paso (with more than 10,000 Hispanic students) or New Mexico State University (half of its 17,000 students are Hispanic.)
But while the pools there are deeper, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy sell. Convincing someone who is about to graduate from college to take the department’s pre-tests, move to Tulsa, then join the lengthy Police Academy is a formidable task.
“You’re talking, many times, about a kid who is from a lower-middle class family,” Guardiola said. “Moving to another state is not easy, or cheap.”
A year ago, Guardiola said he had 22 Hispanic officers at TPD. Now there are 28, if you include the two officers graduating in November’s police academy. A year ago, Guardiola said that, to match the city’s changing demographics, the department would need to add 90 more Hispanic officers. Six is a healthy dent in that deficit, he figures.
The reality is that there’s no magic cure to add 90 more Hispanic officers, so Guardiola looks for ways to take out little chunks here and there.
Most recently, he said, he was on a recruiting trip in Texas where he tested 14 Hispanic applicants. All 14 passed.
Great news, right?
Not so fast.
“I’m thinking ‘OK, that’s great, but we still have to get you to Tulsa,’” he said.
That’s where the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce stepped in. Four of those 14 testers agreed to come to Tulsa to do more testing (the next academy class starts in April,) and the chamber agreed to help cover their living expenses while here.
It became like a college football recruiting trip. The department set up ridealongs for the applicants and the chamber set them up at a hotel in the Brady district.
Calle said he thinks one of the difficulties young Hispanics face is that, if they live in east Tulsa, many think the only way to have fun is to go out at the plaza at 21st Street and East Garnett Road.
“What better way to counteract that than to put them in Brady, really let them see the best part of the city,” Guardiola said. “I wanted them to really feel the energy of Tulsa.”
It paid off. All four (three of whom are women, another major victory considering there is only one Hispanic female on the force, Guardiola said) will return in April.
“Two of them even told me that they had interviewed at the Dallas Police Department, and they were so put off by how they were treated,” he said. “They felt like they were just another Social Security number.”