Officer Cecilia Lerma had seen enough.
As an officer for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Officer Lerma was troubled by the disproportionate fatality rate in automobile accidents involving Latinos. Of the 1,179 traffic fatalities in Arizona in 2005, Hispanics accounted for 26 percent, while representing just 29 percent of the state’s population.
They were chilling scenes: Alcohol-related crashes. Children sitting on their parents’ lap not wearing seat belts. The vehicle is involved in a rollover accident. Bodies are ejected, resulting in a fatality or several fatalities.
“I remember those situations all too well,” Officer Lerma says. “It did something to me where I wanted to make a difference.”
In 2006, she was given that opportunity. The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety implemented “La Protectora,” a proactive Hispanic-focused traffic safety outreach program. Its goal: to reduce the disproportionate number of Hispanic surnamed drivers and victims involved in traffic-related collisions.
Officer Lerma was a DPS patrol officer in Pima County for six years and an investigator with the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Bureau for five years. As “La Protectora,” she gained key insight into her new responsibilities.
“My life was impacted when I stopped (to investigate an accident),” Officer Lerma says. “In my new post I was able to do something about it. I knew then it was the education portion that was going to make the difference. It was an exciting opportunity to make that difference before something bad happened.”
Officer Lerma’s activities are designed to educate and encourage positive traffic safety behavior and to build better relations between the community and law enforcement agencies. She emphasizes prevention rather than focusing on enforcement measures by taking the bilingual program to local neighborhood and town hall meetings, educational functions, media events and to other community-related forums.
Officer Lerma grew up in Marana, north of Tucson. The family had to travel into the city to do its grocery shopping. On those trips she would see patrolmen on the freeway. But her major influence was former Officer Ed Hendricks, whom she heard speak at public safety events around Marana and eventually became a friend of the family.
“I always thought that could be me doing that job,” recalls Officer Lerma, who says she was in awe of the officer she said resembled John Wayne. “I wanted to be a police officer, but here I was, a really tiny Hispanic female at 5-foot-1, 100 pounds. So I decided to try it. I just had to get it out of my system. I applied, all the time running and doing pushups so I could become a quality police officer.”
The hard work paid off in 1995 when she joined DPS as a highway patrolman. She was stationed in Tucson and, as she says, “went straight to the road.” That’s when her education process began.
“I did a lot of interpreting of death notifications for Hispanics who had a family member involved in an accident,” she says. “It was really heartbreaking. I was just doing my job, but I became really concerned how notices were delivered to families. I wanted it to be perfect. That was an important aspect of the job.”
As “La Protectora,” Officer Lerma’s job now is to educate Hispanic drivers and thereby eliminate the need to deliver death notifications. In 2007, the number of fatalities among Hispanics dipped below 300 to 299.
“Culturally, I believe that God protects us all,” Officer Lerma says. “When I plan to be in a community, I bring the faith component into my program. There is a blessing before an event kicks off. The priest walks around and at the car-seat check, he blesses them. That means so much to our culture.”
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