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November 13, 2017 10:35 PM

Building Trust, Building 'Us'

Rapid City

The job of law enforcement is to help and protect the community it serves. That is why it's important for police and citizens to have a good relationship and clear communication. It's also important for a police department to reflect the community it serves.

According to the 2010 census, Rapid City has a Native American population of just over 12 percent. The Rapid City Police Department has on average about 125 officers, and less than 4 percent identify as Native American. 

West River is known for its rich Native American history, and in Rapid City, it's no different. But back in 2014, there was a lot of division between Native Americans and non-natives in the community, including with police.

"There was a lot of distrust regarding historic issues. There was a lot of current anger that exists and a lot of times that would really show itself in the middle of the night to a police officer who is engaging in policing activity and really has limited understanding of somebody's history," Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris said.

Incidents during that time prompted a public forum in February 2015, which Vaughn Vargas, attended.

"I wanted to be involved and help where possible," Vargas said. "There were a lot of community concerns and they were just kind of raising their perceptions and so based off the perceptions given I said here's some solutions to it."

Jegeris saw a need a for a citizen-based advisory committee to help the police department get an outside perspective.  After seeing Vargas' interest in finding solutions, he was selected as the coordinator of the newly formed Community Advisory Committee.

"The police are here to help the community. We often don't get a great deal of feedback as to how some of our initiatives are affecting the community," Jegeris said. "This committee really ensures that we have good communication from the community to the PD and from the PD to the community."

The committee was formed to improve communication and understanding between police and the community here in Rapid City.

"Our objectives are to strengthen the working relationship between our community at large and the Rapid City Police Department, to serve as a communication link as well for the community and police department and vice versa, and look at policy regulation and change and make changes where necessary," Vargas said.

One of the goals is to bring people together.  

"Community engagement in the last two years has been phenomenal," Vargas said.

Vargas says they've been holding events at College Park, including a backpack giveaway.    

"One of our committee members and also police officers have spear headed traditional Native American games," Vargas said. "They've learned games brought to us by a coalition that were what traditional Lakota people would play prior to and that's like double ball, family lacrosse."

The CAC also brings cultural sensitivity training to the police department.

"The most recent cultural awareness training that we had was endorsed by the committee and in essence was validated and was helpful for our department," Jegeris said.

They are also working to make the police department better reflect the community. 

"We really are going to be accelerating our Native American recruitment efforts to try to reflect the community that we serve as a department.  We certainly need to diversify our department and that's something we've been putting a lot of effort into over the years," Jegeris said.

"This next year is going to be a really strong run for minority recruiting and there's been a lot of interest in the area and a lot of support," Vargas said.

Since forming the CAC, both Jegeris and Vargas agree they've seen a change and they know more needs to be done.

"What we're trying to accomplish here is working together as two communities that have been divided and unifying us, and I think law enforcement really is the foundation to that, and that's ultimately what we're accomplishing and we've got a lot of speed going and a lot of support," Vargas said.

"I think that we have been able to offer a path to the community through the committee to ensure that all voices are heard and that the community is an integral part of police decision making," Jegeris said.

To find out more about the Community Advisory Committee, visit the group's website.

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