LA GRANDE — A Union County sheriff’s deputy who previously was a star Eastern Oregon University football player soon will be helping young people tackle life’s challenges.
Justin Hernandez is the La Grande School District’s new school resource officer helping to maintain school district security and mentor students.
Hernandez launched the latest chapter in his career Monday, Jan. 11, when he introduced himself to students in kindergarten through sixth grade as they returned to in-person education following the Christmas break.
“I’m very excited about being able to work with kids,” said Hernandez, who has been with the Union County Sheriff’s Office for five and a half years and is a 2015 Eastern Oregon University graduate who played football for the Mountaineers in 2013 and 2014.
Hernandez is succeeding Cody Bowen as the SRO. Bowen held the position for six years before stepping down in late December to serve as Union County’s new sheriff. Bowen won the election Nov. 3, 2020.
Bowen said he was hoping Hernandez would apply for the open school resource officer job because of his ability to connect with young people. Bowen said Hernandez is an excellent example for youth.
“He is a role model. He always does what is right when no one is looking,” Bowen said.
Hernandez was a star receiver at EOU with 79 receptions, 1,215 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons, according to eousports.com.
Off the field during his senior year, Hernandez started serving as a reserve deputy. A native of Lapwai, Idaho, Hernandez said a career in law enforcement long interested him in part because his father, a retired Marine, was a lieutenant in the Nez Perce Tribal Police Department in his hometown. Today, Hernandez is following in his father’s footsteps even more closely. His dad was an SRO at his high school in Lapwai.
Hernandez, after serving as a reserve deputy, a volunteer position and receiving training at the Oregon Police Academy, worked in the Union County Jail for six months. He then worked the Elgin patrol beat for two years and then two years as a narcotics officer. The deputy said one of his objectives as SRO is for students to see law enforcement officers as people. He will be following the lead of Bowen, well known in the local schools for his personable nature.
“I want to continue Cody’s mission of humanizing the badge,” Hernandez said.
He said he hopes to make connections with students and build relationships based on trust.
“I don’t want them to run from me,” Hernandez said. “I want them to run to me.”
A sense of humility likely will help him in this regard.
“Just because I have a badge and a gun does not make me superior to anyone,” said Hernandez, who also wants to establish community partnerships.
Bowen said Hernandez has a head start on establishing connections with students in the La Grande School District because he attended school district activities before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, including sporting events.
“He is invested in the community,” Bowen said.
Hernandez said people such as Tim Camp, EOU’s football coach since 2008, instilled this attitude in him. Camp requires his players to be involved in public service projects. Hernandez credits Camp with teaching him that “community is everything.”
Bowen said the ties he made as a school resource officer made it difficult to step away from the job.
“It was very hard. For the last six years I have poured my heart and soul into it,” Bowen said.
But he said he takes solace knowing Hernandez is at the helm.
“I know that the schools are going to be in good hands,” Bowen said.