An innate passion for fairness and justice drives Salt Lake County’s Sheriff Rosie Rivera
Earlier this year, CATALYST (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit) received a grant from the Utah Women’s Giving Circle to produce a series of interviews by female Millennial writers with accomplished Utah women whose work through the decades has empowered other women.
Each published interview is followed by a “Women of Wisdom” Salon: conversation and refreshments at the CATALYST office with our readers, the interviewee and writer. Meet Rosie Rivera and Sophie Silverstone on August 23, 7-8:30pm at CATALYST (140 S McClelland St.). RSVP here.
Meet Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, Utah’s first female sheriff, and currently the only Latina sheriff in the United States. “I may be the first, but I am not the last,” says Rivera.
In 2017, county Democrats’ Central Committee voted on Rivera to take up the position of Jim Winder, who stepped down to assume the position of police chief in Moab. Rivera was one of a group of four other active male law enforcement officers for the position in the vote. In a runoff vote between her and Steve Anjewierden, she secured the vote by 70% in her favor.
Rivera always wanted to be a cop. She had an innate passion for fairness and justice, and when something didn’t seem right, she talked to her dad, who had been a Marine. He’d tell her, “Right now, that’s just the way things are. If you don’t like it, change it.” He wanted her to be a lawyer, rather than a cop.
After a camping trip where her family called law enforcement on a kid who was causing a disturbance in their camp, her aspirations to change “the way it was” were intensified. Instead of addressing the person causing the disturbance, the cop kicked her family, as well, out of camp. The feeling of experiencing prejudice didn’t sit well with Rivera. “I wrote a letter to the editor, and made a complaint about how we were treated that day.” And she made up her mind to pursue a career in law enforcement.
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Rivera grew up in Layton. She got excellent grades, played on the basketball team and sang in the choir. Her future looked promising, that is, until she got pregnant at the age of 14 with her 15-year-old boyfriend. Her father was furious, and wouldn’t speak with her for months. Fulfilling the expectations of her Catholic Hispanic family, she married her boyfriend and had her first baby.
Rivera barely finished the 9th grade after her son was born but did get her GED eventually. “It was really hard to go back to school,” says Rivera, “But I did it. After that, doors kind of opened for me.”
While earning her GED, Rivera worked a string of odd jobs. She pulled onions (her first born son playing in the fields as she worked), and was employed at a cotton ball factory, earning less than minimum wage. Her drive for “changing the way it was” only grew day by day.
“We were judged, we felt that. People looked at us as migrant workers,” says Rivera. However, her mom is from Colorado and her dad from New Mexico, and their families were in the area long before that. “My ancestors were here when this was all Mexico.”
Once she was old enough, she worked various jobs on Hill Air Force Base. She drove a garbage truck, worked on yard crew, and eventually did electrical work on F16’s.
She and her husband had two more children and for a time Rivera was a stay-at-home mom. Once the family gained financial stability, Rivera, in her mid-20s, decided it was time to follow her dream. She enrolled in the police academy.
It was something she felt she needed to do. Working full time at Hill AFB, attending academy classes in the evenings and spending nights with her mom who was battling cancer, Rivera fought for her dream.
Her first job out of the police academy was on the Weber State University Police Department, where she worked in undercover case corrections. She received an award for her work there and was encouraged to come work at the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office where there was more opportunity for advancement. She was hired on at Salt Lake County in 1994, one of only nine women in the County Sheriff’s office at the time. It was still optional for female officers to wear skirts. “I can’t imagine doing this job in a skirt,” says Rivera, who respectfully declined that uniform option.
Not until a few years ago were dress uniforms offered in women’s sizing. Each stripe on a sleeve signifies every five years of service. Women who have served for a long time often don’t have long enough arms for all the stripes. Rivera, at 5’2” and 55 years old, has served 24 years on the force. “My arm is nothing compared to a man’s arm. But that’s where we’re at,” she says. She shows me a recent photo of her small frame in her boxy dress uniform, next to her two grown sons, who followed in her footsteps—one is a firefighter, and the other just retired from the military. “I look like a little man!” she laughs.
