By Benjamin Neufeld
Jeff Martínez did not dream of becoming a police officer. Many children fantasize about joining their local police department and becoming a heroic figure like they see in movies or TV shows; Martínez, a Denver native and the current chief of the Sheridan Police Department, grew up with a less positive perception of the cops.
Now, with his experience as both a civilian and a law enforcement officer, he is working to mend the polarized relationship between the police department and the community that they serve.
Martínez grew up in what he describes as a “modest, if not poor” neighborhood in Southwest Denver. Martínez did not know any police officers personally, and his impression of law enforcement was shaped by negative stories he heard from those around him. As the youngest of seven siblings, “I heard a lot of stories,” he said. “Sometimes they were negative encounters that my father or my uncles or my older brothers had with police officers. Of course, they were one-sided stories, I never got to hear the other side. But, from hearing those stories, I’d say we carry scars. They make a lasting impression.”
After having a child at age 17, Martínez joined the workforce right out of high school. He got a job in a meat packing house; he later worked building trusses. When he turned 19, he got a job with the utility company, now known as Xcel Energy, where he worked for 11 years. Throughout his childhood and young adulthood, he kept as far away from the police as possible. “I always respected the police, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with the police,” he said. “I wanted to keep my distance, because I thought if I was dealing with the police that meant I was in trouble or being questioned for being in trouble.”
“I wanted to be someone who made a difference. I wanted to be someone that I knew could serve [their] community, and who people could trust.”
Jeff Martínez, Sheridan Chief of Police
This attitude didn’t change until Martínez happened to meet some police officers in a casual setting, playing softball, through mutual friends. By interacting with these police officers in a low-stakes, organic environment—not as officer to civilian, but as civilian to fellow civilian—Martínez realized his image of the police was exaggerated and not entirely realistic. Through friendly conversations he saw that “they were just people just like me.”
From here, Martínez realized he could make a difference in his community by becoming a police officer himself. He realized he could create a more positive and productive relationship between the police and the community by both being a good cop and by promoting more casual encounters, like the one he experienced, between police officers and civilians. “There were probably reasons why people were afraid of the police, or why they kept their distance from police,” he explained. “But that was one of the motivating factors for why I wanted to become a police officer. I wanted to be someone who made a difference. I wanted to be someone that I knew could serve [their] community, and who people could trust.”
Martínez joined the Denver Police Department 27 years ago. He started out as a patrol officer. He has been a technician, a training officer, a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant, and a commander. He was recruited to apply for the Police Chief position for the Thornton Police Department about two years ago. At that time, the Sheridan Police Chief position opened up, and he applied there as well. He became a finalist for both positions; however, the Sheridan application process moved a little quicker, and Martínez decided to accept the position there.
“For the majority of [the decisions I’ve made in] my career, in many of the positions that I’ve held throughout my career, they were always driven by connecting with the community,” said the Chief.
Poor relationships between citizens and police have been common in communities of lower socio-economic status; since 2020, negative perceptions of the police have become more mainstream. However, Martínez is committed to building a positive and productive relationship with his community. This starts, he says, with encouraging his officers to act more approachable. “I encourage them to drive down the street, and when they see a citizen, smile and wave. Just let them know that we are open for human contact and being good with each other.”
“In Sheridan, I know we have received a lot of compliments that our police officers seem to be much more approachable and friendly,” said Martínez, regarding his fellow officers. “And I believe a lot of that is just from the simple encouragement that we have with them, doing their best to be interactive with people and to not have a hard looking face.”
However, in addition to his work to improve police culture and public image, Martínez wishes the public would let go of some of their negative biases against the police as a whole. “Of course, there [have been] times where police officers have made mistakes, bad mistakes,” Martínez said. “But what we often forget is that if one or two or even a few officers have done that, that does not mean the rest of the officers should be thrown in with that group, because there have always been good people who are serving us as police officers.”
Martínez has been a strong advocate for police-worn body cameras “because you can see how police officers interact with the community. But [they] also allow us to see how, sometimes, the community interacts with the officers.”
Martínez thinks the public often views police behavior through an overly negative lens while always giving the benefit of the doubt to citizens. “Yes, sometimes the police officers do things that are absolutely wrong. But, as a community, do we ever look and see what the citizens did to cause those issues? Those are the things that are often glossed over or completely ignored.”
Martínez wants to encourage citizens to learn more about the responsibilities and day-to-day life of a police officer, in order to foster more mutual respect between the two groups. He encourages people to attend civilian police academies or go on ride-alongs with patrol officers. He says that the intensity of the job can often make it difficult for police officers to maintain a positive attitude. He recalls one shift during his time as a patrol officer in which he was called to assist an ambulance with an infant that was not breathing. “We did all we could to try to do CPR to try to get the baby to start breathing,” he said. “The baby did not start breathing.”
The paramedics eventually arrived and took over and Martínez left the scene. “That call for us ends there, but I had the rest of a ten-hour day to finish. So, I had another nine hours of having to go and serve people while my heart was breaking,” Martínez said. “If you would have seen me the rest of that day, it’s very likely it would have been difficult for me to be smiling or looking like I was in a good mood. A child just died in my arms and that was not the end of my day.”
While he does hope to garner some public empathy and understanding, Martínez does recognize that steps must be taken to help police deal with traumatic experiences in order to maintain a positive police/community relationship. “We encourage our officers to go talk to professionals. When I came on, we didn’t encourage it,” Martínez said. “Quite frankly, it was discouraged. We were told that we were supposed to be tough and only the strong can do this job.”
Officers at the Sheridan Police Department are instructed to seek psychological services, and they have a network of peer support “where they can talk to fellow officers when they’re struggling.” Martínez also implemented a program in which every Sheridan Police Officer downloads a virtual business card on their phone which gives them resources and guidance for dealing with stress and other negative emotions.
Martínez also promotes a culture of diversity, which lends itself to more productive engagement with the communities that officers serve in. The Police Chief says that, during police interactions, most citizens respond best to officers that look like them. “Having a diversified workforce is more than just for the opportunity to serve someone that looks like you. It’s also an opportunity for others to learn from that person and to learn to respect people that are different from [them],” Martínez explained.
The education that officers receive about cultural backgrounds other than their own, prepares them for how to interact with civilian communities which they may be unfamiliar with.
According to Martínez, the push to diversify police forces began in the 70s and was in place when he became a police officer in the mid-90s. “We’ve continued to work towards more inclusivity and diversity and accepting and celebrating our differences,” stated the Chief. “It has been a continual movement to be better.”
Martínez has also signed the Sheridan Police Department up for the ABLE—Active Bystander-ship for Law Enforcement—program. The Georgetown University Law Center designed this program to promote health, wellness, and accountability among police officers.
The Chief recognizes how “one bad incident” can lead to a bad relationship between police and the community. The ABLE program, in addition to the other steps the Police Chief has taken, intends to improve police culture in order to alleviate the risk of police officer mistakes or misconduct to therefore reinforce a positive relationship with the public.
Ultimately, Martínez says, “My whole goal has been to break down the barriers that stand between law enforcement and our community, because we both need each other. We need the community’s support, and the community needs law enforcement.”
Benjamin Neufeld is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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