- Steven Vago
When Amy Novoa left her parents' home in Rose Park on the west side of Salt Lake City to drive to the Pioneer Precinct for her swearing-in as a police officer, she still clung to the hope that someone from her family would attend the most important moment in her life. Her 15 fellow graduates that warm March afternoon in 2016 had partners who would pin on the badges they had earned after six grueling months in the academy. But when Novoa, who is single, asked her mother Esthela Flores to attend, she told her, "M'ija, I'm really busy at work, it's not a good day." The 22-year-old begged and cajoled her parents and even bribed her siblings to no avail.
Her stepfather, Melquiades Flores, and her mother had long opposed her interest in law enforcement from when the then 16-year-old West High School student had told them she was joining the Salt Lake City Police Department's Explorers. The nationwide program is run by Learning for Life, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America. Individual Explorer units, typically called posts, are sponsored by local organizations or agencies and focus on specific careers. SLCPD Explorers ages 14-20 don either grey or blue uniforms and black lace-up boots and attend weekly drills, classes and police training for four hours a week, as well as taking part in many community events throughout the year. Novoa joined the post in 2011, subsequently rising through its ranks to the top slot of captain.
It wasn't only the danger on the streets that Novoa would face that worried her family, nor unpleasant experiences family members had had at the hands of police officers and Border Patrol, or that some of them felt it was a man's job. It wasn't even that they thought, as Novoa says, that cops were "all white, older, racist men."
When the 5-foot-3 Novoa signed up for the academy, "We said 'No, the system is corrupt,'" Esthela Flores says in Spanish, referring to people who have been arrested for drug dealing and are back on the street the next day. Amy Novoa stood her ground, her mother recalls. "She said, 'I will make the difference.'"
But when the 16 officers-in-waiting marched in for the ceremony attended by Chief Mike Brown, Novoa saw her mother and younger brother Carlos standing at the back.
At the last moment, Flores and her son had decided to go to the ceremony. "I saw that she was so happy to have graduated, it convinced me to support her," Flores says. Her daughter waved her to the front and she proudly pinned her badge on her uniform. "I was so happy, I could not stop smiling," Amy Novoa says.
Novoa's friend and fellow former Explorer Alejandro Ramirez went to the swearing-in along with other Explorers to support her. While undocumented, Ramirez has a time-limited legal work permit through the federal government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Novoa getting her badge was bittersweet for him. "We were all super happy and jealous," he says. "Finally one of us had become a cop."
Like many other Explorers, Novoa had to overcome cultural resistance to the idea of joining a profession that members of her own family and community can both fear and view as a repressive force. Novoa's journey to badge and gun against trenchant family resistance is one built on service from a young age in her step-father's church. That same ideal of sacrifice is enshrined in the Utah Law Enforcement memorial, of which former officer and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby is board vice president. It was his idea to have the Explorers, for a small stipend, take care of the state capitol-based memorial to cops who died in the line of duty, after he saw them take part in the opening of the $125 million Public Safety Building in 2012.
"I was struck by the idea that in the SLCPD Explorers I was seeing the future of SLC policing—more ethnic groups and more women," Kirby writes in an email. "I realized then that the department is actually growing cops."
Law enforcement has been scrambling both locally and nationally for years to address recruitment problems—particularly in the light of national controversies and protests over the use of deadly force against people of color—accompanied by, police chiefs say, a shift toward the targeted killing of police officers. The resulting stigma can prove to be a powerful deterrent. While many Explorers in Ramirez' and Novoa's post were "good Explorers," Ramirez says, "at the end, they did not want to be cops because of how bad it is; how hated they are." After the ceremony, they went out to lunch, "and every single one of them except me think being a cop now is the worst thing you can ask for," he says. "Everyone hates you; there's no love."
In Utah, there's been an additional deterrent: legislative changes to retirement benefits, cutting pensions and extending the number of years officers have to serve to trigger them.
When it comes to recruiting minorities, in a state where advocates say Latinos, including the undocumented, make up close to 20 percent of the population, police departments have been largely unsuccessful, despite increased hiring drives, in reflecting similar percentages of diversity in their ranks.
Ironically, "The Explorers have been able to capture that market share of females and minorities where police departments are struggling," says Det. Cody Lougy, who ran the program from 2012 until March 2017. The 2017 post boasts 28 teenage boys and 44 young women who collectively speak 15 languages, with over half the group Latino. Yet, while hundreds of youth have gone through the program, SLCPD Chief Mike Brown says only five Explorers—including Novoa—have joined the SLCPD since the initiative's inception in the early 2000s.
