Richard Espinoza was getting in his vehicle when another San Angelo police officer called him with alarming news: one of his best friends and fellow officer, Jason Hernandez, had been involved in a major motor vehicle accident that left him air lifted to the hospital with incapacitating injuries.
Espinoza and Hernandez have known each other for two years, having graduated the police academy together in December 2012, and over that span of time the two have become like brothers. With his close friend severely injured, Espinoza immediately began trying to contact Hernandez’s immediate family as he drove to a local hospital where the officer was being treated.
“Whenever I got to the hospital…I had just missed him by a couple of seconds with him going into the CAT scan room,” Espinoza recalls. “I wanted to go in there and be with him, but considering all the metal that I had (on his uniform) they wouldn’t allow me to go in there. Apparently it’s a big magnet,” he laughed.
Support from the community, the police department and other local agencies flowed in as Hernandez underwent surgery and began to recover, however Espinoza’s effort as a liaison between Hernandez, his family and the police department earned him recognition for going above and beyond to aid his friend, culminating in his nomination to officer of the month at the San Angelo Police Department.
“My intent behind going to be with Jason and his family was to be there for a friend like he would to me. Jason to me is like a brother,” Espinoza said. “We’re all a family here in the police department, but he is one of those brothers…that’s a special kind of friend.”
Richard Espinoza grew up in San Angelo and graduated from Central High School, where he played trumpet for a stint before dedicating his time to football. After graduating, he attended Howard College, where he began studying to become a paramedic, and was a certified EMT for a year before switching to the San Angelo Police Department.
Given his prior schooling and training, Espinoza had a good handle on the injuries his friend had suffered, and explained the seriousness of his situation. Hernandez suffered a broken vertebrae in the crash, he said, which could have left the officer paralyzed if he hadn’t been handled with such care at the crash site.
“The volunteer fire department that went out there did an excellent job as far as stabilizing Jason and his neck to prevent any further injury,” he said. “It’s such a substantial injury that if they had moved Jason in any kind of wrong way he could have been paralyzed from the neck down…it was nothing short of a miracle that he is here with us today.”
As an officer with a paramedic background, Espinoza says working a car crash is sometimes difficult for him, when his EMT instincts kick in and his first response is to want to help stabilize a victim.
“I’ve always taken a good amount of care when I’ve come across individuals who have been in serious accidents,” he said. “A lot of times whenever I’m there, my EMT training wants to kick in and I want to lend that helping hand…but then again, I have to turn around and be that person keeping cars from hitting us, emergency medical staff, and stuff like that. I’m not torn between the professions, but it’s good to have training on both sides of the fence.”
Hail Storms in the Retirement Community
Espinoza was born in San Antonio, where his family remained until he was three or four years old. The decision to move to San Angelo was work-motivated, Espinoza explained, and his parents decided to stay after they fell in love with the small-town feel of the then retirement community.
“My father, he is in the business of roofing construction,” Espinoza said. “What he does is he follows the business. Pretty much he follows the hail storms around the state of Texas. He still does it to this day, but we’re not specifically localized. We’ll travel to Ozona, Barnhart, Mertzon, any of the surrounding cities, pretty much where the work is at.”
Over the years Espinoza also learned the roofing trade, helping to hold the reigns as the oldest son in a family of six and working to supplement the family’s income. At 6 years old he first began working with his father, he said, and still does some roof jobs on the side to earn extra money and help support his family.
Roofing has turned into a kind of love-hate thing for the 24-year-old, but nonetheless he says the lessons he learned growing up in the business have been valuable bits he carries with him to this day.
“It definitely helped me build character as far as learning the value of money and learning the value of hard work and just learning to be the support that I need to be with my family,” he said.
Dressed in Blue
Despite a background in roofing that could have continued through his generation, Espinoza had his sights set on civil service when he graduated high school, and enrolled in Howard College’s paramedic program to learn how to help save others. The decision wouldn’t last, however, due to circumstances beyond his control, and Espinoza applied to the SAPD.
