Lack of Diversity in the Sioux Falls Police Department Creates Challenges

Sioux Falls, South Dakota — Mark Blackburn is aware of the fact that time is almost up.

Although the Sioux Falls Police Department has been planning to enhance demographic diversity among its lines for decades, the numbers do not seem to add up.

According to Blackburn, the lack of gender and racial representation demonstrating the growing community of Sioux Falls is likely to result in troubling situations. Blackburn has worked as a training advisor and diversity practitioner for 20 years.

Blackburn, a former football player of the University of South Dakota who is currently dean of Augustana students, stated that the force had to be proactive. He said that even though Sioux Falls was a great city lacking specific issues bigger cities had to face, it would have a problem unless the force managed to overcome that imbalance and channels of communication.

Around 15% of the entire population of Sioux Falls of almost 190,000 are minorities, while 50% are male citizens. Around 90% of the police force consists of white male people. The department features only one sworn Native American officer and one sworn black officer.

Similarly to his forerunners, Matt Burns, the current chief of police, has established a goal to form a force that demonstrates the population of the city. However, the numbers have stayed relatively stagnant over the course of his tenure, as reported by the Argus Leader.

Recruitment attempts do not always result in an increase in diversity numbers, according to law enforcement officials. They call attention to a need to employ the best applicants despite their gender and race.

As stated by Doug Barthel, who was the chief of police from 2003 to 2015, establishing a goal was the simple part. Barthel claimed that achieving the goal was significantly more challenging.

Behind the Numbers

From a broader point of view of the city, the police force is more diverse than any other public department in Sioux Falls.

However, the direct link between the SFPD and the community and public safety provides a unique impression of urgency in terms of reflecting demographic trends, according to experts.

Although around 9% of sworn officers have a minority background, Native American and black officers combined make up fewer than 1 percent. Women account for 11.5 percent, judging by statistics from the human resource department of the city.

For the sake of comparison, 5.4% of the entire population of Sioux Falls are black people, and 2.4% are Native Americans, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. According to statistics, the police force would need to hire 14 black officers in order to mirror the population of the city.

Sam Clemens, the police spokesman, said that the SFPD had included the surrounding states in the recruitment process, concentrating its efforts on regions populated by more diverse people. However, Clemens did not say that the department was recruiting minority officers exclusively.

According to the statement Burns made in an email he sent to the Argus Leader, the number of applicants has been low for several years due to a progressively growing job market. The department has addressed this issue by increasing its presence at universities, job fairs, and recruiting forums.

However, law enforcement officials ultimately insist that they are searching for the best possible applicant instead of focusing on statistics alone.

Barthel, serving as a District 10 state representative at the moment, said that they were doing a great job in his opinion. He stated that the established goal would not be achieved 100 percent and that striving toward it was a difficult task. However, Barthel claimed that significant progress had been made over the previous years.

‘They Cannot Relate’

In Kris Albers’ coworkers’ opinion, the streets were not a place for a woman 40 years ago. Albers was the first female to join the force as a patrol officer. As stated by her, numerous male colleagues of hers doubted her ability to do the job.

However, shortly after she had started her service, officers realized the benefits of having a woman on the force.

Her perspective was highly appreciated in terms of domestic abuse, rape, and juvenile victims. As stated by Albers herself, she sympathized more with women due to the fact that she was able to put herself in their position.

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Albers said that men were not generally fond of talking to crying women and that they could not relate to what they were going through.

She was so valued because of her experience that she would often be called in to talk to victims on her days off. Once she got on board with force, the police were able to give victims a choice between speaking to a male officer and a female one. Numerous victims felt more comfortable telling their story to Albers, who stayed with the SFPD from 1977 to 2005.

The different point of view of female and minority officers is still appreciated, as stated by Blackburn. According to him, such an image builds trust in the community.

Blackburn said that the advantages were mutual, stating that a young person who sees an officer with whom they share a minority background is more likely to pursue that career themselves.

Blackburn continued to explain that the visual optics are important, stating that seeing minority people in police uniforms living, working, and conversing with other officers and citizens alike can be a foundation of the cultural civility the community aspires to.

Advantages of Diversity

Merely seeing his stepfather serve as a police officer in New York City convinced Jerry James to pursue a career in law enforcement.

James joined the SFPD as one of two black officers in 1984 and served on the force for over two decades. His brothers were also inspired by their stepfather to enter law enforcement.

Racially diverse officers are able to help their colleagues comprehend how to identify with minorities in particular situations, according to James.

James explained that point of view by stating the racial difference in the tone of voice. He said that black people yelled when they talked in certain situations, and that they were often told to lower their voice by police officers. In James’ opinion, it is essential for a police officer to be able to comprehend such differences.

