Officer Robert Hernandez was apprehensive when he put the suit on.
It was dark blue but didn’t look anything like his Salinas Police Department uniform.
Silver metal details highlighted the jacket and pants, and the bright white undershirt was topped with a huge blue-and-white patterned bow tie.
Although the silver star worn on his left breast and the patches embroidered on the suit’s shoulders signified Hernandez was on duty, he wasn’t sure how the public would react to the attire, which included an elegant white sombrero and cowboy boots.
“I’m not going to lie, I was nervous,” Hernandez said of donning the traditional Mexican charro outfit at the California Rodeo Salinas. “We didn’t want to offend anybody.”
But hesitation turned to pride as he chatted with rodeo patrons, often conversing in Spanish with Latino visitors.
Since the July 16-19 event, community members have flooded the Police Department’s Facebook page, expressing their delight at the sight of a police charro.
Amid racial tension and a general mistrust of Salinas police officers in the wake of numerous shootings, coupled with intense fear among the area’s Latino community after immigration raids announced by President Trump, the outreach attempt was a risk, Chief Adele Fresé admitted.
But the reaction was just what the department was hoping for, she said, noting that the idea is part of an ongoing effort to improve relations with the community, which is about 80% Latino.
In 2014, police shootings in Salinas killed four Latino men, souring interactions in the Monterey County city. Widespread demonstrations erupted after the slayings, which protesters called biased and labeled as an example of excessive force. Ultimately, all officers involved in the fatal shootings were cleared of wrongdoing.
A report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said the Salinas Police Department, despite being 41% Latino, lacked transparency and community engagement. The Justice Department recommended Salinas police be better trained in community relations.
Trump’s anti-immigration policies have also left the heavily Latino population in turmoil. Hernandez said immigrants sometimes avoid reporting crimes because they fear they will be targeted for deportation.
“That was my goal, to say, ‘Hey, don’t be scared. We’re not immigration [officials],’ ” he said. “I was happy the public was able to understand that.”
At the rodeo, Hernandez exchanged stories with visitors of their own memories of Mexico and their experiences with charros, traditional Mexican horsemen. Several immigrants told Hernandez — whose parents didn’t have legal status in the U.S. for a time — they felt safer after seeing him.
“They told me, ‘It makes me feel at home. It makes me feel normal.’ ”
One woman, a third-generation Mexican American who had just learned of her Latino ancestry, teared up at the sight of him, Hernandez said.
“I know the history behind the suit I wear,” he said. “It makes me feel really honored and proud.”
The charro ensemble was donated by Salinas resident Ricky Cabrera, a member of the Salinas Police Foundation who comes from a long line of charros, Fresé said. It belonged to his late father and was made by the same man who tailored suits for beloved Mexican singer and actor Vicente Fernandez.
The chief had to read up on the history of charros, learning that they symbolize dignity, honor and the ultimate gentlemen — the embodiment of what a police officer should be.
Hernandez was the first to try on the outfit, and it fit him perfectly.
“If anyone walks the walk, it’s him,” Fresé said of Hernandez, who has been on the Salinas force for five years.
Officer Gabe Carvey also donned the suit for a day at the rodeo. And since, several female officers have asked to wear the charro suit too. The Salinas department plans to return the original suit to Cabrera, Fresé said, and solicit donations for two new outfits — one for a male officer and one for a female.
In the meantime, Hernandez plans to slip into the blue jacket and pants again during a Mexican Independence Day event called “El Grito” on Sept. 16.
Although Fresé has been chief for only three years, her goal is to change the culture of the Salinas Police Department. She’s designated an officer to oversee diverse recruitment efforts and even signed the department up for the A&E show “Live PD” in hopes it will help residents learn more about what officers do.
“Pretty much most of my life has been in the Hispanic community, and I have a good grasp of our culture and what people appreciate,” Fresé said. “I do believe there’s a hunger for validation. I hoped the community would understand this is not a novelty.”