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Whether she was dealing with 60 felons crowing at her from behind bars or a suspect refusing to cooperate, Raquel Lopez never had much of a problem with respect.

Lopez - who started out as a deputy for the Denver Sheriff's Department working in the county jail - earned the nickname "Rocky" after she began patrolling the streets of District 4 for the Denver Police Department.

The nickname stemmed from her boxing workouts - "I'm not trying to get punched in the face," she said, but it's "a real good stress reliever" - and it likely came from the attitude that stuck with her after spending so much time locked in a room with felons at the jail.

"I have thick skin," said Lopez, 43. "I said, 'You are not gonna bully me That is not gonna work for me at all."

These days, one would never guess as much about Lopez, who has put the blue uniform and bun on hold so that she can take on a different breed of troublemakers - reporters.

Lopez, who recently was promoted to detective, stepped up as the newest public information officer with the Denver Police in late March. She is the fourth Latina to hold the public information position in Denver.

However, there hasn't been a PIO who speaks fluent Spanish for about six years, Lopez said.

Having a PIO who speaks Spanish is an asset for the Police Department, which serves a city that is 31 percent Latino, according to 2010 Census data.


But Lopez's character and her knowledge of the community make her an indispensable member of the public information team, said Sonny Jackson, Lopez's supervisor. Lopez grew up in Denver and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1987. She learned about the area's criminal element working at the Denver County Jail, she said.

Jackson said he met Lopez a few years ago and recognized that she would fill the need for someone who could communicate with the Spanish-speaking community.

"Her work was amazing," Jackson said of Lopez's work as a Denver police patrol officer.

Lopez said a handful of officers spoke fluent Spanish in District 4, and many could get by with minimum skills, but she said she was often called upon for help with translations, whether it was with a suspect, a victim or a witness.

District 4, which encompasses Denver's southwest corner, has a high population of Hispanics. Lopez said she took advantage of being in the area to reach out to monolingual Spanish speakers, many of whom were afraid to ask questions of the police out of fear of deportation.

"I always tried to make them comfortable, to let them know that they have rights, too," Lopez said.

Jackson said he expressed an interest in getting Lopez into the public information office early on but she was "highly regarded where she was," he said.  "I don't think they wanted to lose her."

In the end, it's better to have Lopez transitioning to the PIO position now, Jackson said.

Her promotion comes about five months after Police Chief Robert White of Louisville, Ky., took over the department, restructuring some of its leadership and pledging to hold officers accountable for excessive force, a subject that has come up at the department several times the past few years.

"We're all learning at the same time," Jackson said of the changes going on at the department. Lopez's coming on to the team now is a "good fit," he said.

"She's taken to the job like nobody else I've seen."

But Lopez said her new job isn't without challenges.

"Every interview, I'm nervous," she said - especially for interviews with broadcast news stations such as Telemundo and Univision because, she said, she needs to tap into her "professional Spanish" skills.

In eighth grade, Lopez, whose Mexican parents' first language is Spanish, failed her Spanish class because she didn't know how to read or write the language.

That's when she decided to teach herself, checking out books from the library and reading the newspaper. In some ways, it was like how she learned English - by listening to her four brothers and watching "Sesame Street," Lopez said.

It's no surprise that Lopez was successful, said her mother, Socorro Toledo. She has always taken to books.

"I thought to myself, 'I don't think I can read so many books,'" Toledo said of Lopez's constant affinity for learning. "But she loves it!"

Toledo said she was surprised when Lopez decided she wanted to be a police officer, but she said she never tried to keep her from doing what she wanted, even if the job were dangerous.

"I tell her, 'Never do things that don't make you happy or you don't like. It's not good for the person if you don't like it,'" Toledo said.

"So I know she likes it," and that is enough, she said.

Lopez said her 17-year-old daughter has never taken issue with her profession either but when her son, who is now 22, was in his early teens, he wasn't so content with Lopez heading out into the field every day. 

"My son was very unhappy He was always in fear that I would not come home," she said. "Now, he sees everything I have done, how much I love it, and he's OK with it now."

Lopez said it's always been in the back of her mind that she wanted to be a police officer, ever since she saw one presenting an award to her sixth-grade class. The possible danger of the job never stopped her, she said.

"My mom has no fear whatsoever," Lopez said. "I think I follow those traits."

Toledo said her husband, too, was a strong man. But he died 25 years ago, and Toledo had to raise her five children on her own.

Certainly, Toledo said, Lopez is has always been responsible and very strong.

"She's doing all the time whatever she wants," she said. "Whether I like it or not, she's going to do it. And I respect that."