This Des Moines police sergeant wants to build trust with Latino residents
Yanira Scarlett is a Des Moines police sergeant assigned to the Neighborhood Based Service Delivery unit, but her job title could just as easily be “bridge builder.”
Scarlett is a leader in the Hispanic Outreach Neighborhood Resource Advocate (HONRA) program designed to build relationships between police and the city’s growing Latino population.
“You have a lot of people in the Latino community who are unwilling to speak with police because they are worried about their immigration status, or they come from a place where bad things happen to you if you talk to the police,” Scarlett said.
Scarlett’s role in fostering cooperation and understanding between law enforcement and the Latino community is particularly crucial as the face of the city continues changing, making her one of The Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2017.
About 26,000 Latinos live in the capital city, or more than 12 percent of Des Moines' roughly 207,000 residents, according to American Community Survey estimates.
Latinos are expected to make up 17 percent of the Des Moines metro area population by 2040.
Right now, 10 of the Des Moines Police Department's 304 sworn officers are of Latino descent. About the same number of officers speak Spanish, according to Sgt. Paul Parizek, a police spokesman.
Recent retirements of longtime Latino officers, including Vince Valdez and brothers Joe and Mike Gonzales, combined with the death of Carlos Puente-Morales in a crash in 2016, have further reduced the Latino presence in the department.
That means officers such as Scarlett feel an extra need to build trust with Latino residents.
“What I try to do is be that familiar face that speaks their language and lets them know that they do have rights here, that if a crime is committed and they were a witness, nothing is going to happen to them if they come forward,” she said.
Scarlett is 39 and a native of Puerto Rico. Her father served in the Army. She grew up all over the country, and lived on a base near the Panama Canal when it belonged to the United States.
She enrolled in a junior college in Kansas, and started her coursework at Simpson College in 1999. She’s one course away from her bachelor’s degree.
Scarlett joined Des Moines police as a cadet in 2001 and graduated from the academy in 2002. She worked patrol, and one of her first assignments was at the Des Moines airport, where her supervising sergeant was Dana Wingert.
Wingert is now Des Moines' chief, and Scarlett became the first Latina promoted to sergeant in Des Moines.
“Yanira is the kind of person you need out there because she’s so good at connecting with people,” Wingert said. “She’s the one who is going to high-five the school kids and chat with them about their day. She’s going to stop by the Latino business and talk with people about what they’re seeing.”
Latino outreach is just one of Scarlett’s responsibilities. She works with 10 neighborhoods across the city as part of her duties.
What she hopes is that her continued interactions with Latinos, particularly the youth, will inspire a new generation of Latino police academy applicants.
“I think policing came naturally to me because of my family’s military background,” she said. “We need more Latinos on the force and more Spanish speakers. If you listen to the radio, dispatch is always calling for a Spanish speaker.”
Having Latino faces and Spanish speakers in the department helps create a more equitable community, said Joe Henry, a former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa.
“When people see Sgt. Scarlett, that really helps calm fears,” Henry said. “People learn that law enforcement can be on their side, which has not always been their experience depending on where they come from and how they have been treated before they got to Des Moines.”
Scarlett's solution to building relationships with Latinos involves old-fashioned police work. She knocks on doors. She talks to people at schools, at their homes and businesses.
She suggests the rest of us follow suit.
“When I was a little girl, we knew our neighbors and we talked to them regularly,” Scarlett said. “More and more, we find people say they don’t know their neighbors and that they don’t really care to.”
She added, “All it takes is saying ‘hello.’”
Daniel P. Finney, The Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter:@newsmanone.
- AGE: 39
- RESIDENCE: Polk County
- EDUCATION: One course shy of a degree in criminal justice from Simpson College.
- CAREER: Des Moines police cadet, 2001. Des Moines police officer since 2002. In 2015, she became first Latina promoted to sergeant in department history. Currently, a sergeant serving 10 neighborhoods in the department's Neighborhood Service Delivery unit.
- COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Active member of Des Moines police Hispanic Outreach Neighborhood Advocate ( HONRA ) program.
15 People to Watch in 2017: About the Series
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and unelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2017. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through early January.
With this story at DesMoinesRegister.com/PeopletoWatch, see profiles of:
- Molly Hanson, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival
- Tia Rodemeyer and Means Chan, co-founders of the Des Moines Girl Gang
- Gabriel Glynn, Iowa tech entrepreneur
- Kathleen Law, attorney at Nyemaster Goode
- Izaah Knox, associate executive director at Urban Dreams, manager of Wellmark’s Beacon internship program
- Anne Roth, Finance director and deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley's 2016 re-election campaign; account executive focusing on issues advocacy for DCI Group
- Dina Keahna, head coach of Meskwaki Settlement boys' basketball
- Rami Eltibi, an interventional cardiologist in Dubuque
- Megan McKay, owner of Peace Tree Brewing
- Janice Landy, lead psychiatrist at Broadlawns Medical Center
- Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
- Erin Miller, medical cannabis activist