Retired police officer Darrell Cortez boosts literacy in San Jose schools

Darrell Cortez retired more than a decade ago from the San Jose Police Department, so he isn’t fighting crime in the streets anymore. But he is working on preventing crime before it starts — by investing in children’s education.

Since 2007, Cortez and his wife, Alicia, have operated the Shop with a Cop Foundation, which supports language arts-based education in six San Jose schools. The foundation is best known for its namesake December event at which students who perform well in the Readers Are Leaders Campaign are rewarded with a big shopping trip to purchase holiday gifts for their families.

The event’s goal is twofold — humanize the person behind the badge and instill a love of reading and learning in the community’s underserved children.

The mission of educating children sits close to Cortez’s heart.

“We spend more money to incarcerate somebody than we spend to educate a kid in California,” Cortez told San José Spotlight recently. “It’s sad.”

Testing data show that only 48 percent of third-grade students in California met or exceeded English Language Arts standards in 2018-19. Although Santa Clara County residents pull in higher as a whole, with a 60 percent of third-graders meeting those same standards, Cortez worries that the students in his hometown of San Jose are getting left behind.

“A child’s education should not be decided by the ZIP code he or she lives in,” Cortez said.

Third grade is considered the “make-or-break” year, Cortez said; if students are not reading by the third grade, they are more likely to flunk out of high school. And if they come from a low-income family they’re even more likely to meander down a path toward the juvenile justice system or even the prisons.

“We know if we reduce the achievement gap, juvenile crime will decrease and the high school graduation rates will increase,” Cortez said. “So, we like to think of ourselves as fighting crime because we’re investing in these kids.”

Cortez, 62, says he pursued a police career partly because his parents were active in the community. He got to know a police officer who worked security at charity events hosted by his parents.

“I admired him,” Cortez said of the officer. “I liked the way the uniform looked. I said, ’You know what, if that opportunity comes, I will go to school and graduate college and apply for the police department.’”

So, Cortez did. He started with the San Jose Police Department in the late 1970s after earning an associate degree from West Valley College. Later, when the city of San Jose offered an incentive program for continued education, Cortez took night classes at San Jose State University and got his four-year degree in criminal justice in the early 1990s.

Cortez specialized in narcotics enforcement for the department, fighting drug cartels and methamphetamine and cocaine epidemics. Cortez said his claim to fame was an early 1990s drug bust that ultimately brought the police department its first helicopter. A pair of brothers from Peru were selling drugs under the guise of a travel agency.

Cortez and his partner Manny Ramirez worked undercover to negotiate a sale of a kilogram of cocaine for thousands of dollars. The drugs were later discovered along with an overflow of cash at the brothers’ home off Saratoga Avenue and Kiely Blvd.

It turned out to be a half million dollars in cash. And, under asset forfeiture laws in place at the time, the San Jose Police Department could keep all of it. The department used the money to purchase its first helicopter “Air1.” Sadly, Air1 crashed a couple of years later because of a mechanical failure, Cortez said, killing an officer and the mechanic who were on board.

Those who work with Cortez are quick to point out the retired officer’s tireless energy and sense of humor.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Ramirez, who now works for the city of Santa Clara as a fraud investigator. “He had his quirks, but I guess we all did.”

Desiree Salguero, a former San Jose police officer who also sits on the Shop with a Cop Foundation’s board, describes Cortez as generous and big-hearted.

Cortez’s work in the schools doesn’t go unappreciated. Besides the big Shop with a Cop event in December, the foundation hosts a variety of events and assemblies at the schools to inspire kids to read.

“The kids get really excited,” said Julie Aguirre, principal of McKinley Elementary School, one of the schools the foundation works with to boost literacy. “Every time they come, they bring free books for the students. Most of the students don’t have books at home, so it’s a great way for them to build their libraries.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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