Two years ago at a career fair for Hispanic students, Tulsa Police Officer Jesse Guardiola saw the severity of the city’s broken relationship with immigrants.
Not one student out of the hundreds at the fair approached him, most keeping a 15-foot berth from the booth.
“I kept wondering ‘What is going on here?’ ” he said.
Finally, a teenage girl came up to Guardiola and asked if he was getting information to deport them or their families.
“Where do you get that idea?” he asked her.
“Well, that’s what everyone’s thinking and why no one will talk to you,” she said.
That’s the moment Guardiola realized that his work in the Police Department’s Hispanic Outreach Unit was more mission than job.
“That broke my heart,” he said. “They do not know about what the police can do because they believe what they hear on the streets.
“If we don’t reach these kids, if we don’t mend these fences, parts of this city will be lost. Crime will continue to rise if people don’t build trust. People need to trust the police, to feel safe reporting crimes.”
Guardiola is a on a quest to change this course for Hispanic youths and their families. It’s a daunting task, especially considering the remarkable Hispanic population jump in the past two decades.
Guardiola, 41, never turns down a speaking engagement – he gave more than 300 last year – and is asked by the department to recruit other officers and teach at the academy.
It’s a juggling act that makes for a long work week.
“Jesse is hands down the most popular speaker we have,” said Curtis Peebles, who helps coordinate community resources for early childhood programs associated with Family & Children’s Services, including Head Start and the Early Childhood State Program.
“Once he begins to speak to people, there is trust beginning to build up. He’s the face of the police to many Spanish-speaking families.”
‘This can be their future’: Guardiola knows the mindset of Tulsa’s immigrant youth.
A son of poor Mexican immigrants growing up in New Mexico, he stood at the crossroads of choosing school or crime.
Guardiola said his parents did the best they could. But immigrant parents are handicapped by not understanding the English language or American culture well.
Like many children of immigrants, Guardiola rarely saw his father in daylight because he worked from sunrise until after sunset.
But Guardiola had a village of mentors including a football coach, teachers, a priest and his church.
His fifth-grade teacher once bought him books at a school book fair, and his church family pooled their money for a scholarship to send him to New Mexico State University.
“It’s so important teachers and adults understand the power of influence they have,” Guardiola said. “Education is the key out of poverty. When I stand in a group wearing my uniform, I want parents to know their kids can do this, too. I want kids to know this can be their future.”
After graduating from college, Guardiola was recruited by the Tulsa Police Department.
His role at the Tulsa Police Academy includes teaching “survival” Spanish, which includes phrases such as “show me your hands.”
“I teach cadets about officer survival,” he said. “It’s not about sensitivity. It’s about having what they need to survive that incident, whether at a traffic stop or at gunpoint.”
FAQs : Immigrant adults ask Guardiola about legal details, such as when police can search a home or how to pay a traffic fine.
But he’s been asked about everything from how to control an unruly 14-year-old to how to help with homework.
For kids – immigrants and second-generation – they are mostly worried about deportation of themselves or their families.
For nonimmigrant crowds, they want to discuss how federal immigration enforcement works.
“No matter how you feel about immigration, we have 70,000 people here in Tulsa who are at risk of all going underground,” he said.
“We have to build a relationship with them, not just to save police officers’ lives but to solve crimes. That’s the main focus of what we as officers need to do.”
Facing challenges : After making strides in his bridge-building mission, Guardiola was blind-sided when a fellow officer was arrested on allegations of robbing Hispanic motorists.
Tulsa Police Officer Marvin Blades Jr. is facing charges of robbery with a firearm. He is accused of pulling over Hispanic drivers and demanding that they hand over their wallets.
Blades is free on bond pending trial and has denied the allegations. A May jury trial is scheduled.
“I lost a lot of rapport with that,” Guardiola said. “I doubled up my efforts to get the word out that this is not what police are about here. They come from countries where this type of thing is accepted and assumed that’s how it worked here, too.”
He altered his talk to include contact information about internal affairs and when it is appropriate to call.
If a person is getting the runaround, he explains what to do.
“For minorities growing up in America, most can usually figure out how to get a supervisor or a place to complain,” he said. “For immigrants, they have no idea how to do that.”
Not everyone has been happy about his work.
The racist mail he received at first has tapered off, but the pushback still pops up occasionally.
“That led me to believe I’m doing something right if I’m ticking off those kinds of people,” he said. “For me, this is about the greater good. And, God willing, if I’m allowed to keep doing this and can reach young people, it will be worth it.”
Tulsa’s Hispanic population
Between 1990 and 2000, Tulsa’s Hispanic population jumped by 181 percent.
Between 2000 and 2010, it increased by 97 percent.
Without the Hispanic growth, Tulsa’s population would have fallen by about 7 percent, according to the census.
Tulsa has about 27,155 new Hispanic residents since 2000, for a total of 55,266, according to a 2011 census report.
In Tulsa Public Schools, Hispanic students fill about one-quarter of the district’s seats and hold a majority at 10 of about 75 sites.
The state’s current undocumented immigrant population ranges from 55,000 to 95,000, according to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center report. Tulsa Police Department’s Hispanic Outreach
Began in 2010 and is a unit of Officer Jesse Guardiola, who speaks Spanish, and his supervisor, Sgt. Mark Sherwood.
Was chosen one of 10 programs out of 350 nationally to be presented to the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City last year.
Has been highlighted in “The Police Chief,” a national law enforcement publication.
Rotary Club of Tulsa recently presented the officers the Above and Beyond award.
Tulsa Police Department’s Hispanic Outreach
• Began in 2010 and is a unit of Officer Jesse Guardiola, who speaks Spanish, and his supervisor, Sgt. Mark Sherwood.
• Was chosen one of 10 programs out of 350 nationally to be presented to the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City last year.
• Has been highlighted in “The Police Chief,” a national law enforcement publication.
• Rotary Club of Tulsa recently presented the officers the Above and Beyond award. SUBHEAD: hispanic outreach unit: officer builds relationships Police working on immigrant relations
Original Print Headline: Culture change