“I was a certified EMT here in the state of Texas for a year and eventually, money got tight,” he said. “I was going to class Monday through Friday 8-5 and I couldn’t find any way to support myself, so I had to eventually withdraw myself from the paramedic program. Then I went to school a little bit longer and then I ended up transitioning into the police department.
“In my opinion, it was a great choice. It was something that I get to be with people, meet with people all day long, talk with them…and I could be there for people during the worst times in their lives and either de-escalate or escalate according to what the situation is. Having the ability to do so is pretty cool in my opinion.”
After being accepted to attend the academy and train to join San Angelo’s finest, Espinoza quickly learned that being an officer isn’t exactly the way it’s portrayed on television. He was working the overnight C shift in Sector 1, where call volume averages at about five a night and real, fast-paced action is somewhat less frequent than anticipated.
“Whenever I first started in the training program here in the police department, things aren’t portrayed like an episode of ‘Cops’,” he laughed. “I’ve seen episodes of ‘Cops’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. That’s cool. They’re doing that on a nightly basis and they’re dealing with all kinds of things: vehicle chases, armed subjects, drug deals, that kind of thing, sting operations. Then I realized it takes over five months for them to shoot one episode of ‘Cops’. That’s how spread out these events are. It’s not a back-to-back-to-back thing.”
Espinoza describes himself as more of a “fast-paced type of guy” and said he’s since found a balance between being dispatched to calls and his time on patrol, by initiating traffic stops, looking for suspicious subjects and gathering information on drug deals and gangsters that he can then pass on to other officers and the Narcotics Division.
He currently works the day shift, responding to upwards of 17-20 calls a day and handling more civil disputes, domestics and accidents, he said. As an officer, Espinoza recognizes a need to build rapport with those he encounters, and tries to approach people on a personable yet professional level. He has a particular interest in helping children, who may have been heading down the wrong path in life and need some guidance to keep out of trouble.
“I have a way of talking with the troubled children, children that are acting up. I talk to them on a daily basis, some of the more than once,” he said. “I knew I chose the right profession when I first dealt with an individual who was an extremely problematic child, who actually ended up making something of themselves as far as joining a football team and actually becoming what we could call a good citizen for the city of San Angelo.”
Espinoza said the child he was referencing was an 8-9-year-old boy, who had a problem with skipping school and disrespecting his parents, and was always caught up in the wrong crowd of kids.
“He wasn’t doing drugs or anything like that, but he was hanging out with his friends and would get caught up in bad things,” he said. “He was always guilty by association. To see his life do a complete 180, it’s what makes my job worthwhile. In my mind, I know I’m doing the right thing. Out of all the children that I deal with, if I can change one of their lives for the better, then I know that I can do it for somebody else and hopefully prevent them following in their parents’ or the friends’ footsteps and help steer them away from a life of crime or a life of drugs.”
More and more youth in San Angelo are getting involved in both crime and organized crime, Espinoza said, making connection to the youth even more important. He does this by trying to relate; explaining circumstances from his past that were difficult and demonstrating to the kids that they don’t have to be a product of their environments.
“I throw in a lot of my childhood experiences. Not to say that I had a bad childhood growing up, but I’ve been in situations where income was low and we didn’t have a whole lot,” he said. “Don’t let your past affect the outcome of who you want to be in the future. One of my biggest pet peeves are people who use their past as an excuse as to why they’re the person that they are today. Overcoming adversity is something that I took pride in as a child…”
In December, officer Espinoza will have been at the police department for two years. Ultimately, he said, he’d like to transfer to either the K9 Division or the Special Operations Section, where he can work closely with a tight-knit group on high-profile cases, gathering intel and passing that information on.
“I really, truly enjoy what I do. There’s sometimes where I’m a little bit tired, but I really enjoy my career and honestly believe this is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “It’s always good to see that such a hectic situation turns into something where people are apologizing to each other, giving each other hugs and kisses, that kind of thing. That to me is worth it.”