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An Oregon County Turns to Latinos as Advisers on Law Enforcement

The sheriff’s office in Washington County is tackling concerns about equity in policing by partnering with an advisory committee of Latino community members.

Residents of Austin, Texas, gathered in 2020 to protest the killing of a Hispanic man by local police.
(Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock)
In Brief:
  • Latinos share the Black community's desire for police reform.
  • In Washington County, Ore., Latinos are disproportionately represented in incarceration, enforcement actions and juvenile justice system referrals.
  • A Latino Advisory Commission is working with the county sheriff's office to address equity concerns and build trust.

  • Maria Caballero Rubio knows policing from the inside out. The daughter of migrant Latino farmworkers who settled in Washington County, Ore., she was hired as a deputy in the county sheriff’s office in 1986. A large Latino population had put down roots in the county, but she was the only person in the department who spoke Spanish.

    On paper, her job was crime prevention and community outreach, but the scope of work expanded because her language skills were in demand. She conducted interviews with victims and perpetrators and was loaned to the DA’s office for court cases.

    After 10 years, Caballero moved to parole and probation management, then developed a curriculum to train members of the department in the techniques of community policing. At the state training academy, she secured a federal grant to conduct training in the entire Western region of the U.S.

    Caballero created a curriculum on police ethics and integrity in response to a rash of brutality cases, but just before it was to be launched the World Trade Center was attacked. Overnight, she recalls, “the police became anti-terrorists, completely the opposite of community police officers.”

    After a stint at Western Oregon’s Community Policing Institute and serving as public safety and policing policy director for the mayor of Portland, she’s working with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office again. This time she’s the executive director of Centro Cultural, a nonprofit founded 50 years ago by migrant families, and a member of a board created to advise local law enforcement.


    Police mistreatment of Black Americans provoked enough outrage to fuel one of the largest movements in U.S. history. While the rates are lower, Latinos are also disproportionately shot by police. In Washington County, they are disproportionately represented in incarceration, enforcement actions and juvenile justice system referrals.

    “There are African Americans and there are whites, but in the middle there are those of us that are brown,” says Caballero. “We feel invisible, quite frankly, but it's just part of life — we've learned to accept it.”

    Latinos account for about 18 percent of the population in Washington County overall, slightly below the national average of 19 percent. Cornelius, the city where Centro Cultural has its offices, is 53 percent Latino. In Hillsboro, where the county jail and the sheriff’s headquarters are located, 1 in 4 residents are Latino.
    Maria Caballero-Rubio.jpg
    Maria Caballero-Rubio: “It’s going to take a lot of time being together, sitting at a table and talking and getting police officers to see us as people who have the same goals.”
    (Centro Cultural)

    Olga Acuña, director of federal programs for the Hillsboro School District, is chair of the Latino Policy Council, a grass-roots organization of leaders in the county formed to work with government on issues critical to their community. Tensions heightened in 2018 when a Latino was arrested for riding a bicycle while intoxicated.

    The deputy struck the inmate’s head against a wall during booking, causing injuries that led to more than two weeks of hospitalization. Investigation of the incident uncovered emails from the deputy containing racial slurs, sent before he joined the department. (In the years since, the inmate received a settlement from the county. The deputy was indicted in 2020, but the case has not been resolved.)

    “Several of us watched that video and thought we need to do something, this can’t be happening in our county,” Acuña recalls. The council initiated conversations with County Sheriff Pat Garrett, asking to form a partnership of some sort with his office. The result was the creation of a Latino Advisory Commission (LAC) in 2020.

    Acuña co-chairs the 11-member commission with Sheriff Garrett; Caballero is a member.
    Drug abuse was on the agenda at the April 6 meeting of the Latino Advisory Commission. Oregon has the second-highest rate of substance abuse disorder in the country, but ranks 50th in the availability of treatment for those who need it. The commission heard that Oregon is being referred to as a "drug vacation state" as a consequence of a law decriminalizing use of street drugs.
    (Centro Cultural)

    Building Trust

    Community safety depends on collaboration between law enforcement and the community, says Sheriff Garrett. The commission provides an ongoing forum to foster mutual understanding, fill communication gaps and apply an equity lens to the department’s work. “Trust gets built along the way,” he says.

    Garrett is bilingual. He spent some of his school years living with a family that didn’t speak English in Quito, Ecuador. “That experience was transformative for me — I fell in love with the culture, and it helped me see our Latino community in a different way when I began working here.”

    Only four members of the LAC are from the sheriff’s office. The other seven are from the community, including two youth representatives. The fact that they speak the language of the community and don’t work for law enforcement brings credibility to the partnership, Garret says.

    Wearing body cameras was one of the first practices to be addressed. The sheriff’s office shared its policy proposals, including turning cameras off in encounters where victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse or intimate partner violence might be unwilling to share information on camera. It adjusted its proposals based on feedback from the LAC, which helped ease concerns that cameras could be used against community members. For its part, the LAC advocated for them as a tool to monitor police behavior.

    A review of data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission showed a high rate of citations to Latinos for driving without a license. This can bring other consequences, from towing and vehicle content searches that uncover contraband to fines that, unpaid, can lead to jail time.

    Garrett is working with a state representative to create grants for community-based organizations that would enable them to provide driver’s education to Spanish-speaking residents and increase licensing rates.
    Patrick Garrett.jpeg
    Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett: “Humans are imperfect, and we are going to make mistakes. If we have relationships built already, we know where to go to have conversations, learn the lessons that we need to learn, and do the best job that we can to keep everybody safe.”
    (Washington County Sheriff's Office)

    Social circumstances can create situations that require police response, and committee members of the LAC can help with them. Officers are called to respond to fights, sexual assaults and fires in homeless encampments on a daily basis. Caballero’s nonprofit works to provide transitional housing. “We’re serving the same community, we’re just doing it in different ways,” says Garrett.

    Oregon’s Measure 110 did not legalize street drugs, but it did decriminalize possession of small amounts of them. Drug use and crime are interlinked, Garrett says. He's concerned that the combination of permissive policy, pandemic isolation and lack of treatment options are sending misuse “through the roof.” This problem lies in the road ahead for the LAC.

    Codifying and strengthening a 30-year ban, Oregon’s Sanctuary Promise Act became law in 2021, making it illegal for local police to enforce federal immigration policies. Spreading awareness of this policy, the most comprehensive in the nation, is another touchstone for easing the relations between law enforcement and the Latino community.

    Change Is Slow

    These are early days for the LAC. It’s created a “road show” to spread the word that county residents have a safe space to raise concerns about public safety and law enforcement, and that the sheriff’s office is listening. It hopes to see more attention to diversity in hiring of deputies.

    “Humans are imperfect, and we are going to make mistakes.” Garrett says. “If we have relationships built already, we know where to go to have conversations, learn the lessons that we need to learn, and do the best job that we can to keep everybody safe.”

    In her years working in law enforcement and administering training programs, Caballero learned that culture change is slow. “It’s going to take a lot of time being together, sitting at a table and talking and getting police officers to see us as people who have the same goals.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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