Not that joining the police force is necessarily easy, be that because of challenges for refugees and other minorities with their oral or written English, or, as in Ramirez' case and others, immigration issues. While five states allow those with a work permit or resident status to don the blue, in Utah, you have to be a U.S. citizen. When it comes to non-citizens with a badge and gun, Brown says so far, it's only in the discussion phase. "At least they are occurring," he says.
The Explorers is far more than a recruitment tool, Brown argues, lauding the $16,350 budgeted program for both its impact on youth and hard-to-reach communities. "We have tried for many years to push back into communities we serve," he says. "These kids are helping us build inroads into refugee and minority communities. They truly just want to belong, they want to be represented and part of our community; they want to be part of our department."
What Novoa and the Explorers reveal, is the tenacity of often marginalized youth to cling to, and in her instance, achieve, their dreams of serving the neighborhoods they live in. It's a potent journey that both enriches the police department and the Explorers advisors, while also opening doors for at-risk youth.
City Weekly interviewed four current Explorers, including a 17-year-old trans-male, all of whom want to be cops. Det. Keith Horrocks, who took over as advisor of the SLCPD post in March, talks of Explorers who have a father or brother in prison who joined the program to understand the police mindset, or because they perceived injustice in how their family was treated and perhaps hope to bring about change. Those few Explorers, like Novoa, who do become cops, also bring a deep understanding of community policing. "Amy knows where people come from, she knows what they're facing, she knows the fears certain people have dealing with cops," 10-year-police veteran Horrocks says. "Because of those things that makes her a better cop than me."
Despite the paramilitary trappings of the post, what seems to drive all the Explorers interviewed for this story is as much the desire to give back to their community as to experience what Novoa calls "the fun" of her job.
Whether spending five hours searching for a suicidal teenage girl and being credited by her father with saving her life or jumping out of her mother's car while still an Explorer to dig out someone stuck in their car in a snowdrift, Esthela Flores says her daughter, "has a heart to serve. I hope it helps her."
- Steven Vago
Novoa has struggled to find her place in life. English is the self-described outcast's second language, and she says she doesn't jell within mainstream American culture: "I don't know where I fit in, I don't feel like I fit in anywhere."
Her truck-driver father is from El Salvador, her mother from Nayarit, Mexico. Her family moved to Utah from California in 2000 when she was 7 years old, and her parents separated shortly after. She and her siblings stayed with her mother, moving around the valley in search of places to stay. Times were tough. "I felt like we ate a lot of junk food," Novoa says. "We'd eat Little Caesar—we'd each get our own box."
She recalls running from cops a few times, whether for skipping school or being in a fight. Fighting at lunchtime was a daily tradition at her middle school, she says, where you'd go into the bathroom and trade shots to the body. "'Till this day, I think it's fun," she says.
At West High, her counselor told her she wouldn't be able to handle the stress and demands of the International Baccalaureate program. Discrimination "is exactly what it was," she says. So, she took a law enforcement class given by Det. Lougy to get an elective credit. His passion and inclusiveness touched her deeply. "He makes you feel like you can do anything," she says. That was the only class she ever got an A in.
Explorers and advisors recall her in her first months of attendance wearing sweats, her hair unkempt and her quiet, timid demeanor. The program had been run out of the police department's training unit and received little support from administration, officers say. Det. Mike Hamaday took over shortly before Novoa joined, and focused hard on officer training. He pursued tactical training such as clearing buildings of suspects and handling high-hazard traffic stops in the department's parking lot. He also bonded with his charges. "He pushed me further than where I thought I could go," Novoa recalls. He brought both structure and discipline to a group used to watching movies in class, whittling it down from 40 to 13, Ramirez says.
At the time, Novoa's parents criticized her. "Why give so much time to them? You're not getting anything back," she remembers being told.
Ramirez heard similar complaints. His family came to the U.S. when he was just 3 years old, leaving behind a life of poverty. They ended up in Utah because "it was more immigration friendly, more acceptable than anywhere else," he says.
He grew up in Glendale and was introduced to the Explorers by friends in the program. His parents said that would make him an easy target for deportations should federal detention programs expand. Every Tuesday afternoon when Ramirez went to the Public Safety Building, he'd hear, "You're just asking for it."
Novoa fell in love with the training. "I felt like I was good at something. It was fun to know I was getting better." Despite her shyness, Hamaday chose her as the face for the class, putting her, she says, "on blast," as a speaker at community events and front person for media interviews.
