From Ecuador to St. Paul, new deputy police chief is highest-ranking Latina officer in state
Pamela Barragan has been a trailblazer in the St. Paul Police Department every time she’s earned a promotion — she was the first Latina sergeant, commander and now deputy chief.
For someone who never imagined herself as an officer, the experiences have been humbling.
“Regardless of your upbringing, regardless of your accent, regardless if you look like a G.I. Joe or Dora the Explorer, you have a place here in St. Paul, you have a place here as a St. Paul police officer,” Barragan told a crowd gathered Thursday.
Axel Henry, who became St. Paul’s police chief in November, made his selections for top brass earlier this year and they’ve already been serving in those roles. They were recognized at a ceremony Thursday, where their loved ones pinned their new badges on them. Barragan’s mother pinned her badge on her uniform, telling her, “I love you and God bless you.”
The National Latino Peace Officers Association’s Minnesota chapter says Barragan is the highest-ranked Latina officer in the state. Henry was at a recent meeting of the chapter, where he said the president recognized him for selecting Barragan as deputy chief. Henry responded, “She earned it.”
The St. Paul department’s new leaders include Assistant Chief Jack Serier, who is second in command of the department and previously was Ramsey County sheriff; Dan Malmgren, deputy chief of support services and Josh Lego, deputy chief of operations. Paul Ford has been serving as deputy chief of major crimes since last year.
Barragan recently sat down with the Pioneer Press to talk about what brought her to Minnesota and her path in law enforcement. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you tell me about yourself?
A: I grew up in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. My parents were always big into education and they sent me to a private school to learn English.
I went to college and got a communications degree. I was a TV producer and a radio producer in Ecuador. I was looking for ways to become more independent, find new opportunities and find myself.
I came to Minnesota when I was 21. I moved by myself. At that time I had an aunt and uncle here in Minnesota who were doing PhDs at the U of M. I got here in 1991, the Halloween winter storm. I’d seen in the snow in the mountains in Ecuador, but it was the first time I saw walls of snow on the ground.
I established myself and found a really good community with the church and volunteering.
Q: Where did you work first?
A: I cleaned a bar (Sweeny’s Saloon) early mornings on the weekends. I also sold frozen yogurt and fruit at a stand in the skyway (in downtown St. Paul).
I saw a job announcement in La Prensa, the bilingual newspaper, that the St. Paul police department was looking for a community liaison officer who was bilingual and bicultural and could help bridge the gap between the community and the police. I started with the department in ’96 as a CLO.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a police officer. When you come to from a different country, especially a third-world country, police is not something that you want to be, especially as a female. You don’t call the police or they’re not really helpful. I didn’t grow up with any kind of police background or military background.
Q: How did you decide you wanted to become an officer?
A: By being with the officers and seeing how they relate to people, the care that they had. Sometimes it was a challenge for them to understand people and I had an asset and skill (with being bilingual) that would provide better service for the department and also for the people.
I wanted to serve, to be a connection. That was my main focus, trying to figure out: How do I make my community better?
Q: Where did you work when you became an officer in 1999?
A: I was a patrol officer for eight years. Then I was an sergeant in the juvenile unit, sex crimes, gun crimes and training.
I was the sergeant that started the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy (which the police department launched with AmeriCorps in 2017. It pays for students to get their first six credits at Century College while they are paid employees at the police department doing community outreach). Many were the first in their family to go to college and to now see them as full-blown police officers is so cool. I was also commander of citywide services and then the community partnerships unit.
Q: What are you in charge of as deputy chief for community engagement?
A: We have youth outreach, the community partnerships unit, ACOP (officers who work in public housing), police reserves (volunteers), chaplains, grants, internships, the police band. We have the special operations unit (which plans for large-scale events) and the criminal intelligence unit, and we have C.O.A.S.T. (a co-responder mental health resource and recovery access team).
Q: What is your vision for community engagement work?
A: The police belong to the community, and having those partnerships helps our police department to be strong. I always look at my division as kind of the backbone of the police department. We have professional employees who are eyes and ears in the community. The vision is to continue being those forward-thinkers — this is our community police department, we have to be in touch with what the community needs instead of us thinking that we know what the community needs.
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