However, nobody can be forced to apply, as stated by James. He thinks that the low level of diversity on the force is the result of a lack of minority candidates rather than inadequate outreach by the SFPD.

Furthermore, the numbers do not make Sioux Falls stand out. As stated by the FBI, only 12.5% of full-time police officers were women in 2017. The SFPD is among a few regional police departments unable to mirror its population. Others include Fargo, Rapid City, and Des Moines.

According to Clemens, the ideal situation would involve a department that corresponds to the population of Sioux Falls. Although he admitted that would be great, he is aware of the fact that law enforcement does not interest all people who come from diverse backgrounds. As stated by Clemens, the goal numbers are impossible to reach.

Concentrate on Training

Calling attention to minority staffing is one way of addressing justice and race issues, but it is certainly not the only one. Police departments all over the country use diversity training in order to help overcome the gap.

In was not until 2018 that the SFPD introduced official diversity training and it was not until this summer that the training got put into effect in recruit classes, according to Burns. Officers will have the training, which covers ethnic and racial bias, in addition to gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, and religion, on a yearly basis.

Prior to the systematic diversity training, members of the community would be invited to address the racial issues in front of the department, as stated by Barthel. The current leadership of the city has attempted to propose other ways of attending to the subject.

Mayor Paul TenHaken included a chief culture officer in his 2020 budget. However, the position has primarily been promoted as a way of increasing recruitment and retention in city staffing.

TenHaken said that the person who assumes the position, approved this week by the City Council, would concentrate on employee engagement, creative recruiting practices, and succession planning in order to assist in the process of hiring high-quality personnel to serve the citizens.

According to spokesman Brendyn Medina, Rapid City police have had diversity training sessions on a yearly basis for a decade or two. Training is concentrated on the Native American residents of the area, which makes up around 11 percent of the entire population.

As of the latest training, the department has been established as a policing agency informed on the issue of trauma. The training in question educated officers on the subject of historical trauma, such as withdrawing treaty agreements, the Wounded Knee massacre, sending American Indian children to boarding schools, and its effect on the American Indian’s lack of faith in police and government.

According to Medina, realizing the significance of diversity training is not a difficult task to accomplish. As stated by him, any law enforcement department whose purpose is to serve its citizens ought to implement it in the most efficient way possible. Medina said that being more understanding can significantly contribute to the safety of the community.

The SFPD has programs established with the purpose of relating to members of the community better and enhancing understanding among all communities, community resource officers being one example; an ambassador program, enabling community leaders to educate officers on their community while gaining knowledge on the police department at the same time; school resource officers; and meeting with representatives of the minority and refugee communities on a regular basis.

According to the statement Burns made in an email he sent to the Argus Leader, the department strongly believes in policing for the sake of the community. As stated by Burns, the philosophy is mirrored precisely in the department’s community recruiting efforts.

According to Clemens, although a diverse police force and diversity training play a crucial role in raising awareness, establishing good communication with citizens is not necessary.

Clemens explained his point of view by stating that one can learn such things. He said that having that background, culture, and upbringing made the task easier, but that police officers spent plenty of time with a community whenever they are on patrol. In Clemens’ opinion, the department treats everybody equally, and the diversity training would only be required if they were doing something incorrectly.

Concentrate on the Future

According to Chris Burbank, vice president of the Center for Police Equity based in New York, for the majority of police departments, actions taken once diversity training has been carried out are the ones to result in positive policy change.

Numerous departments all over the country have yet to implement that education piece in order to experience a positive change, said Burbank.

As stated by Burbank, former police chief of Salt Lake City, his department has had a multitude of training sessions. However, he posed a question if the department had managed to change the result of policing in any way, even with all the training. According to him, they have provided education for officers, but failed to measure the result or the effect of training on the department.

Rapid City has included programs to enhance the number of Native American and female police candidates alike. The Akicita program, which roughly translates as “police officer” from Lakota language, connects American Indian students who pursue degrees at law enforcement at Western Dakota Technical School to mentors in the department.

According to Medina, law enforcement recognizes that numerous diverse perspectives exist. As stated by him, having that mirrored in the police ranks could improve the quality of the service for the community.

In spite of years of labeling police diversity as the primary concern, the progress in regards to the matter has come slowly in Sioux Falls. Blackburn is one of the people who emphasize that the changing times require a more assertive pace.

He said that the results were rather disappointing. As stated by him, he would like to witness certain hiring practices and restrictions, on the condition that there are any, get eliminated for the sake of providing opportunities for non-dominant cultures in the city in terms of policing. Blackburn concluded by stating that it was time for such a step.

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