She was a teen mother, a high school dropout and an onion-field worker — now she’s Utah’s first female sheriff

Salt Lake County’s top law enforcement leader enrolled in the police academy after firsthand experience with racism.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosie Rivera is the first woman in Utah to serve as any county's sheriff after being sworn in on August 15, 2017.

Rosie Rivera’s life story seems a little like the plot of a TV movie.

You know the one: That improbable tale of a teenage mom and high school dropout, who lived on public assistance, but didn’t let the stacked-against-her odds keep her from fulfilling her dreams.

But it really happened that way.

In August, Rivera, 55, was named Salt Lake County’s sheriff — the state’s first female sheriff and only the second Latina in the country to be elevated, or elected, to such a post.

It’s an accomplishment not easily earned for the mother and grandmother who once worked the onion fields to keep her young family fed and went to the police academy at a time when some recruits around her questioned whether women should even be wearing a badge.

“I saw early on what I wanted to be,” Rivera said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but my father always told me, ‘never give up,’ so that’s how I live my life.”

If the past is any predictor of the future, then it’s probably no surprise that Rivera, who grew up in Layton, finds herself the sheriff of Utah’s most-populous county.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Democrats who chose Unified Police Deputy Chief Rosie Rivera to lead the state's largest law enforcement agency is sworn in as county sheriff at Salt Lake County Chambers on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Rivera becomes the county's first female sheriff and the only woman overseeing a sheriff's office in Utah.

As a kid, she was a self-described tomboy — usually clad in cutoffs from a Boy Scout uniform; her pockets full of marbles — who followed the rules set down by a strict father.

“He was a Marine and he raised us just like we were Marines,” she said. “We fixed our beds up every day and went to bed at a certain time.”

Rivera — the second of four children, who wore thick glasses, loved television police dramas and always had her nose in a book — was the family cop.

“I was always was the one that wanted to make sure nobody crossed the line,” she said.

But, at 14, it was Rosie who got into trouble, pregnant by her 16-year-old boyfriend, Rick Rivera. She was in the ninth grade and not even sure how it happened, she said.

Before they could blink, the teens, were being hustled off to Idaho to get married because Utah law wouldn’t allow the marriage. It was, Rivera said, the logical step in a Catholic family with roots in Mexican culture.

“My dad was furious,” Rivera said. “He wouldn’t talk to me for a long time.”

Scraping by

While her husband worked and went to high school, Rivera finished junior high and tended their son, Damian. She tried to attend high school, but dropped out and went to work alongside her in-laws picking onions to earn money.

“I tried to sell Avon,” she said. “But who’s going to buy from a 14- or 15-year-old girl? Nobody.”

By 18, she was working in a cotton-ball factory. At 19, she had a second baby, a boy named Ricardo.

From there Rivera got a job at Hill Air Force Base, where her father worked. She first drove a garbage truck and then a forklift before signing on as an apprentice electrician.

“Some people, maybe wouldn’t take those chances, but I had my dad pushing me,” she said. “And I knew that if I failed, I would still have my family.”

After six years at Hill, Rivera was hungry for more and debating whether to join the military or pursue a law-enforcement career.

It was a family camping trip that sealed her fate.

An unruly kid on a dirt bike drove into the campsite, harassing the family and making a mess. When Rivera’s father and uncles couldn’t run him off, she said, they called the sheriff.

“Instead of dealing with the kid, they kicked my entire family out,” said Rivera, who believes the deputies harbored a racial bias against the family. “I told my father, we can’t just allow that … and he said, ‘Well, then, do something about it.’”

The incident ate at Rivera, she said, because it cut against the way she believed people should treat one another. And so, as soon as she could, she enrolled in the police academy, with the full support of her husband and family, which by then had grown to include an infant daughter, Bernadine.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sherrif's detective Rosie Rivera when she was the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1999.

(Tribune file photo) Taylorsville Chief of Police Larry Marx and Detective Sgt. Rosie Rivera appear at press conference in 2006.

A new start

Rivera was 31 and one of only five women in her 1993 class. Her first job was with the Weber State University police, where she worked for about a year before applying for a job with Salt Lake County.

“Like 900 people applied. I came out number 13 on their list and got hired,” she said. “I was so grateful.”

At the time, there were nine women in the department of roughly 300, but Rivera had made an immediate impression during an interview with then-Sheriff Aaron Kennard.

“She stood out,” Kennard, now the executive director of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, recalled. “She was ready to take up the challenge. She was positive and upbeat.”

Rivera also had a strong work ethic, listening skills and calm demeanor, he said. All were clear assets to the department.

“She’s not very forceful, not real outspoken or pushy like most of us sheriffs who are ‘Type A,’” Kennard said. “She’s got a way of convincing people to go along with her.”

Rivera’s warmth, leadership style and slight frame — she’s 5-foot-3 — however, should not lead anyone to think she’s isn’t tough, Kennard said. She holds a black belt in taekwondo and could easily put any belligerent suspect on the ground.

“She’s small,” he said, “but don’t let that fool you.”

In the early 2000s, Kennard, a Republican who served 16 years, tapped Rivera to serve as his public information officer (PIO) and made a prediction about her future:

“I told her, ‘You keep doing what you’re doing and keep your nose clean and one day, you may have my job.’”

Minus a two-year stint when she helped build a new police department in Taylorsville, Rivera has worn the Salt Lake County — now Unified Police Department — uniform.

