The newest Stockton Unified School District police chief likes to joke about her family’s border-crossing story, stating she can, now that the statute of limitations has passed. She would know, she’s a lawyer.
Mayra Franco Gonzalez, SUSD’s former interim police chief, became permanent chief in November 2022, according to Melinda Meza, district spokeswoman.
Franco, 38, is the first Latina in the role. Her family immigrated from Mexico when she was 5 years old, and they’ve been in Stockton ever since.
Her parents and two of her siblings were born in Mexico, but she was born in the United States. For the first years of her life, Franco’s father was a farm worker in both countries. He eventually decided to follow his own father’s path, and root their family in the Stockton area.
Franco recalled their final journey across the border in 1990, joking how lucky they were that the border patrol didn’t bother checking for her and her siblings’ documentation.
The SUSD Board of Trustees named Franco as the interim chief in 2022, after community members urged her to throw her hat in the ring during a board meeting despite her own insecurities about a leadership position, Franco said.
“Two or three of the community members actually (said), ‘We don’t know you, but you seem to know how to do things. If you’re not applying, you should consider.’ That really stuck with me,” Franco told Stocktonia. “When I went back home, I was like, I can’t not do this out of fear, or out of all of these other excuses.”
Despite her self doubt, she decided to show her three kids and the children in her community that when a leadership position is available, and you’re capable, you should take it.
Franco has been on the SUSD police force for over 15 years, her entire career. After she finished Delta College with her associate degree in liberal studies, a friend encouraged her to look into law enforcement.
“I grew up in South Stockton, in Conway (Homes public housing),” said Franco, an Edison High School graduate. “Normally we didn’t engage in a positive way with the cops. (There was) that negative stigma that comes with them, that they’re not there to help. They’re there to take your family, your friends away. I never really thought of it as a profession.”
Franco decided to invest in the police academy program because she found representation during her time at the Stockton POST academy. Her instructor was also Latina. “To see someone that looks like you in the role, it just opens your horizons,” she said.
She says she built her philosophy about police work within SUSD on the concept of representation.
Franco said she wasn’t able to expand her horizons to higher education until she was around people who had done it before. She and her officers champion this message when they work with students.
Acknowledging that it might seem cliché, Franco said guiding students on a successful path means letting them know that the only obstacle stopping them from achieving their goals is themselves.
After Delta, she joined the SUSD police force, then later earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Cal State Stanislaus to be more employable, she said. She had always dreamed about being a lawyer, and as she moved up in the ranks within the department, she pursued her law degree through Humphrey’s College in Stockton.
“As I studied for the bar,” she said, “I had a newborn. I’m there, breastfeeding, studying. (I told myself) it’s a one time thing. If I don’t pass now, I’m not going to do this again just because it didn’t seem feasible.”
In 2017, she passed the bar and considered leaving law enforcement to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer, but stayed because, she said, she saw positive changes were coming to the force and she wanted to see them through.
Early in her career, a sergeant made her cite an autistic 5-year-old for a violent outburst. She thought to herself, “This is not what I signed up to do.”
Incidents like that one eventually led to the creation of Department of Justice agreements, she said.
“And rightfully so, a bunch of changes came in so (the SUSD police department) became more of a support system for the schools versus the enforcement piece. We only respond to very violent crimes. Everything else, it’s we’re there to be a resource, provide them diversion, mental health services, whatever it is,” she said.
The changes she saw within the department that began to put an emphasis on helping people instead of being punitive solidified her decision to stay instead of practicing law.
When it comes to having difficult and reconstructive conversations within the school district’s police department, she welcomes them.
Officer Angelina Andrews said Franco’s commitment to humanizing police work is “really translated on all levels.”
Franco sports many “Blue Lives Matter” decorations, black American flags with one blue stripe, in her office and also feels comfortable speaking to how she works toward goals of the “defund the police” movement.
“There have been instances where it’s very egregious that we’re like, yes, law enforcement was wrong, but there’s been other incidents where it’s also been evident the narrative was twisted and law enforcement was within their rights to do as they did,” Franco told Stocktonia.
“Looking at that with an open mindset of being able to have those conversations, because they are hard conversations. We can agree to disagree, but as long as that discussion is had, I think it allows us to move further to close those gaps and build those bridges, so that we understand each other,” she said.
Franco expresses pride that SUSD officers are so embedded in their schools that Stockton police look to them for guidance when something inevitably goes wrong.
Franco said people who support defunding the police want officers that represent their community, hire police that look like them, who understand the challenges in their communities. She helps do just that.
The district is looking into the future, and creating opportunities for their students to see themselves as School Resource Officers through the district’s Explorer Program. Franco said this will help bring students into the workforce and back into their communities.
Franco doesn’t get to see students as often since her promotion but keeps up with the community through her many ideas on how to engage schools’ staff, parents and students.
Franco said she has many plans for the district now that she is in a permanent leadership role. She hopes to mesh the district’s Emergency Services Division and police department, in the event the district is left without its Security Coordinator again. Eventually, both divisions plan to provide safety drills on a frequent enough basis that everyone on SUSD campuses are comfortable and prepared to react in dangerous situations.
After the fatal stabbing of a student at Stagg High School, and the recent bomb threat at Franklin, Franco said she plans to have her officers trained in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
“Starting from the Cleveland shooting, back in the day, to the most recent events, the true reality is we have to be cognizant of where we live,” Franco said. “I love Stockton, but Stockton definitely has its issues.”