Rivera’s time working her way up the ranks have resulted in missed Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings and birthdays over the years. “Your family gets used to it. Your family sacrifices a lot,” says Rivera.
Bee, her youngest, was still at home when Rivera and her husband divorced after 21 years of marriage. Having a single parent who was working in the metro gang unit at the time was tough for her daughter.
“I worked every weekend and went to school the rest of the time,” says Rivera, who was earning her college degree. “She still worries about me.”
With two sons in the field, it’s Rivera’s turn to worry. Every now and then she’ll hear on her radio about a fire-related call that her son might be on.
The worry factor, and sacrifices by her family were not the only hardships Rivera and her family endured for Rivera’s career in law enforcement. Making enough money to support her three kids was always a challenge.
In addition to her police job, Rivera worked part time as security for private events. Eighteen years ago, during one of her side gigs, she met one of her greatest mentors, Jon Huntsman, Sr. They got to know each other, and she says he offered advice and guidance throughout her time working for him was among the first to encourage her to aspire to the County Sheriff’s position. Rivera also looked up to her Uncle Lou, who taught her karate, and her father, of course.
Now, as Salt Lake County Sheriff, it’s her turn to be the role model. The inside of Rivera’s dress suits have these words custom-sewn into them: ‘To see it is to be it. And to be it, you have to see it.’ She reminds herself that whatever she does is for the next generation to see.
“If we’re not good role models, that just sets us back another generation,” she says. “We [women in law enforcement] have fought too hard to get where we’re at right now.”
One issue she and other women on the force faced when she first started was the need for female officer role models in rank—those above the entry-level officer, deputy, trooper or corporal position who do not wear a rank insignia on their uniforms—and a place to talk about the issues of being female in a male-dominated field.
In response, Rivera and nine other women founded Utah Women in Law Enforcement in 2009 to support women in law enforcement through recruitment, career, and leadership development. They provide mentoring, networking, training and education and assure younger women in the profession that they do belong there.
“We do not have to pretend that we are men to be police officers. Because we’re not. We bring different talents to law enforcement,” Rivera says.
While the Salt Lake City Police Department started in 1851, and females worked in the administration side, there were no female officers on the force until the 1960s. The number of female officers in the U.S. is climbing, to 13% on a national level (a modest improvement from the 7% of female officers in Utah’s law enforcement in 1992), but is still a strongly male-dominated field.
Over 20 years of research by the National Center for Women & Policing indicate women officers are less likely to use excessive force (which can cost municipalities millions of dollars in lawsuits) and more likely to use communication skills to diffuse situations on the job.
“We communicate. We multitask well. We can just be ourselves. We don’t have to look like men,” says Rivera. “Women make great leaders, too, because we’re used to doing it all; going to school, working, taking care of the kids.”
Qualities that women are more apt for, and the qualities that Rivera comes by naturally—patience and compassion (she says she gets them from her mother)—have helped in her line of work, she says, especially in situations involving death. Her first experience was the SIDS death of a six-week-old baby. “I’ll never ever forget that. The mom couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.”
As watch commander in 2014, she was responsible for an entire area and went on a lot of death calls.
Rivera recalls a particular car crash death of a child in Herriman. “It’s tough, to know these parents were just driving down the road, and in an instant, it happened. How do you shut that off? Eventually you have to or you can’t function. So you shut it off and move on. There will be another.” Rivera would remind herself to stay in the game because of how important the work is to society.
She finds it imperative to continue living her life, even while processing the extreme situations officers witness. For her, this means staying close to her family. “You can’t just live this law enforcement life 24/7. Even though you’re on call all 24/7,” she says.
From the teen mom who felt the judgment of the world, whose disciplinarian father was furious to find out his daughter had deviated from the path he thought was leading her to success, to the woman now sitting in the top position at the Salt Lake County Police Department, the first female Sheriff in Utah—Rivera ponders the conversations through the years with her father, who is now deceased. “He just kept saying, ‘If you don’t like it, change it. It is up to you to change what occurs,’” she smiles, “So I did, I changed it.”
Sophie Silverstone is CATALYST’s community outreach director and a staff writer.