Petaluma Officer of the Year ‘Zeus’ Rivera lauded for work with vulnerable community members
When Zilverio Rivera immigrated to the U.S. with his family, he was 11 years old.
Miles away from his birthplace in rural Mexico, he began formal schooling for the first time, in a language he didn’t yet fully grasp.
His family eventually settled in Santa Rosa, living in primarily Latino neighborhoods, he said, oftentimes seen as disadvantaged or “rough” parts of town.
That’s also where he had his first interactions with American law enforcement. But for Rivera, now a Petaluma Police officer who goes by “Zeus” for short, those interactions catalyzed his ambition to become a cop.
“In Mexico, there wasn’t really any law enforcement, it was the Mexican military, and the perception (of them) and their behavior was corrupt, completely,” the 47-year-old officer said. “And in my early years, I had a few critical interactions with law enforcement in Santa Rosa that I think to this day shape who I am and what I value, and led me to where I am now.”
Rivera, a 13-year veteran with the Petaluma Police Department, was recognized this month as the department’s Officer of the Year, a distinction centered on his work with Spanish-speaking community members, vulnerable youth groups and the city’s homeless population.
Selected by his peers, Rivera was also lauded for his recent efforts to increase transparency, diversity and equity amid the city’s own response to a nationwide reckoning with police violence and systemic racism.
“He’s a true professional and has always exemplified the performance principles of our organization,” said Police Chief Ken Savano. “But most importantly, he’s been a real guardian for our community, looking after our youth and most at-risk and vulnerable populations.”
Since joining the department in 2007, Rivera has served in variety of roles, including field training officer, DARE Instructor, Homeless Outreach Services Team officer, hostage negotiator and gang enforcement officer.
Yet he is most proud of his work with Mentor Me and Petaluma People Services Center, where he serves as a mentor to at-risk youth and oversees the department’s restorative justice program. Facilitated in part by Rivera, the program aims to divert vulnerable kids from incarceration or juvenile detention by facilitating mentorship and support.
Rivera says he also hopes to encourage kids from diverse backgrounds, especially Spanish-speaking immigrants, to consider a career in law enforcement as a way of ensuring a more varied pool of applicants that better represent the communities they serve.
“I can specifically speak to the perception that I think a lot of Latinos have, as immigrants, and even as first-generation Americans,” Rivera said. “There’s a mistrust that is held of law enforcement and of the profession in general. I think it’s on us to dispel that, and to educate people about what it is we do and what it is we don’t do.”
Rivera got the first taste of his future career while studying at Santa Rosa Junior College and working with the campus police as a trainee. He attended Sonoma State University for his undergraduate degree, maintaining a keen focus on his chosen career field.
But it wasn’t an easy journey to get where he is now. He struggled to break into the industry as a Latino immigrant. His citizenship request languished in the bureaucratic ether.
Recognizing early on that he would likely have to find new avenues to become a police officer, Rivera spent his 20s working as a correctional officer with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.
Then in 2007, the Petaluma Police Department took a chance on him, he says, extending a job offer while he continued to work toward gaining citizenship. A year later, he finally became an American citizen after decades of waiting.
Rivera says his approach to policing is underpinned with a desire to build stronger relationships between law enforcement and community members. He harks back to his adolescent years, when a few compassionate adults changed his conceptions of police officers.
Rivera recalled one day, when as a rebellious teenager, he crossed paths with a Santa Rosa officer, who deposited him back at home with his parents. The officer was the first to take an interest him, he said, and followed through on his promise to Rivera that he would check in on him again.
“I assumed I would never see him again,” Rivera said. “But he came back. I think that small but critical interaction, and interactions like that, show people that they have value and can be honored. I think that really drives home what we’re supposed to be doing as caretakers and guardians of the community.”
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)