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Lack of Sioux Falls police diversity creates challenges

October 14, 2019
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Officer Jennifer Suurmeyer answers a hit and run call in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. The Sioux Falls Police Department has talked about the desire to increase demographic diversity on its force for decades, but the numbers don't add up. (Abigail Dollins /The Argus Leader via AP)
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Officer Jennifer Suurmeyer answers a hit and run call in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. The Sioux Falls Police Department has talked about the desire to increase demographic diversity on its force for decades, but the numbers don't add up. (Abigail Dollins /The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Mark Blackburn knows the clock is ticking.

The Sioux Falls Police Department has talked about the desire to increase demographic diversity on its force for decades, but the numbers don’t add up.

A lack of racial and gender representation reflecting the growing Sioux Falls community could lead to troubling situations, said Blackburn, who has 20 years of experience as a diversity practitioner and training consultant.

“We need to be proactive,” said Blackburn, a former University of South Dakota football player who serves as dean of students at Augustana. “We live in a great city and we don’t have some of the issues bigger cities do. But if we don’t try to bridge those gaps and channels of communication, then we will have a problem.”

The Sioux Falls population of nearly 190,000 is comprised of 15 percent minorities and is 50 percent male, while the police force is about 90 percent white and male, with one sworn black officer and one sworn Native American officer.

Like his predecessors, Police Chief Matt Burns has a stated goal to build a force that reflects the city’s population, though the numbers have remained relatively stagnant during his tenure, the Argus Leader reported.

Recruitment efforts don’t always lead to a spike in diversity numbers, say law enforcement officials, who point to a need to hire the best applicants regardless of race or gender.

“Having the goal is the easy part,” said Doug Barthel, who served as Sioux Falls police chief from 2003 to 2015. “Trying to accomplish it is where the hard part comes in.”

Behind the numbers

From a broader city perspective, the police force makes up the most diverse of the various public departments in Sioux Falls.

But the SFPD’s direct connection to public safety and the community provides a unique sense of urgency when it comes to mirroring demographic trends, experts say.

While about 9 percent of sworn officers are of a minority background, black and Native American officers account for fewer than 1 percent combined. Women make up 11.5 percent, according to statistics from the city’s human resources department.

In comparison, the Sioux Falls population is 5.4 percent black and 2.4 percent Native American, according to an estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Statistically, the department would need 14 black officers to reflect the city’s population.

Police spokesman Sam Clemens said SFPD has cast its recruitment net wider to surrounding states and that the department has concentrated efforts to “areas with more diverse people,” but he stopped short of saying they are specifically recruiting minority officers.

An increasingly competitive job market has left applicant numbers down for several years, Burns said in an email to the Argus Leader. To address this, the department has increased its presence at job fairs, universities and recruiting forums.

But at the end of the day, law enforcement officials insist that they’re looking for the best possible candidate rather than focusing solely on statistics.

“I think they’re doing a fantastic job with it,” said Barthel, now a District 10 state representative. “It’s a difficult goal and, quite frankly, one that won’t be reached 100 percent. But I think great strides have been made from years ago.”

‘They’ve never been there’

The streets weren’t meant for women 40 years ago, or at least that’s what Kris Albers’ co-workers thought. She was the first female patrol officer in Sioux Falls, and many of her male coworkers doubted she could do the job, she said.

But shortly after starting, officers realized the value of having a woman on staff.

Her perspective was prized regarding rape, domestic abuse and juvenile victims. Albers empathized more easily with women, because she could imagine herself in their shoes, she said.

“Men don’t typically like to talk to crying women,” Albers said. “They’ve never been there.”

Her experience was so useful that she’d be called in on her days off to talk to victims. Once the police department had her on staff, they were able to ask victims if they’d rather speak to a male or female officer. Many felt more comfortable sharing their story with Albers, who served on the force from 1977 to 2005.

That different perspective and value is still there for female and minority officers, according to Blackburn, adding that such representation builds trust within the community.

The benefits are mutual — if a young person sees an officer of the same minority group in uniform, they’re more likely to aspire to that career themselves, Blackburn said.

“Just the visual optics of that, you have black and brown bodies in police uniforms working and living and dialoguing, not only with citizens but people on the police force,” he said. “It can bring a great start to the cultural civility we’re looking for.”

Benefits of diversity

For Jerry James, just watching his stepfather as a police officer in New York City was enough to convince him that law enforcement was part of his future.

James, who was one of two black officers when he joined the SFPD in 1984, served on the force for more than 20 years. In addition to his own experience, he also had brothers who were inspired to join law enforcement like their stepfather.

