By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When he was sworn in as a trooper with the West Virginia State Police, Sgt. Jose Centeno’s parents quit talking to him.
“Where I grew up in Mexico, police didn’t have the same level of respect as law enforcement officers do in the United States,” Sgt. Jose Centeno of the Princeton Detachment, West Virginia State Police said. “Law enforcement officers in the United States have a high level of professionalism. They take a lot of pride in their work. In some areas of Mexico, law enforcement officers don’t have that same reputation.”
It was the pride, fellowship, esprit de corps and camaraderie that drew Centeno, 49, into a life of crime fighting. “I saw a code of conduct and pride in the job that appealed to me as my future career.”
Unfortunately, his parents — now both deceased — had a negative opinion of law enforcement.
“My family had been a host family for exchange students through the years,” Centeno said. “They had hosted students from West Virginia University in the past, but after I became a state trooper, my mother showed an exchange student newspaper clippings of my work in law enforcement that she kept tucked away in a dresser drawer.
“She told the student not to tell my father about the newspaper clippings, because she didn’t want him to know anything about them,” Centeno said. “The exchange student told her that she should be proud of my accomplishments and that being a member of the state police is a prestigious position in the United States. After that, my parents started talking to me again. They realized that being a trooper in west Virginia is something very special.”
After that Centeno’s parents rapidly warmed up to his chosen profession. Centeno even got the opportunity to take his father on a ride-along with him — something that really opened his eyes to the work as a state trooper.
“I went from being the shame of the family for being a police officer to having a position of pride,” Centeno said. “I became an example of the American dream. One of my main goals was to show the people of West Virginia and the United States that not all people from my home in Mexico are illegal immigrants or up to no good.”
Centeno went to the Autonomous University of Querétaro at his hometown in Mexico where he studied design and graphic arts. He came to the United States in 1989. After seeing the high level of respect law enforcement officers in the U.S. are treated with, he applied for acceptance into the West Virginia State Police. He received word that he had been accepted to the State Police in 1991, entered the academy in late 1992 and graduated in the 40th Cadet Class in 1993.
Centeno’s first assignment was in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where he was stationed at Martinsburg. “There is a high concentration of Hispanic people living in that area who are migrant workers,” Centeno said. “In a lot of cases, they just needed to have someone explain the law to them. In Mexico, drinking and driving isn’t pursued as a crime like it is here. Once they understood the law, things got a lot better.”
When he was in the State Police Academy, Centeno earned a degree in police science from Marshall University. During the seven and a half years that he spent in the eastern panhandle, he earned another college degree at Shepherd University — a degree in psychology — where he earned a 4.0 grade point average and graduated summa cum laude.
Centeno also met his wife, Beth, while working on a project to gain recognition for a U.S. Army nurse who had passed away at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Martinsburg.
“She had served during the D-Day invasion at Normandy,” Centeno said of the Army nurse. “I was trying to see if she could be buried at Arlington, but that wasn’t possible.” Centeno contacted local veterans groups to attend her memorial service and it resulted in a fitting ceremony for one who served. “I met my wife (Beth) when we were working on this project She was working as a funeral director up there.” Centeno has two children, an adult daughter, Joy, and a 12-year-old son, Jose Centeno III. The Centenos also have two grandchildren.
Along with college, Centeno continued his education by attending the National FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., where he studied behavioral science. “I was impressed by the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and hoped to develop a behavioral science unit with the State Police,” he said.
Centeno’s native language is Spanish although he communicates in English very well. He also speaks French and Italian. “The ability to speak another language opens doors for you,” Centeno said.
There are two other bilingual (Spanish and English) troopers with the West Virginia State Police. “I teach survival Spanish for cadets at the Academy,” Centeno said. “They learn just enough to make an arrest if necessary and to make sure that they know their rights. Spanish-speaking subjects, even if they know a little English, find it easier to talk with someone who speaks their own language.”
Until just a few months ago, Centeno served as head of the Southern Regional Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force. “I spent 12 years as an undercover agent,” Centeno said. “I had a great opportunity to serve for a couple of years with the Lewisburg drug task force, and I spent the past several years with the Southern Regional Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force.
“Some of the best police officers in the state are working with the drug task forces,” Centeno said. “These are the kinds of police officers who lay their lives on the line every day. All the sacrifices they make are anonymous because we have to stay undercover. Usually the heads of the agencies are the ones who put a face to the work. Undercover police officers ride in the shadows of law enforcement.”
Centeno said that officers who choose to work undercover have to have a special disposition. “Our job is to infiltrate the dark world,” he said. “After you’re there, you have to bring the darkness back into the world to face justice.
“Some times you have to think like a criminal,” he said. “We get to see the very worst of society, but you always have to maintain a balance with the violent world you’re in, to show compassion for the victims of crime and to protect the innocent bystanders.
“It becomes a lonely life,” he said. “That is why it is so important to have family members to help bring you back into society.” Centeno acknowledged that there are other dangerous professions with odd hours that require a person to miss important family outings and school activities.
“The public thinks you can solve a murder between commercials, but that’s not how it is in real life,” he said. “You see all the sacrifices that undercover officers make with the only reward being the pride they have in fulfilling their obligations.
“Our civilian families help us put a foot back in the world,” he said. “When we’re at work, we always know our backs are covered. I don’t have any family in the United States, but the people that I work with become like families. We’re all brothers and sisters.”
Centeno said that troopers in the West Virginia State Police have to perform a myriad of duties. “We can go from working a traffic stop to responding to a domestic situation and conducting a murder investigation in a short time. The need to perform all of those functions can create a lot of stress,” he said.
Still, Centeno said that his career as a state trooper has been a rewarding one. “I consider the day I was sworn in as a state trooper to be right up there in importance with the birth of my daughter, my sons, our grandchildren, the day I was married and the day I became a naturalized citizen,” he said. “All give me great pride.”
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com