New Jersey’s Hispanic law enforcement members find value in working with the diverse community

More than 20% of New Jersey’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, but overall that number is under-represented in the state’s police forces.
Melissa Sarmiento is a detective in the Jersey City Police Department assigned to the North District.
“As a detective, you actually get to know that individual…when you finally close it out and you help them, it makes you feel so good,” she says.
Sarmiento has been with the department for almost 20 years and works the very streets where she grew up.
“When I was younger, my dream was to be an attorney,” she says. “And then as I was growing up, I had a lot of interaction with law enforcement. They were always very good to us.”
Sarmiento says that she is proud of her heritage and of being Hispanic.
“I’m proud to be Puerto Rican,” she says.
Jersey City has been named the most diverse city in the nation. It has pushed to reflect its population in its police force. The city reports that more than 70% of its new officers hired since 2013 are minorities. It has been a push since Mayor Steven Fulop took office.
In Union County, an organization has been working to bridge the gap between law enforcement officers and their community.
“It’s more important now than ever to have the community relate with law enforcement and law enforcement related with the community,” says Elizabeth Police Detective Louis Denando.
Denando is also the former president of Union County’s Hispanic Law Enforcement Association. Hillside Police Lt. Albert Velez is the current president. The association workers to establish community relations and help students become police officers themselves.
“We give out scholarships to students looking to get into law enforcement or criminal justice…if we could help them out, if we could mentor them get into law enforcement in Union County, that’s what we like to do,” Velez says.
The association also includes non-law enforcement members like Lilian Caparruva.
“Now you see diversity. You have law enforcement, you have civilians, you have Latinos, non-Latinos,” Caparruva says. “It’s so important for our community to see that we can work together and help each other in a positive way.”
Back in Hudson County, Detective Sarmiento has led the Jersey City Police Department’s Community Relations. The group has done everything from working with the city’s youth to raising money for Puerto Rico after the hurricanes.
“It’s humbling because sometimes we take advantage of what we have,” Sarmiento says.
She says that maintaining that community connection by appreciating its diversity and inspiring officers of the future will always be her daily mission.