SOUTH SALT LAKE (ABC4) – From a teenage mother and a high school dropout to the head of Utah’s largest law enforcement agency, Sheriff Rosie Rivera’s life is a story of perseverance.

Her 28-year law enforcement career has included time with the gang unit, the undercover unit, and the investigations unit, but it all started because of a TV show she watched as a little girl growing up in Layton.

“There was a show, “The Mod Squad” that had a female detective, so I grew up around that,” she tells Behind The Badge.

But it would be years before she became a real-life Julie Barnes. Rivera was a 31-year-old mother of three working as an electrician at Hill Air Force Base when a coworker mentioned becoming a police officer.

“I said ‘I think I’m going to look into that’,” Sheriff Rivera recalls. “I’ve always wanted to do it and at 31 years old, I went to the police academy and became a police officer.”

Over the next 23 years, the 5-foot-3 dynamo worked her way up the ranks, solving some major cases, until she was named Salt Lake County Sheriff in 2017, becoming the state’s first female sheriff. Now she oversees the hundreds of officers in the Sheriff’s Office and Unified Police Department and a $200 million annual budget.

“Women have come a long way in law enforcement and now we are showing them that we can also be leaders,” Sheriff Rivera said. “The job that we do, not many people want to come out and wear this badge and do what we do. It’s a very dangerous job.”

That point was underscored on April 10 when a man wounded two of her deputies making a routine check outside of the Salt Lake County Jail, the type of call the Sheriff dreads getting.
“It just tears your heart out,” she said. “It’s a huge weight, you know. I’m a Mom and I know how it feels when your kids get hurt.”

Rivera’s three grown children have given her the best promotion of her life: to grandmother of six grandkids ages two to 22, a role she loves despite its occasional challenges.

“I have a video that I posted on Facebook and it’s me telling the two-year-old to come in the house. She wouldn’t get off her little lawn chair and come in the house,” she said with a laugh. “And somebody posted ‘She’s probably the only one that would get away telling the Sheriff no’ because she’s telling me no so that’s my life at home. A two-year-old is telling me what to do.”

Sheriff Rivera does have one complaint about her nearly three decades in law enforcement. She says the uniform companies don’t make women’s styles and the men’s shirts and pants she has to wear never fit quite right.