Racially diverse officers can help their colleagues better understand how to relate to minorities in certain situations, James said.

“My three daughters, me and my ex-wife, we were around the table playing cards this weekend and everybody’s talking, everybody’s yelling,” James said. “To me, that’s how black people talk. We yell. So sometimes police are dealing with black people, they talk and say lower your voice, but that’s how I speak in a situation like that. So you’ve got to understand some of those things.”

But it’s impossible to force someone to apply, James said. He believes that low diversity numbers within the SFPD are due to a lack of minority applicants, not insufficient outreach by the department.

The numbers also don’t make Sioux Falls unique. Across the country, only 12.5 percent of full-time law enforcement officers were female in 2017, according to the FBI. Sioux Falls is one of several regional police departments that falls short of reflecting its population - including Rapid City, Fargo and Des Moines.

“It’s ideal if we could have a department that matches Sioux Falls population. That’d be great. But not all people with diverse background are interested in it,” Clemens said. “Realistically, we’re not going to hit those numbers.”

Focus on training

An emphasis on minority staffing isn’t the only way to address race and justice issues. Police departments across the nation are using diversity training to help bridge the gap.

The SFPD didn’t establish official diversity training until 2018 and it wasn’t implemented in recruit classes until this summer, Burns said. The training, which officers will receive annually, covers racial and ethnic bias, as well as gender, sexual orientation, religion and socioeconomics.

Before the structured diversity training, community members would be invited to speak on racial issues to the department, Barthel said. Current city leadership has tried to envision other ways to address the issue.

Mayor Paul TenHaken included in his 2020 budget a chief culture officer, although the position has mainly been touted as a way to increase retention and recruitment in city staffing.

“This person will be focused on employee engagement, succession planning and creative recruiting practices to help bring in high quality employees to serve our citizens,” TenHaken said the position, which was approved by the City Council this week.

Rapid City police have had annual diversity training sessions for the past decade or two, said spokesman Brendyn Medina. Training focuses on the Native American population in the area, which accounts for about 11 percent of the population.

The most recent training established the department as a trauma-informed policing agency, which educated officers on how historical trauma - such as the Wounded Knee massacre, taking back treaty agreements, sending American Indian children to boarding schools - has contributed to American Indians’ distrust of police and government.

“It’s very easy to see the importance of diversity training,” Medina said. “Any law enforcement agency that serves its citizens should be doing it in the most effective way possible. Having an extra layer of understanding can go a long way to keeping the community safe.”

SFPD has programs set in place to better connect to community members and increase understanding between all communities, such as community resource officers; an ambassador program, which allows community leaders to teach officers about their community while learning about the police department; school resource officers; and regularly meeting with representatives of the refugee and minority communities.

“We are a department that strongly believes in community-oriented policing, and this philosophy is directly reflected in our community recruiting efforts,” Burns said in an email to the Argus Leader.

While diversity training and a diverse police force are important for raising awareness, it’s not needed to communicate well with citizens, Clemens said.

“These things can be learned. It’s easier if you have that background and upbringing and culture, but you can spend a lot of time with a community while patrolling,” Clemens said. “I think we do a good job of treating everybody the same. If we would need some of that diversity training, it would probably be because we weren’t doing something correctly.”

Focus on the future

For most police departments, it’s actions taken after implementing diversity training that will lead to positive policy change, said Chris Burbank, vice president of the New York-based Center for Police Equity.

Many departments across the nation have yet to take that education piece and turn it into positive change, he said.

“We’ve had lots of training, but have we changed the outcome of policing at all with all the training we’ve done?” said Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief. “What we’ve done is we’ve given officers education but we haven’t measured the outcome or what it’s done for us.”

Rapid City has incorporated programs to increase the number of female and Native American police recruits. The Akicita program, roughly translated Lakota for “police officer,” pairs American Indian students pursuing law enforcement degrees at Western Dakota Technical School with mentors in the department.

“We recognize that there are a number of diverse perspectives out there,” Medina said. “If we can have that reflected in our ranks, we could be of the best service to our community with those different perspectives.”

In Sioux Falls, despite years of identifying police diversity as a priority, progress has come slowly. Blackburn is among those stressing that a more aggressive pace is needed to keep up with changing times.

“It’s really disappointing,” he said. “I’d like to see some of the hiring practices and barriers, if there are any, be eradicated to open up opportunities to systemically non-dominant cultures in our city when it comes to policing. I do believe it’s time.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com