Sgt. Oscar Olmeda, who has been an officer with the Columbus Police Department for 11 years, said he knew right off the bat when he applied that he would be among a small number of minority officers. The only other Hispanic officer retired not long after Olmeda joined the force, he said.

A Marine veteran, Olmeda had worked in law enforcement capacities as a jail officer and deputy in El Paso, Texas, and nearby Decatur County before being attracted by better pay offered in Columbus and the beauty of the city.

Today’s climate — the way law enforcement is being portrayed nationwide in the wake of police action shootings — does scare some potential applicants from pursuing a career as a police officer, Olmeda said.

For the Hispanic population, many have learned a distrust of law enforcement in Latin American countries that they continue to carry throughout their lives, he said.

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“I think there was a time in law enforcement that it was a very sought-out career,” he said. “But the way things are now — with the television news — they just want the ratings numbers and they don’t say the truth,” he said of reporting of the police action shootings. “People just bite on that hook and act upon it without knowing the complete truth of a situation. They need to take a moment and see the whole picture.”

Olmeda said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the problem lies in finding more minority candidates for law enforcement jobs — but much of it originates in a loss of trust between civilians and law enforcement, he said.

“Both sides need to work together,” he said.

When Olmeda talks about his work, he describes it as loving his career.

“Some people call it a job, but I don’t. It’s a career. We love what we do,” he said of his fellow Columbus police officers.

And he said he plans on continuing to be a police officer in Columbus, because he loves the city and loves the people he works with.

“There’s not too many people that can say that in their career,” he said.

Female officer’s perspective

Julie Quesenbery, a Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. school resource officer, has a position on the Columbus police force that gives her a unique opportunity to interact with potential minority officers.

As a school resource officer, Quesenbery is assigned to patrol Columbus East High School and other area schools to ensure that students and teachers remain safe throughout the day.

But Quesenbery’s job also gives her ample face-to-face time with students, who she says she likes to mentor, empower and, in general, represent police officers in a positive way.

Although she is not an ethnic minority, as a woman, Quesenbery is still considered a minority in police work.

That fact has made her experience as a police officer different than what a man might experience on duty, she said. Being a female officer generally requires taking extra steps to prove that you can handle yourself on calls and in other crisis situations, she said.

Some of that is generated from the idea that men are perceived as the stronger gender, she said.

“So you have to be extra prepared and extra skilled,” she said.

Quesenbery said she never wanted to be anything but a police officer, so she didn’t let being a woman deter her from that dream.

After serving 11 years on the force, coming to Columbus in 2005 after finishing college, Quesenbery said she thinks she has proven herself to be a competent and respected police officer, despite having some extra hurdles to cross as a female officer.

Those hurdles include learning that some people will respond differently to a smaller stature female than to one of her male counterparts, and learning to adjust to that in the real world. While gender stereotypes can persist out in the community, she said she believes those hurdles can be overcome.

As a minority in the law enforcement world, Quesenbery said she wants to use her position as a school resource officer to engage with students, show them the positive side of law enforcement, and especially empower young women to stand up and defend themselves.

The school resource officer said she would encourage any student with an interest in law enforcement to pursue such a career, but cautioned that minority status will not automatically earn them a spot on a police force.

“You’re going to have the same expectations as anyone else,” Quesenbery said.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.