Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Junior Enrique Sanchez was in grade school when he and one of his classmates were sent to the school's office — not because they were in trouble, but because they didn't have the right shoes to run track.
As a son of two immigrant parents from Mexico, track shoes weren't in his family's budget.
Sanchez was 2 years old when his family moved to Utah, after his father spent five years working on California farms, commuting back and forth across the border. He moved his family to Park City, where he found a job in the restaurant industry and built a life there to raise his kids in one of Utah's more privileged cities.
But growing up as a Hispanic kid in a city that was very white and even less diverse than it is today, it wasn't always easy for Sanchez. Hence the problem with the shoes.
But that day, while Sanchez talked about his problem with the lady sitting at the school's front desk, Park City Police Capt. Phil Kirk, who was at the school for a tutoring program, overheard and decided to take the kids to a nearby store to buy some track shoes so they could compete.
"I had a lot of respect for this guy who I barely even knew and was willing to spend his own money," Sanchez told the Deseret News. "It meant a lot to me."
That was the day Sanchez — who grew up watching TV shows like "America's Most Wanted" and "Cops" — decided he wanted to be a police officer when he was older.
Yet the fully grown, 22-year-old Sanchez still hasn't been able to achieve that dream.
That's even though he was hired at the Park City Police Department in 2017 as a civilian employee. Last year he even helped kick off the city's Cadet Explorer program so more young aspiring police officers could begin forging their own paths in law enforcement.
It's not because he wouldn't be able to qualify academically or physically. It's because something he can't control stands in his way: He wasn't born in the U.S.
Sanchez is a living breathing example of a so-called "Dreamer" — a Mexico native who, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, has been given safe harbor from deportation as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
While legal residents like Sanchez can fight and die for the U.S. as a member of the military, they can't serve in their own communities as police officers — at least not in most states, including Utah.
From June 2020:
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, a Democrat who represents a district that encompasses one of Utah's most diverse communities, West Valley City, wants to change that.
Mayne told of how a veteran recently told her he served in the military with "soldiers that weren't citizens, and I will walk them to the front of the line to be a citizen."
"That stirred me," Mayne said.
Her bill, SB102, is making its way through the Utah Legislature with so far no major opposition. It would change Utah law to allow a "lawful permanent resident" of the U.S. who has lived in the U.S. for at least five years and has legal authorization to work in the U.S. to qualify to serve as a police officer.
Mayne's bill received unanimous endorsement from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday and is now headed to the Senate floor. It's supported by many law enforcement groups, including Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training, the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys, and the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, Mayne said.
Sanchez testified in favor of the bill, urging lawmakers to support a bill that would clear the way for his dream that he still hasn't given up.
He called in from Washington, D.C., where he's completing an internship for the University of Utah as he pursues a degree in political science. It is an alternative path he forged for himself after he completed his associate of science and criminal justice at Salt Lake Community Community College, hoping he would one day "somehow" be able to serve as a police officer in Utah.
"Unfortunately that didn't happen," Sanchez told lawmakers on the Senate panel.
It was hours before Sanchez would testify in favor of the bill that he discovered it even existed.
"I was shocked," Sanchez told the Deseret News, explaining that he found out about it only when a police chief's assistant called him to ask if he had any interest in testifying in favor of it.
Dream within reach
Now, suddenly Sanchez's dream of becoming a police officer — a dream that has been on shaky ground, but not abandoned, ever since he found out in high school that he wouldn't legally be able to serve — is in reach.
"There was always hope," Sanchez said. "I kind of feel like it's one of the most resilient characteristics of us as DACA Dreamers: There is hope, light at the end of the tunnel."
For Sanchez, the arrival of SB102 just as he's about to graduate in May makes him feel "super lucky," almost as if a pathway is being carved for him toward his dream career. But he knows not everyone is as lucky as he is. There's no telling how many young, immigrant Utahns have once dreamed of serving as a police officer, but gave up when they found out the law wouldn't allow it.
For "Dreamers" like himself, there isn't a clear pathway toward citizenship, he said.
"Unfortunately, I have seen that with some of the kids that I grew up with," Sanchez said. "They didn't have the opportunity that other kids did, and so it just steered them into a completely different path."
Diversity in police forces
Especially as the nation grapples with racial justice issues and relations with law enforcement, now more than ever cities need to be working to diversify police forces to build trust in their communities, Sanchez said.
"It's important for our police department to mirror the communities that they serve," Sanchez told lawmakers. "It's the only way we're going to be able to continue to get public support for our police departments and for our communities to trust our police departments is to continue the work of community outreach."
Kirk, who told the Deseret News Sanchez has become a "role model" for Park City police cadets, said SB102 would help cities like Park City, which now has a growing Latino population, "better represent our community."
"Hopefully with this law we can break down those barriers," Kirk said. "It's a huge step in the right direction."
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told his fellow lawmakers he was "stunned when I learned that West Valley City Police Department, one of the largest in the state, had only one native Spanish speaker."
When the Deseret News reached out to a West Valley City Police Department spokeswoman to verify, she said the department estimates roughly 15 of West Valley's 217 sworn police officers speak Spanish, though it's not clear how many are native Spanish speakers because the department doesn't track native languages of its employees.
"I have thought for years on how we could do a better job, how we could do better outreach," Thatcher said, calling SB102 a "solid and wise solution."
Opposition to the bill
One man, Silas Nebeker, called in to the Senate panel to oppose the bill on behalf of his family.
"We don't have anything against diversity or immigrants," Nebeker said. "I know several legal residents that are very good people and I wouldn't have anything against them being police officers. But I feel that our police do need to be citizens. They're the ones enforcing our law."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, chairman of the committee, pointing out that the U.S. has allowed "noncitizens to serve in the military for decades," asked Nebeker, "How do you see being a police officer different than being in the military?"
Nebeker said he disagreed "with the military allowing noncitizens as well. So that's just me."
Thatcher, calling SB102 a "fantastic bill," said "there will be some people who fail to grasp the difference between someone who is lawfully in the United States of America but not yet a citizen, but this is good, sound policy."
Police chiefs from Utah's most diverse cities — West Valley City and Salt Lake City — support the bill as they struggle to hire enough police officers, let alone enough to mirror the populations they serve.
"In West Valley, I am always looking to hire the very best candidates for our police department to serve our community," West Valley Police Chief Colleen Jacobs said. "Having a large pool of applicants to vet through our hiring process helps us to determine those most qualified. Passing of this legislation would allow for additional, potentially more diverse applicants into the law enforcement profession."
Slamming doors shut on aspiring police officers — kids — could have a long-term detriment to society as a whole, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said, because it limits their opportunities. From Salt Lake City's own police explorer program, Brown said there have been "a handful" of aspiring immigrant police officers who found out they wouldn't qualify.
If the Utah Legislature passes SB102, Brown said it could have an "exponential" effect on diversifying Utah's police forces.
"One becomes four, and four becomes eight," he said. "It will start slow, but that's the impact it's going to have."