Ramirez asked himself what was he promoting as an Explorer? He wondered why he wanted to be a cop only to be labeled by friends and others in his community as a snitch. The answer he settled on was, "These kids wanted to make a difference in their community," he says. "Obviously being from the westside, no one gave them an answer. The police department said if you want to make a difference, maybe this is a place you can start."
While Novoa might have dreaded public engagements, Ramirez believes she also learned from Hamaday "how to fake it good. Mike was really good at teaching her that; of having a command presence, the levels of force. Mike drilled it into her head and she exploded, I guess, and became this super-awesome cop."
- Steven Vago
GROWING THE NUMBERS
In 2012, Det. Lougy took over from Hamaday. Lougy had increasingly struggled with working homicide. "I'd seen some really dark stuff, just sad cases involving children and adults," he says. "It was bringing me down. Explorers pulled me out of that hole."
He describes it as one of the best assignments in the department, because "you can invoke and promote so much change with the youth—they see you as a mentor and coach and you see their growth."
Lougy wanted to open the doors to any kid that wanted to join. About the only youth who weren't eligible were those with felonies on their records. If they had misdemeanors such as retail theft, there had to be a gap of time to prove they'd turned the corner.
Det. Veronica Montoya worked on Explorers first with Hamaday and then Lougy. "The numbers kept growing up, not because we needed them, but they needed us," she says. She argues participating youth saw it as a great opportunity for guidance, résumés, and says they don't have to turn out to be cops—many go into ancillary careers such as forensics, dispatch, records. "They are learning how to be responsible, how to be part of a team, to take part in a community event," she says.
- Steven Vago
After Novoa graduated high school, she switched her major half a dozen times at Utah Valley University trying to figure out what she wanted to do. Her parents wanted her to run the family grocery store, but Novoa hankered for law enforcement. She successfully applied to be a cop and excelled during the six months of academy training. Still, her family continued to be nervous about her choices. "They were just hoping—they still hope and secretly pray, I'll switch careers," she says with a laugh.
The training completed, she spent three months with a field training officer (FTO), a muscular tall white male. The first week is called "ghost week," since you're supposed to observe only, she says. "That's when I realized no situation is predictable. Holy crap."
During her very first day with the FTO she was shocked to see how many people routinely lie to officers. She was called to a store and detained a shoplifter. She listened patiently to the woman's claims of innocence, believing every word.
"Ahem," the training officer said. "She's lying to you."
People lie to her uniform, she learned, not to her. She cited her for retail theft and told her it wasn't a big deal, unless she did it again, in which case it would be enhanced to a misdemeanor.
Novoa has had to learn to assert herself and use her "big girl voice," when the situation requires it. Fights aren't an issue, unless the offender is flying on meth. "My toughest fight was a guy high on meth at Palmer Court," she says, referring to a housing complex for the chronically homeless. It took her and three officers 15 minutes to get the cuffs on him.
Despite being young and petite, Novoa is routinely reviled with derogatory terms, she says, such as being called, "a wetback, a beaner, a bitch all the time. You're less respected if you wear the uniform these days." Being a cop "is not a way of life for normal people," Novoa continues, particularly when it comes to always carrying off-duty her personal Glock 26. She demonstrates how she stands with her holstered gun always pointing away from a suspect and how she always keeps her weapon hand empty, ready to draw.
- Steven Vago
Her parents concerns about the dangers she'd face as an officer were quickly realized after she requested to patrol the westside, only to find herself caught up in three incidents that demonstrated her job could bring the threat of violence to her family's doorstep. In one case, she went to a neighborhood Smith's to run a quick errand and left her weapon behind. A youth who was a friend of someone she had arrested days before for discharging a firearm was leaving the market as she was getting out of her car.
"Amy, right?" he shouted and charged at her. "I knew his intentions weren't good," she says and drove away. Such incidents taught her, she says, "Now I'm not just any person—now I'm a police officer."
Colleagues subsequently told her not to work where you live. Psychologically, she says, she's ready if she has to use her weapon. "If it's necessary, it's necessary. That's our job. That's what we signed up to do."
Ramirez has seen use of force from both ends of a weapon. An officer he had liked, Draper Sgt. Derek Johnson, was gunned down at a domestic violence incident, while an unarmed friend was shot dead by a cop. He met Johnson through the "Shop With a Cop" Christmas present program, which the Explorers support. He attended the funeral as an Explorer, helping out with traffic detail. "As soon as you hear the last call, it's gut-wrenching," he says. "They're burying your friend."
