This article is part of a series called “The Trauma of Racism,” where we highlight the effects racism can have on minority populations.
When Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa first heard the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, he had a mix of emotions.
“I had a little relief, sadness,” he said. “The whole thing is tragic, but we’re gonna be better for it.”
As county sheriff, Figueroa encourages his troops to better themselves every day.
He is committed to bringing the best out of his officers, which in part stems from growing up a Puerto Rican male who has had his own experiences with racism.
“I’ve been followed around at the store,” he said. “I’ve seen how people can look at me and think I might steal something because of another Latino man who may have done so the previous day.”
With the dual experiences of being a police officer and person of color, he recognizes that cops and communities of color have more in common than not.
“This is a tough job,” he said. “What I always like to say is when I hear from my fellow officers that they are feeling beat up, the depression they are experiencing is the same that a person of color often feels every day.”
In the 30 or so years he has served in law enforcement, Sheriff Figueroa has seen how the job can take a personal toll.
“We don’t do enough for officer wellness,” he said. “When you see dead bodies in your line of work, it’s not normal.”
Sheriff Figueroa is always looking for interesting and unique ways to familiarize residents in Ulster County with how officers do their jobs. He wants to create a stronger sense of community with residents to show that not all cops are authoritative figures.
This comes at a time when confidence in police is at an all-time low, according to Gallup.
“People get scared nowadays when they see a man in uniform,” he said. “We want to show the community what we do, how we train officers, and that we are human too.”
These have included seminars with Ed Lawson, adjunct professor in black studies at the State University of New York in New Paltz, on the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.
Post-pandemic, Sheriff Figueroa is looking to have more creative ways to make the community aware of how law enforcement works. He seeks to create a Citizenship Academy, where locals can sit in on a regular officer training to offer transparency in the training process. He acknowledges that residents seeing officers being trained is only one part of the solution.
“Training is not all we need to do,” he said. “We have to have other people come in.”
He is optimistic that police reform can be accomplished. The 2021 county budget announced the creation of a full-time social worker position in the county police department. The person who has filled that position will be introduced to the public via a press conference next week.
“People want good things to happen,” he said. “All of us want to be treated the same, regardless of the color of our skin or our income.”