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Police youth service officers on the front line of the city’s future

By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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On a bright, breezy spring afternoon, Roseville Police Officer Carlos Cortes walks one of the most unusual beats in the city — a maze of brick hallways and blind corners swamped with a chattering sea of young people who are talking, texting and yelling across open spaces.

Some adults might look at this loud, sometimes awkward and irreverent setting, and see little more than a professional headache; but Cortes and the staff of Roseville High School see something different: They see a clear element of what lies ahead for the city: Whether Roseville’s community will suffer from future gang problems, or public violence from individuals who were bullied, or even a subpar workforce of disengaged slackers, will largely be determined on these particular types of police assignments – and they’re beats that require working closely and tirelessly with Placer County educators.

The Roseville Police Department recently started the process of hiring two new youth service officers, fully sworn police personnel who will join a team of three already working throughout the city’s school system. These new officers will follow in the footsteps of personalities like Cortes, who view the job as a rare opportunity try to change the future of a students who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

It’s no mystery why Cortes, who speaks fluent Spanish, was assigned to Roseville High School, the most ethnically diverse campus in all of Placer County. Cortes has a background that makes him keenly aware of challenges some Hispanic parents face when trying to make sure their kids are on the right path at school.

“Some of these Hispanic parents work so hard throughout the day that it’s difficult to have the energy when they get home to follow everything that’s happening in their son’s or daughter’s lives,” Cortes observed. “They really want their kids to do well in school and stay away from trouble, but between how hard many of them are laboring, and then the language barriers they face with school staff and police, it just becomes very difficult.”

But with the Hispanic gangs the Nortenos and Surenos having a major presence in the Sacramento region, Cortes knows finding new ways to build partnerships with Roseville’s Latino parents is critical to preventing gangs from getting deeper local roots. The Mexican-born officer has now made connecting with the Hispanic community one of his top priorities. He has joined the Latino Leadership Council, given presentation in Spanish at St. Rose Catholic Church,and stood in as a translator for Roseville police parent awareness courses. He also goes to students homes to speak to their parents in person.

On a Friday afternoon as Cortes patrols Roseville High School’s lunchtime mania, he spots one student sporting, if not flaunting, obvious Norteno colors. The officer pulls the student aside.

“You have to change your shirt,” he tells the student. After briefly listening to a myriad of verbal evasions, half-reasoned rationalizations and quick excuses, the officer firmly repeats himself. “Change your shirt.”

With the help of teachers, administrators and volunteers, Cortes has managed to keep a tight “crackdown” on gang colors in place.

Concerns about the Nortenos and Surenos are far from the only problems a youth service officer has to worry about. Various forms of bullying, many of which are now technologically driven, are the main catalysts for tensions and fights at Roseville’s high schools. Cortes calls these conflicts Facebook and Instagram wars — escalating situations of cyber-bullying that draw more and more students into the fold, until peer pressure creates a tipping point that leads to punches being thrown on campus.

“Legally there’s not much police can do about bullying, outside of what’s in the education code,” Cortes said. “There's harassment, but those charges have certain criteria that a lot cyber bullying doesn’t fit into … Basically, our strategy is to build a rapport with students, so when these situations come up they’re comfortable to let us know what they’re seeing and what’s actually happening, so we can step in immediately.”

Cortes added that when teens involved with bullying or cyber bullying get called into the office to talk to a uniformed police officer, they tend to realize the serious nature of the path they’re on.

Roseville High School Vice Principal Jon Coleman is one of many allies Cortes has on the school’s staff when it comes to maintaining a safe environment for learning.

“I wouldn’t worked at a school that didn’t have a youth service officer on site,” Coleman said. “Having that authority on the campus is essential to safety and success … the fact that officer Cortes and I can make visits to students’ homes hopefully shows their parents how committed the staff is to helping the kids move forward.”

In an interview last summer with the Press Tribune, Roseville Police Sgt. Josh Simon, who oversees the youth services officers, stressed that a basic mission for the department is to work with teachers and counselors to “identify early on” which teens might be getting pulled into drug addiction or gang pressures. Unlike typical members of the police department, youth service officers only need reasonable suspicion to search a student’s bags or locker, rather than legal probable cause. The result is that a lot of drug trends get spotted pretty quickly. When an on-campus officer does notice serious problems occurring in a young person’s life, one option is to try to get that teen interested in the Roseville Police Activities League, which provides support and positive role models via mixed martial arts training, boxing, wrestling, Taekwondo, Zumba, cross-fit and tutoring services.

In the wake of campus shootings across the nation, youth service officers are also highly conscious of another reason their presence brings peace of mind to parents and students. In 2012, Cortes saw, stopped and arrested an 18-year-old student from another school who showed up at Roseville High with a concealed gun his bag. While Cortes does not believe the suspect was planning to hurt anyone, the speed in which the incident was handled was seen within the Roseville Police Department as proof the youth services officers bolster campus security.

“Maintaining safety here at the school comes before anything else,” Cortes said. “We do a lot of different things, but that will always to be the No. 1 priority.”