DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) — A North Alabama police officer was celebrated on a national stage for helping break barriers in his city.
Almost 20 years ago, Officer Juan Penuelas, who was 22 at the time, became one of the first Hispanic officers hired by the Decatur Police Department (DPD).
His parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico decades ago, but his family continues to celebrate their heritage.
“My parents try to keep the tradition, the Mexican tradition,” Penuelas said. “The only language we were allowed to speak in [my mom’s] house is Spanish.”
That heritage has made a huge difference for him on the job over the last twenty years.
“I’m honored to be able to say I know two languages,” Penuelas explained. “I get to meet different cultures, different lifestyles. It’s eye-opening when you see things. For people to come up to me and tell me that I’ve helped them, it means more to me than money.”
He said that in some Hispanic communities, fear can sometimes be associated with law enforcement.
“Some people in our community are not legal here,” he said. “It’s fear of deportation, fear of being taken from their family. I can understand. They come here to work. I’ve seen that a lot. I can tell they’re scared to tell me anything.”
Officer Penuelas, though, said he believes that Spanish-speaking officers help bridge that gap and combat that fear.
“People feel comfortable. They approach me. It’s easier for them to speak to me. They feel comfortable calling the police because they know there’s a possibility that there’s going to be someone who speaks Spanish to them,” Penuelas said. “I try to be polite and tell them that we’re not here for deportation. We’re here to help.”
His work protecting Decatur led his wife, Robyn, to write a letter to the Tennessee Titans, nominating her husband as a “Community Hero.”
In a video produced by the Titans organization, Robyn surprised her husband by reading the letter to him.
“A hero is someone who is admired for their courage, outstanding abilities, and noble qualities,” she said in the video. Robyn went on to write, “you have saved lives, supported people in their very worst moments, seen things that no person should ever see, and shouldered the responsibilities for telling families that a loved one has passed with both kindness and respect.”
Penuelas said the word “hero” is not one he uses loosely.
“I think you really have to do something to earn that,” he said.
Officer Penuelas, his wife, and some of their friends got to attend the Titans football game in Nashville in September.
When the video announcing him as the “Community Hero” aired on the videoboard during the game, he saw the entire stadium take a moment to thank him for his service.
It was a moment he said he was extremely grateful for.
“I can’t describe it. It was so amazing,” Penuelas explained. “Once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Penuelas serves as a warrant officer for DPD.
He will mark his 20th year with DPD next year.