HEBER CITY — As a child, Anel Maldonado said her mother told her she hoped she'd grow up to become a doctor, lawyer or a nurse — like her mother.
But Maldonado's mother was taken aback when her daughter told her she wanted to be a police officer instead.
Her stepfather's reaction was even more critical. Even though he had formerly worked as a police officer, he didn't believe it was a safe job, especially for a woman.
"He was very against it. At the end of the day, it’s what I want to do," Maldonado said. "Just because someone doesn’t like something I want to do — it doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it."
Fresh from Utah Valley University's police academy, Maldonado, who turns 26 this month, joined Heber City's police force this summer as a full-time officer. Her mother and stepfather have since warmed up to the idea of their daughter's career choice.
"I have the heart and drive, I really do," she said. "Serving people has always been a part of me as long as I can remember. It’s always something I find satisfaction in, knowing that I am the difference in someone's life."
Buckey Walters, director of UVU's law enforcement academy, prides himself on being able to tell which students in the classroom have the "grit" to make it, and which ones who don't.
"With Anel, there was no doubt that she should be hired and that she should be a police officer," he said of his former student.
From the beginning, Walters was impressed with Maldonado during her time as a cadet. He praised her work ethic and her "stick-to-itiveness."
At the academy, Maldonado looked forward to her introduction to forensic science class where she learned about blood splatter analysis and how to take crime scene photos and collect evidence. Walters noticed that as soon as Maldonado was done with her exercises, she'd go over and help someone else in her class.
"She was a really good cadet with regard to that. She was an extremely good team player," he said.
News that she was one of the top cadets of her class spread quickly.
Before meeting Maldonado, Heber City Police Chief Dave Booth already knew her name.
He learned she was a cadet to look out for from one of his sergeants who taught at the academy. Additionally, two Utah County police chiefs also approached Booth to tell him Maldonado had expressed interest in applying for a position with Heber City.
During the interview, Booth thought Maldonado's reason to join the force was "very honest and genuine."
She was certain she wanted to start her career in Heber City, just as she was about being an officer.
After years in a single-parent household, Maldonado's stepfather came into the picture when she was 5 years old. She has fond memories of rushing to greet her stepfather in uniform at the door when he came home from work.
She also remembers that he kept to himself and never openly talked about what happened at work.
“That was the mentality of officers back in the day, (that) officers don’t have emotions, or they have to keep all of that in, and I think that’s what destroyed a lot of relationships and families. That’s one of the biggest causes of why officers back in the day had such high divorce rates," she said.
As a child, not all of Maldonado's police interactions were positive. After her mother and stepfather separated, she said she witnessed police inappropriately intervening in her family's custody issues.
Seeing officers bend the law left her infuriated, she said, and she promised herself she'd become a better officer because of it.
"Unfortunately, those are the types of interactions I’d have as a kid," she said. "It just pushed me to become an officer and show people that that’s not how you’re supposed to do things."
Born and raised in Visalia, California, near the Sierra Nevada mountains, as the second-oldest child in her family, Maldonado constantly looked for ways to make life easier for her mother. At the time, her mother was simultaneously providing for the family as a single parent and going to school to become a nurse.
"The less my mom could worry, the better," Maldonado said.
Her mother, originally from Mexico, had just obtained her U.S. citizenship and ran a strict household.
"I really did try to stay out of trouble. I had too much to worry about than to go out partying or messing around," she said. "It didn’t get my attention to get into drugs or alcohol."
Maldonado's straight-laced lifestyle was fueled by her dream of eventually pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Learning to take care of others before helping herself, she said, is a quality that will make her a better police officer. She is entering the force at a time when police departments around the nation are struggling to recruit and retain officers due to low pay, slashed benefits and the everyday hardships of the job.
But that doesn't deter Maldonado.
"If you're in this field for money, you're in the wrong field," she said.
Before joining the police academy, she first entered college at UVU to pursue an associate's degree and she dropped out to take a break.
"Once I knew I was more mature I continued my studies. I found a perfect opportunity to join the police academy," she said. "I had the money for it. I had the time for it. It was something I've always wanted to do and dreamed of."
Graduating from the police academy took her longer than the rest of her classmates, she said.
At UVU, she said she failed the first part of her training, the special functions officer module, that consists of criminal and constitutional law. To pass and move on to the law enforcement module, she'd needed to score 80% on a test, and ended up scoring 73%.
She said it was difficult to watch her classmates continue on.
"I took it hard on myself. I was upset at first. But then I brushed it off I said 'No, this is where I want to be. It might be hard, but it's not going to stop me from wanting this,'" she said. "It made me push myself harder."
The second time around she passed her training, and she graduated from the academy this spring.
Walters said his student's weaknesses eventually became her biggest strengths.
"She put everything that she could into it," he said.
As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Maldonado said she’s the only Latina officer on the force. She uses her bilingual skills on a daily basis to communicate with Latino residents when she’s on patrol.
“Just because I have a uniform on, I’m not any better than they are,” she said. “I’m an extra voice for them.”
Oftentimes language barriers between police and Latino residents can create fear and tension, she said. Due to her light complexion, people don’t realize she’s Latina until she starts speaking to them in Spanish.
Once she begins, they become more relaxed and forthcoming with information.
“Any problems or anything they have — they are more than welcome to go into the agency and talk to me without having the fear of not knowing what I’m saying,” she said.
Hiring police officers from different backgrounds or ethnicities, she said, shows the community there’s no bias.
She said she’s seen a shift in police agencies to diversify their police departments to better serve the community and build trust.
Booth said it's valuable to have an officer on his force who is bilingual and is familiar with Latino culture.
"It's absolutely priceless, the work that she's able to do within that community," he said. "I also have Latino officers that also do a great job for us here. They are familiar with the culture, they speak the language."
Booth, who oversees 23 full-time police officers in his department, said he's always on the lookout for diverse candidates.
"Latinos are the biggest minority within our community," he said. "It's just natural that our community and our police department should represent that."
According to 2018 U.S. Census, 16.8% of Heber City residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, higher than the state percentage of 14.2%.
Currently, Maldonado is nearing the end of her 13-week training with the department. By the end of August, she anticipates she'll be able to patrol on her own.
But her education isn't over. Since joining the force she's gone back to school to pursue a degree in criminal justice at UVU.
"I want to be that change," she said.