On a recent weeknight on Cesar Chavez Street, the man everyone calls Cha-Cho worked on a Day of the Dead art project while recalling a recent phone call from a 14-year-old boy who had every intention of shooting a rival.
"He was getting ready to go out and shoot somebody. He called me and said, 'I know this is going to get me in trouble,' " Enrique Estrada said. "I said, 'Talk to me.' "
Three hours later, they were still on the phone. "He didn't go out," Estrada said.
St. Paul Police Department officials didn't have Estrada specifically in mind when they created the job of community engagement specialist. It only seems that way.
Deeply ingrained in the history and culture of the city's West Side, 55-year-old Estrada uses a lifetime of community connections and decades of outreach to win the trust of parents and gang members alike. Trust, he said, that pays dividends every time a teen puts down a gun instead of using it, or a family in the country illegally calls him for help.
"I sort of migrated to this stuff," said Estrada, who started working with young people at the Boys and Girls Club and Neighborhood House before joining the police department five years ago. "This job is really about making connections."
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who started the community engagement program soon after becoming chief in 2016, said the work of Estrada and the three other specialists — Johnny Howard, Warsame Shirwa and Kaziah Josiah — is critical to his department gaining not only credibility with the communities it serves, but trust.
"Engagement is what builds trust," said Axtell, who announced Oct. 27 that he will not seek a second term as chief. "And trust is the foundation of any legitimate police organization in this country."
RaRa Navarro can attest to that. The 24-year-old community organizer for the West Side Community Organization was a 14-year-old girl regularly in trouble when she and Estrada first met. His concern and compassion came through, she said.
"He was working with younger males and he had a connection with another organizer who was working with younger females," Navarro said. "They got me locked in and never let me go. He knows the community. He knows my family — my mom, my uncles, I believe my grandma too. He has that community connection. He's just a good man."
His parents' example
Estrada grew up in public housing, one of seven siblings whose parents over the decades fed and sheltered dozens of young men new to the U.S. and with no place else to go.
"They were Mom and Dad to everyone and our house was kind of the community house," he said. "We were obviously not an official organization. But if a young man was found on the street, the police would know where to go. They would call my mom or my dad and we would put them up until we could find some social services for them."
Estrada said his parents' social conscience is part of his DNA. The Cretin High School graduate, who went on to study criminal justice at Inver Hills Community College, went from being a kid hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club to an adult working with kids there who were cycling through the juvenile justice system. The Police Department approached him with an offer to use the connections he'd made to help them build stronger partnerships with the community.
"What sold me was that I would have more of a direct impact, that I wouldn't have to go through five, six or seven supervisors to get things done," he said.
In this role, Estrada has engaged with the city's Latino community — which is rooted on the West Side — extremely well, said his boss, Cmdr. Pamela Barragan.
"He has really good cultural knowledge and community knowledge of what's going on in the Latino community," she said. "It has really helped us to have a safe space for the community to come to the Police Department."
'It's not a 9-to-5 job'
Estrada's deep connections on the West Side, however, do not mean his family has been immune from St. Paul's recent rise in gun violence. His son, DiMario Estrada, was shot and hospitalized after two men attempted to rob him while he was on his way to work a year ago. He was the fourth person shot during a 12-hour span, Enrique Estrada said. The son of a friend was shot and killed just after Halloween last year.
Estrada has organized healing circles and, after the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, diffused tensions between competing groups that came to the West Side to offer "protection." Estrada continues meeting on Wednesday nights with moms affected by gun violence and has earned enough trust with those who are undocumented that they've even volunteered at Feed My Starving Children and raised money for the Special Olympics through the Polar Plunge.
Police officials call him an unsung hero.
Said Estrada: "It's not a 9-to-5 job."
As volunteers strung papel picado banners and parents and children worked on memory boxes commemorating the West Side's upcoming Dia de los Muertos celebrations, Estrada sat at a table with a member of his moms group and her teenage daughter. Because of their contact with Estrada, the girl said she is interested in a career in law enforcement.
Nearby, longtime West Side mom and volunteer Debbie Luna wasn't afraid to give Estrada a little grief.
"He's nothing special," she said before adding some hard-won praise.
"He's hanging in there," she said. "Really, we just know him from this neighborhood. We don't think of him working for the police department. He knows a lot of people in the community, so he doesn't have to relearn that. That helps."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428