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Serving with grace: An interview with U.S. Marshal Federico Rocha

Thu, 01 Oct 2009 20:46:00
2.5 / 5 (10 Votes)
Article by:
Federico L. Rocha, U. S. Marshal for the Northern District of California
By The Western Edition staff

If you aren’t being escorted to federal court or to a court mandated destination, more than likely you haven’t come in contact with a U. S. Marshal.

While the presence of U.S. Marshals as part of law enforcement has been glamorized in movies with visions of high speed chases resulting in the apprehension of fugitives, most of us are unaware of their daily presence within our communities.

The U.S. Marshals Service is the nation’s oldest and most versatile federal law enforcement agency. Federal marshals have served the country since 1789, oftentimes in unseen, but critical ways. To this day, the marshals occupy a uniquely central position in the federal justice system. It is the enforcement arm of the federal courts and as such, it is involved in virtually every federal law enforcement initiative.

Presidentially appointed, U.S. Marshals direct the activities of 94 districts — one for each federal judicial district. More than 3,320 Deputy U.S. Marshals and criminal investigators form the backbone of the agency. Among their many duties, they apprehend more than half of all federal fugitives, protect the federal judiciary, operate the Witness Security Program, transport federal prisoners and seize property acquired through illegal activities.

In 1879, U. S. Marshals had to serve in an environment where the jurisdictional concerns between federal and state authority were highly sensitive as they were evolving at the time.

There have been times when U. S. Marshals and the service they provide are brought to national attention in their role carrying out federal orders. One memorable vision was the 1960 escort of 6-year old Ruby Bridges to school under a federal court desegregation order. U. S. Marshals carried out their duty and she was safely escorted. The impact of the marshals presence created a safe zone and was so memorable that famed American painter, Norman Rockwell, painted a rendition entitled “The problem we all live with.”

Federico L. Rocha, is the U. S. Marshal for the Northern District of California. From a historical perspective and given the the  the exaple of the first 13 U. S. Marshals selected by George Washington, Rocha seems a perfect fit.

Rocha’s demeanor is unique in that he doesn’t impose, but rather respectfully engages. His strength is hidden in a graceful demeanor that reflects humility. His service in the role of U. S. Marshal has led to increased diversity in department leadership. His priority is to keep the department efficient and to provide guidance and support for his staff. He believes it is important to lead by example.

Rocha doesn’t believe in resting on past laurels, but looks forward to making a difference each day. Having served in this role for six years, Rocha shared insights on his career path to becoming one of the 94 U.S. District Marshals.

His paternal and maternal grandparents moved to Missouri from Mexico. They believed that by working in the Midwest they would find continuous employment as opposed to the seasonal work that may have been found in California. Rocha explained that both sets of grandparents wanted to help their children go on to college, they were convinced this opportunity was to be found in the United States.

One of seven children, Rocha would seek out early on the wisdom of his grandmother who taught him to “listen with his eyes,” meaning that he should watch what people did rather than what they said. Cultivating this wisdom at such a young age may have set the mental framework for his career in law enforcement. As a result of their efforts, both of his parents were college educated and later he and all of his siblings were also college educated. Rocha holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and master’s degree in Public Administration.

Rocha’s pathway to college began within the military. He says his family has a long history of military service. His uncles and his father went into the service and fought in World War II.

“As immigrants we believe that you have to give back to the country that took you in,” Rocha said. “My uncles, my dad, all went into the service, fought in World War II, Korea, another uncle was at Pearl Harbor. So the idea of serving in the military for me was very, very strong.”

When Rocha joined the military, he knew that he would be shipped out to Vietnam, but he also knew it would provide the opportunity to see the world. Rocha thought of it in a practical manner, “I get to serve my country and also get my college education.”

Rocha tested well and was invited to become an officer. He became a paratrooper and applied to the 87th Airborne. He completed more training including ranger school and became an army airborne ranger. He did well enough to become a trainer. Later, he was deployed to Vietnam.

Wounded, he returned to the United States for treatment. Upon his release, he was invited to go to West Point to become a tactical officer. Always the practical thinker, Rocha thought through the various scenarios in terms of who would replace him and what made the most sense in terms of the use of human resources. He declined and asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Rocha wanted to complete his tour of duty in the field with his team.

Once his tour was completed, Rocha decided to settle in San Francisco. Rocha was impressed with the diversity and the social environment. He mused that San Francisco in particular seemed to be center of an intellectual revolution, he said “You could sit at a bus stop and overhear a conversation and learn something.”

After graduating Rocha took a job with the Civil Service Commission as an evaluator serving for about seven years. He says the job was great in that he was able to look at various departments to determine their efficiency in all areas of operations. What was missing in his administrative job was interaction with community.

Policing was an idea that was always in the back of his mind. Rocha believed that in the role of an officer he could make a difference. One day he went to the Oakland Police department, inquiring about a position. The officer at the desk encouraged him to apply immediately and he was offered a full-time position. Rocha recalled that in his department people had a sense of duty and a sense of justice.

As a patrol officer he was able to be part of a positive force for change. Rocha was now in direct contact with community.

“By responding to a traumatic event with sympathy and with empathy with what had just occurred, you could make a difference everyday. It was one of the intrinsic values of the job,” Rocha said. “Even if bad things happened you could focus on the good things that you could do within your control. It was always a great day and I could hardly wait to get back to work the next day. It was great, we were surrounded with a core of people who thought alike.”

What he liked most was what they called beat health (community service); he said that officers were given the charge to take care of the communities in which they worked. He said his core group had a sense of duty to community, naming a few like Chief Sydney White, retired chief from Daly City, Chief Mike Myers, who retired from Palo Alto , Captain James Cooper and Chief George Hart.

There was zero tolerance for injustice. After suffering an injury that resulted in a three-month hospital stay, he was retired after having served 11 years. Rocha an optimist was just glad to be “above ground and ambulatory.”

After he retired, Rocha returned to the Civil Service Commission. He enjoyed the work again, but law enforcement still held an interest for him. He was hired to coordinate the law enforcement office and was later encouraged to apply for the U.S. Marshal position. The U.S. Marshal appointment required extensive background review and confirmation. Rocha was confirmed and stepped into the role of U.S. Marshal.

It’s a job he enjoys because it employs multiple skill sets, which he has from his long career.

“Our top priority is the protection of the court family. Specifically the court,” he said. “That includes not only the judges, but the prosecutors, the public defenders he clerk, staff that is tantamount.”

Rocha added the other duty that is equally important is ensuring compliance with the constitution for those who are in custody. When people are in custody they have a right to see their attorney, to have safe transportation and to do what it is they need to do.

Rocha said people are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law and “Our role is to act dispassionately and neutrally and to cause those activities to happen for them.”
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