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He Fled Poverty In Honduras, Wound Up A CMPD Officer

Yency Contreras
Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department
Yency Contreras of CMPD.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney says he's struggling to recruit Latinos and other Spanish-speaking officers, as the city's Hispanic community grows. It’s now about 13 percent of the population, but only about 6 percent of CMPD’s 1,900 officers are Latino.

"If we don't get our heads around this and think about things differently, we're going to continue to struggle with people who need our services most," Putney said.

He'd like a few more officers like Yency Contreras. He came to the U.S. illegally as a teen, and against tough odds made it onto the CMPD force three years ago.

Contreras grew up poor in Honduras, sometimes going without food.

"I saw violence happening. I saw poverty, and I saw this crime happening, and nothing was being done. So I realized this is not the place where I wanna be, this is not the place where I want to spend the rest of my life," Contreras said at a CMPD press conference Thursday.

So one day, without telling his family, he left home. He headed north through Mexico. Parts of the journey were dangerous - clinging to the roofs of trains. He worried about falling off and dying, or losing a limb - as happened to a neighbor back home.

"I was 17 years old, I had $50 in my pocket when I left home. I had no idea where I was going. And I was scared for my life," he said. 

But he pushed on. He paid a smuggler $1,000 to take him across the U.S. border, where things didn't get any easier.

"I was robbed, I starved, and so many other things. But I had this goal in mind, I had this dream. And I just said if I can just find an opportunity I will keep going," Contreras recalled.

That opportunity came after Contreras wound up in an immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas. A Unitarian Universalist minister and his wife who volunteered there were looking for someone to play the guitar during services. Contreras raised his hand. They befriended him, took him into their home, and later helped him become a U.S. citizen.

Yency Contreras (purple shirt) with his family in Honduras as a boy. He left home at 17 for the U.S., eventually becoming a citizen and a CMPD officer.
Credit Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department
Yency Contreras (purple shirt) with his family in Honduras as a boy. He left home at 17 for the U.S., eventually becoming a citizen and a CMPD officer.

He resumed his education, which stopped after just six years in Honduras. He learned English and got his high school equivalency diploma. Then he was on to college. He eventually got a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Florida. In 2014, he landed the job with CMPD.  

"I always thought when I was a little boy I (wanted to) be a police officer one day. 'Cause I grew up seeing the injustice, I grew up seeing crime, and people just getting away with things. So here I am as a police officer," he said.  

He’s 30 now, married with a baby, and working the night shift in CMPD's Metro division. He still sends money back to his family in Honduras. And he carries a photo of them – to remember where he came from.

While his own journey was difficult, he says he'd tell a 17-year-old in Honduras today to do what he did – follow your heart.

CMPD Chief Putney said he realizes he may be criticized for hiring a former undocumented immigrant. But he said Contreras is just the kind of officer he's looking for.

"We're seeking people who are committed to this country, committed to this community," Putney said. "I'm honored and humbled that such a bold person is here telling this story. This is somebody who is living his dream, here in this country, in this community, and we should celebrate that." 

CMPD has only about 100 Latino officers, on a force of about 1,900. Putney wants more. 

"We're in desperate need," Putney said.