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#WhyIServe: How one cop is building trust with the Hispanic community

Deputy Ricardo Cueva’s work as a member of the King County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Office is a prime example of the impact cops can have in their community


The constant good work officers are doing to make their communities stronger and safer can often get lost in the noise, and that’s why Axon has launched a campaign to shed light and celebrate the incredible acts — big and small — both the police and other members of communities across the nation are responsible for each and every day. #WhyIServe invites you to share your story of how and why you choose to make the world a better place.

The following is paid content sponsored by Axon

The negative portrayal of law enforcement by many in the media might suggest that the relationship between cops and their communities is irrevocably broken, but there are countless departments employing innovative strategies to strengthen the connections to the citizens they are sworn to protect. Deputy Ricardo Cueva’s work as a member of the King County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Office is a prime example of the impact one officer can have.

With a population of nearly two million people and beats that can vary from rural towns to densely populated cities like Seattle, King County features a wealth of environments for its 700-plus deputies to operate within. Deputy Cueva, who has been on the job for two years, works one of the agency’s busiest shifts in the city of Burien, just south of Seattle.

With a crime rate that ranked Burien as the eleventh most dangerous city in Washington state, it’s vital that the police and the public work together to make the city’s streets safer. As law enforcement continues to grapple with the perception of increased public distrust, Cueva understands firsthand the particular difficulty the Hispanic community has trusting cops. It’s one of the reasons Cueva was drawn to Burien and its high Hispanic population — it was an area where Cueva knew he could make a difference.

“I grew up in a Hispanic and Spanish-speaking home,” Cueva said. “When I was a child, there weren’t a lot of Spanish-speaking or Latino officers. Throughout the years, growing up in a Hispanic home, we tended to not have a big level of trust with the police. It wasn’t that they [the police] were doing anything bad, we just tended not to call them when we really needed them — we’d rather deal with our own problems.”

“Why Are We So Scared of Them?”
A particular moment that stuck with Cueva occurred when he was 10 years old. He was riding in the car with his siblings and mother when they stopped at a red light. A King County sheriff’s vehicle pulled up beside them. Although the family wasn’t doing anything illegal, his mother’s demeanor immediately changed — she became frantic.

“She was telling us not to move, to look straight ahead, be quiet. We were looking at each other like, ‘What are we doing wrong?’” Cueva said. “That made a huge impact in my life at that age. I thought, ‘Wait a second — I learned in school that police were there to help us. Why are we so scared of them?’”

It’s just one example of what Cueva sees as a common issue in the Hispanic community — a fear and general distrust of the police that he believes for many immigrants stems from issues that plague some police forces outside of the U.S.  

“You have a lot of hard-working Hispanic people that have always dealt with that. And when they come up here [the U.S.], they’re so afraid of us [the police] and they’re worried about their immigration status,” Cueva said.

Bridging the Gap
Cueva’s experience plays a substantial role in why he serves. He’s witnessed the reaction those in the Hispanic community have to the badge and uniform all too often: uneasiness, hesitation to seek help, or outright refusal to cooperate. According to the deputy, “they just want us out the door as quickly as possible.” Cueva is looking to bridge that gap — to shatter the preconceived notions of what a police officer is and what they stand for — one person at a time.

After Cueva began patrolling Burien, his skill as a translator helped close a communication gap that would often frustrate both deputies and the civilians they were trying to help during calls. It also eliminated the need for English-speaking children of Spanish-speaking households to be exposed to the details of often heinous crimes as a consequence of their role as translators for cops taking reports.

But while having a deputy on scene who can speak and understand the language is useful, Cueva says it’s merely a small component of building a connection. In order to truly build trust with the public and humanize the badge, cops need to have an active role in the community — and they must often be the ones to initiate it.

Since taking the Burien beat in July, Cueva has spearheaded or become involved in several community outreach initiatives. He began conducting business contacts — visiting the countless Hispanic-owned shops and restaurants within the city to build a connection and stress that the police were there to help whenever they were needed. He also began making visits to apartment complexes that were predominately Hispanic, meeting with residents and getting the word out about Q&As the agency plans to host for the public.

“People are not well-educated on laws. They don’t understand what their rights are. One of my biggest focuses is letting them know why we’re here and how we can help them,” Cueva said.

Cueva also runs the Spanish version of the department’s official Facebook page, serves as an advisor for the agency’s brand-new Police Explorers program, and is a department representative at events the city’s Parks and Recreation department holds.

Human to Human
The results of this outreach have been dramatic. Cueva receives calls from members of the community — legal inquires and otherwise — so frequently he often has to direct them to other members of his agency. The Explorers program, just two months old, has already recruited 14 kids, many of whom are of Hispanic heritage.

But for Cueva, the most striking reminder of the impact a police officer can have is the relationship he developed with a 22-year-old inhalant abuser he frequently arrested for stealing cans of dust cleaner.

A third arrest led to a lengthy conversation between the two inside of Cueva’s squad car. The deputy discovered the young man’s brother had been murdered and his father had passed away just a few months later. Seeing that the man was suffering from depression, Cueva provided him with his contact information and offered assistance in an attempt to reverse the downward spiral.

After a few months, Cueva discovered the man had again been arrested for theft. This time, after the man was released from jail, Cueva drove to his residence and provided him with resources for substance abuse treatment. He entered rehab and has stayed out of trouble since. He credited Cueva’s treatment of him “as a human being” as the reason for choosing to turn his life around.

“I can’t get to everybody — I’d love to — but I’m only one person. But the people I can get to, if I can help them change their life, their attitude, that person might be able to help somebody else,” Cueva said. “Showing a person respect and dignity — whether they’ve committed a crime or not — in the two years I’ve worked as a police officer, I’ve avoided a lot of fights because I gave people respect. If you go into a situation and listen to what people have to say, you’re initiating respect. It doesn’t work every single time, but for the most part, I get a ‘thank you.’ And it’s not just me — our department — we all understand the difference respect can make.”

All of the different roles Cueva plays — as an educator, translator, and person willing to show respect even when it isn’t reciprocated — serve to strengthen the deputy’s connection to his community and humanize the badge. It’s why Deputy Cueva serves, and in these difficult times for law enforcement, he believes it’s one of the most important components of being a police officer.

“I’ve had people yell at me — it happens to all of us as police officers — people telling us how worthless we are. And that’s okay because they’re not talking to us; they’re talking to our badge and our uniform. They don’t know us. They’re just mad at what we represent,” Cueva said. “We have the authority as police officers to take someone’s freedom away. And I don’t take that lightly. That’s why being able to take that extra minute and listen and show people that you care is so important.”

“I’m not gonna change a whole culture, a whole community,” he said. “But my goal every day is to make a difference in one person in hope that that person passes on the word: ‘Hey, the police aren’t here to do us harm, it’s the opposite — they’re here to help.’”

Cueva’s work in Burien is just one example of the countless ways cops are working to make our world a better place. Using the #WhyIServe hashtag on social media, tell us about the good work you're doing in your community.

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