Yency Contreras entered the United States illegally when he was 17 from Honduras and spent more than four months in a juvenile detention center – but today he is an officer in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
He uses that experience today to better serve Spanish-speaking and Latin American community members, he said. Hispanic officers make up 5 to 6 percent of the police force, and there are about 100 bilingual officers of 1,900 allocated officers overall.
“One, I know Spanish, that is my first language,” said Contreras, who spoke at a news conference Thursday. “And two, I know the culture and, in that sense, I could get along with them no problem. So that makes my job easier.”
Contreras is a resource for other officers as a translator and a communicator.
“I’ve had people that just come up to me,” he said. “They see the uniform, they automatically talk in Spanish to me. I guess it just takes no time for them to realize, ‘This guy has got to be Latino.’ So in that sense it is definitely much easier to do my job.”
Contreras had a dangerous journey from Honduras to the U.S. border, from riding the roof of a freight train for 18 days to paying people to smuggle him. But he said remembering what it was like in Honduras motivated him to pursue life in the United States, where he became a citizen in 2011. His experiences help him in his job as a police officer as well.
“I always thought, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be a police officer one day because I grew up seeing the injustice. I grew up seeing crime and people just getting away with things,” he said. “So here I am as a police officer.”
Police Chief Kerr Putney said Contreras’ experiences and perspective make him an asset to the police force, although Putney didn’t know Contreras’ story until the CMPD wrote a blog post about it on June 5. Contreras has worked with CMPD since 2014, starting as a volunteer and then joining the police academy after a year.
“A lot of people want to talk about how he got here and the issues around that,” Putney said. “What I’m telling you is we are seeking people who are committed to this country, committed to this community … who can represent the community well. He embodies all of those things.”
Putney said he knew there would be criticism for hiring someone who had been an undocumented immigrant and for sharing his story. The chief and Contreras would not take questions about federal immigration policy, said CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano.
“I will take any shots that come our way as an organization, but we need to think about this for a moment: the human perspective,” Putney said. “This is someone who is living his dream, here in this country. In this community we should celebrate that. That should be something that we are proud of, not something that we want to portray as negative.”
Jamie Gwaltney: 704-358-5612, @jamielgwaltney