After Ramirez' friend was killed, those who knew both of them asked him why the officer had shot him. He didn't have an answer. "I couldn't tell them with a clear conscience that you would do the same if you were a cop," he says. Ramirez decided he wanted to be a cop if only because perhaps in a similar situation to that which cost his friend's life, "maybe I could have made a difference, maybe I would have waited [to fire], maybe I could have saved him."
Novoa patrolled the eastside for six months, then in May, requested a transfer to the west side of downtown which includes the homeless shelter. The beat's rapid pace, she says, is fun. "Crime is crime."
- Steven Vago
CALLED TO SERVICE
Novoa's working day consists of 10 hours in a patrol car bouncing from one incident to another on the city's westside, which usually means issues stemming from Rio Grande. At each incident, she typically partners up with another officer. Up to 12 officers crisscross the westside streets to address a climbing number of calls for service through the afternoon and into the night. Novoa has the weekend swing shift, so she works Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 2.30 p.m to 12.30 a.m., goes to Explorers on Tuesdays and works several operations a month as a decoy for the vice squad. Not that she rests before work. On Saturdays, she helps clean her family's non-denominational church, and on Sundays she conducts Bible study and plays in the house band during a two-hour service, all before putting on her uniform and beginning a mentally and physically exhausting work day.
One hot Friday afternoon in June, her first call after roll call at Pioneer Precinct is a man waving a gun near the Road Home shelter. Both gun carrier and victim are gone by the time Novoa and a second car roll up. She says her current beat has her dealing with mental illness-related issues, trespassing, burglaries and theft. "A lot of calls to the shelter turn into nothing," she says.
She goes on a welfare check at a hotel on a possibly suicidal man, watches as another officer explains to a young homeless man carrying a knife why he can't display the weapon, then stands with fellow class graduate Monica Roop while youth from Brazil and San Diego are forced to leave a hotel room they paid for because of complaints of noise and cigarette smoke. They sympathize with the skateboarders but can do nothing to help them.
She briefly stops at her parent's grocery business. Her stepfather doesn't mask his antagonism toward her chosen profession. "I feel she has so much potential, but not a police officer," Melquiades Flores says, turning to her. "I want the best for you." He continues that there are "so many bad people around," he and his wife continuously worry for her safety. "We should be supportive, pray to God that she's fine," he says. "Her life is more important than anything."
Flores switches hats for that of minister the following Sunday, returning to those concerns in his sermon at his 10-year-old church. Typically, Novoa says the congregation is between 150-200 members strong, but on a recent morning, vacations and trips to Mexico have reduced that number to about 30 men, women and children.
Novoa joins a four-piece band to play bass and adds backing vocals to a medley of Spanish-language Christian rock numbers on a stage whose backdrop is emblazoned with with a painting of Jerusalem, flanked by the Mexican flag on one side and the Star Spangled Banner on the other. Later, she says she learned how to play the songs from YouTube videos.
From the pulpit, Flores delivers his sermon referencing crime rates in Salt Lake City, and how, "when we see the streets, we think of Amy as we think of these dangers, alone in her patrol car. She takes God with her."
Among the congregants is Peruvian-born Roxann Carrion. The 34-year-old was a police officer in Lima. She admires Novoa. "It's better to die for something you feel passion for, than work at a desk or a call center," she says. Carrion lives in Kearns and when she saw a Latina officer with a flashlight searching a truck one night, she was overcome with pride. Here was someone who could speak her language and understood her culture.
Many in the Latino community have expressed their gratitude to Novoa's mother Esthela for her daughter's police service. "She takes care of our people," Carrion says in Spanish. "It's what she's doing here."
While Novoa's former Explorer peer Ramirez has been promoted to a security supervisor at City Creek Center, he still hopes to follow in her footsteps, despite the always-looming possibility of deportation. If the federal government revokes the youth work permits, "there's not much I can do. If they come for us, there's not much that I can do than starting over in Mexico," he says. "Until I get deported, I'm still going to become a cop."
He argues that being a cop "is an art," not just citations and paperwork. "You're there for the community, you always influence the community to be a force for good—even if it's not part of the job description."
As Novoa leaves the church that Sunday and walks toward her parked patrol car, she draws a line between her family's community and the community she now serves.
"I grew up serving mostly in church," she says. "This is service, too. Now I'm enforcing laws."