ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Back when Pamela Barragan was growing up in Ecuador, her family's contact with police was a little more limited.

"We never had any firsthand contact. You didn't call them for help, like you do here," Barragan told the Pioneer Press . "You only called them for something really extreme."

After moving to Minnesota with her family in the midst of the 1991 Halloween blizzard — "There were walls of snow everywhere. I didn't know what to think!" — she got a job with the St. Paul police as a civilian community liaison officer.

"I was not looking for a police job," Barragan said. "That's culturally something that's more of a male-oriented career. For me to do this kind of police work was very different."

So it might come as a surprise that this week, after 18 years as a sworn officer, Barragan was promoted to become the St. Paul Police Department's first Latina commander.

Back in the early 1990s, "at first my parents were very concerned," she recalled. "They were like, 'are you sure?'" Her father, an import-export businessman who traveled the world, and her mother, an accountant, both moved to Minnesota with her in 1991.

After starting as a West Side beat police officer in 1999, Barragan has since worked in the family sexual violence unit investigating sex crimes and child abuse; in the gang and gun unit; and as a patrol sergeant downtown.

She admits some of that type of work can leave a person jaded.

"But I'm a Christian, and to me this is where God wants me to serve. I can't explain how somebody who grew up in Ecuador ended up doing law enforcement in Minnesota. I can't explain it," Barragan said. "But it's kept me a little more real and less jaded than I could be. At the end of your shift, you have to go home."

Part of Barragan's job was working in recruitment, getting people with nontraditional backgrounds interested in law enforcement.

"We try not to just recruit the people themselves; we have to recruit the families," Barragan said.

For over a year, the department has engaged in a new program called the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, in which potential candidates from underrepresented communities can get tuition and living stipends paid through the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and AmeriCorps.

The Legislature — as part of a training package — voted to give additional money to a similar statewide program this year.

Barragan will start out as commander in citywide services, which oversees such things as the traffic division, and the K-9 and mounted units. She and four others — Jeremy Ellison, Paul Ford, Sean Lohse-Johnson and Stacy Murphy — were promoted to St. Paul commanders Monday.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com