Conception Action Pack.

By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – There was a time when virtually all Philadelphia police officers were Catholic. For example, during the planning stages of the National Sesquicentennial held in Philadelphia in 1926, the Archdiocese asked that all Catholic police be granted permission to participate in a huge field Mass at the former Municipal Stadium. If that was granted, “Who would be left to police the city?” Mayor W. Freeland Kenrick asked.

Philadelphia still has a heavily Catholic police force, as witnessed by the heartrending spate of funerals for fallen officers held at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul over the past year or so.

But there is a difference. At the time of the Sesquicentennial, police officers were mostly Irish Catholic men. Today the force includes women and a fair number of African-American officers who are mostly not Catholic, but include Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a devout African-American Catholic.

Another group has emerged and is growing – Hispanic police, both male and female and also heavily Catholic. At this time there are nearly 600 Hispanic police officers on the Philadelphia force, estimates Detective Willie Sierra, who is president of Philadelphia’s Spanish American Law Enforcement Association (SALEA) and a member of Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Northeast Philadelphia.

“It’s been a slow but steady increase,” Sierra said. “There could be a lot more. There has always been a disconnect between law enforcement and the Hispanic community and increasing Hispanic hiring would help bridge that gap. Every nationality is necessary on the force.”

This spanersity is present among Hispanic officers themselves, according to Sierra who said originally, most were like himself, drawn from people with Puerto Rican heritage. Now there are men and women with heritages from many Latin American countries on the force.

Sierra, born in New Jersey and raised in Philadelphia, joined the force after military service. Starting as a patrolman, he transferred for a time to the mounted police, and is now a detective in the homicide unit.

As president of SALEA, he oversees an organization of about 250 members. As a group they are committed to volunteer work in the community by such things as organizing block cleanups and public relations programs. They also focus on trying to motivate Latino men to take a greater role in family life, according to Sierra.

“In the Latino community many women are both mom and dad. We want to motivate men to be more productive; better fathers and better neighbors,” he said.

Although Sierra believes there should be a greater push to recruit more Hispanic officers, he notes some have risen to responsible positions on the force; there has been a chief inspector, staff inspectors, captains and lieutenants. Hand-in-hand with recruiting more Hispanic officers is the task of presenting to the community police work as an attractive career.

“It is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have,” Sierra said. “You experience many different things on a daily basis. You learn not everyone is the same, and there are people who respect what you do and appreciate it.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.