She started as a patrol officer in Riverton, where she moved her family, and worked her way up through the ranks serving as the county’s first woman on the Metro Gang Unit in the late 1990s, as a detective and supervisor in the violent crimes and sexual assault units and as PIO. In 2015, Sheriff Jim Winder promoted Rivera to be one of his division police chiefs, the first woman to serve in such a post.

‘Don’t try to be a man’

In the beginning, Rivera worried about whether her male colleagues — all of them seasoned officers — would accept her. It wasn’t a problem.

“I was fortunate,” she said. “I got the best of the best to train me.”

She also got some good advice: Be patient. Don’t have an ego. And don’t try to be a man.

“I wish all female officers got that same advice,” Rivera said. “I’ve seen it through the years. They try to compete. But we can’t. We’re totally different.”

Retired sheriff’s Lt. Dave Burdett worked alongside Rivera at the beginning of her career and said she earned the respect and trust of her fellow officers partly by being a dependable and competent colleague. At times, Burdett said, he heard some grumbling from male officers about having a woman in the ranks, but if Rivera was feeling any strain, she never let it show.

“She never complained,” he said. “She just worked hard.”

Harder, maybe than many may know.

While a full-time deputy, Rivera also was a part-time security officer for the Huntsman Corp., studying between duties there to earn her bachelor’s degree in business management. The degree helped her advance to the rank of sergeant at the sheriff’s office after five years on the job.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosie Rivera is joined by her family for a group photo after being sworn in to lead the state's largest law enforcement agency as county sheriff at Salt Lake County Chambers on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Rivera becomes the county's first female sheriff and the only woman overseeing a sheriff's office in Utah.

The heart of the family

At home in Riverton, she had two growing kids — Damian joined the Air Force at 17 — whom she was rearing on her own after her marriage crumbled.

Her kids, Rivera said, never complained and never wanted her to quit.

Asked about their mother, the cop, the Rivera children have nothing but pride for the job she’s done at home and in the field.

“She the heart of the family,” said Damian, now 40 and retired from the Air Force. “And she was always there for me.”

For the most part, they said Rivera taught by example, instilling in them the value of hard work and the principles of integrity, service to others and owning up to your mistakes.

“She won’t give you a guilt trip or anything,” said Ricardo, 35, who is an EMT for the Unified Fire Authority. “But she’ll want you to fess up and take responsibility.”

As for the perils of police work, they said, it was rarely a topic of conversation around the dinner table.

“It’s a worry at times, like when it’s 2 in the morning and she’s out on a call, but it’s also the best thing,” said Bernadine, 27, who recently graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice. “You don’t see a lot of women out there on the road taking down the bad guys.”

Running for sheriff was something the Rivera children said they encouraged their mother to do when the post opened up in July with Winder’s resignation to take the job of police chief in Moab. And while sheriff is an elected post, Damian said his mom “isn’t in it for the politics.”

“She’s in it because she wants to help out, all of the time,” he said.

For her part, Rivera said she didn’t initially plan to run for sheriff, but was persuaded by the encouragement from many corners of her life.

“I decided that whether or not I got it, that door was open and I had to walk through it,” said Rivera,who is a founding member of the Utah Women in Law Enforcement Association.

She also felt her father’s influence, pushing her through the door with his steady message: You have to be willing to take a chance and be willing to fail in order to succeed.

Rivera’s appointment is a boon to female officers — whether they are veterans or new recruits — and offers an encouraging sign about the future of law enforcement, Salt Lake City Sgt. Michelle Ross said. Like Rivera, the 52-year-old Ross faced more than a few barriers in pursing a career in a male-dominated environment where many questioned whether women were fit for the job.

“There really weren’t any women chiefs anywhere back in the ’70s,” said Ross, the first Latina hired by Salt Lake City, where she has worked for 27 years. “So we had no real role models.”

Similarly, state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, sees Rivera’s advancement as a plus for Utah minorities, who often don’t see themselves reflected in the state’s top leaders.

“She’s indefatigable, and she won’t back down. It’s what you need in the top public safety officer for the county. I think we are lucky to have her.” <br> — state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City

“There’s a disconnect. You don’t see people who look like you making decisions about your lives,” said Chavez-Houck, whom Rivera counts among her role models. “You don’t trust that they understand your situation.”

Rivera will change the perception for many, not just because of who she is, but because of the challenges she faced and overcame, the lawmaker said.

“She’s indefatigable, and she won’t back down,” Chavez-Houck said. “It’s what you need in the top public safety officer for the county. I think we are lucky to have her.”

Rivera hopes to keep the sheriff’s job beyond the year left on her current term. In November, she launched her campaign for the Democratic nomination for sheriff in 2018.

She’ll be challenged by one of her own employees: Lt. Justin Hoyal, whom Rivera recently demoted from a chief deputy post to the lieutenant in charge of UPD’s dispatch center. Hoyal is running as a Republican.

So far, the two candidates seem to share many similar concerns — jail overcrowding, mental health and drug treatment access along with the well-being of officers and staff — and, in the end, voters will decide what type of leader will best ensure public safety.

No matter how long she remains in office, Rivera said, she hopes residents will see her genuine desire to serve and protect every corner of Salt Lake County.

“I’m not perfect, and I’ve made mistakes,” she said. “ ... But as long as I can go home at the end of the day and know that I made the right decision, at the right time and for the right reason, then it’s all OK. That’s the way I try to live my life.”