Policing the jails: Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office works to diversify ranks of detention officers

Valeria Cazares, a new detention officer, receives her diploma from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. (Photo by Anya Magnuson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Hand-to-hand combat. Pepper-spray. Mountain trails.

Valeria Cazares endured it all during her time at the Detention Officer Academy in Phoenix.

“It is more of a mental challenge than it is physical because your body does what your mind tells you to do,” she said. “Every time I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t do it,’ and that’s when I would give up. But afterwards, my trainers would come and pick me up and tell me, ‘You can do it.’ So, there are times when you need people, an officer, to push you forward and come out victorious.”

Even getting pepper-sprayed in the face was worth it, she said.

In August, weeks after training ended, she and 15 other graduates of the academy joined nearly 1,600 detention officers who work in Maricopa County jails. Cazares and other Spanish-speaking officers are part of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s efforts to diversify its ranks.

About 35 percent of detention officers are Hispanic, according to MCSO, but it did not provide information on how many of its detention officers speak Spanish.

Barry Roska, executive chief of custody for MCSO, said Spanish-speaking officers make it easier to communicate with inmates who don’t speak English well.

Barry Roska, chief of custody for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, applauds graduates at an August ceremony.(Photo by Anya Magnuson/Cronkite News)

“We want to do the best job we can in order to communicate with them effectively,” Roska said. “Part of that is that talent that someone might have, to be bilingual, we have to recognize and afford the opportunity for those who are limited English proficiency in order to understand the processes.”

Cazares, who had considered joining the military before deciding on the sheriff’s office, said some have questioned whether she, as a Latina, should work with an agency that has had a troubled relationship with the Hispanic community for decades under former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“I would say that people need to focus more on how we are trying to do our jobs correctly and that we are trying to help,” she said. ” Some people say other things – I respect everyone’s opinion, obviously – but I would say that if you think we are bad people, then you should join the force so you can see what we focus on and what our policies are.”

Cazares said she can make a difference and help the Latino community.

And Roska said the sheriff’s office still wants more detention officers like Cazares – it still has 251 positions to fill.

Connect with us on Facebook.