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August 08, 2014 10:10 PM

Looking For Native Cops

Rapid City, SD

For years, the Rapid City Police Department has struggled to recruit Native American officers to the force. And when Native officers do join, they often don't stay long.

When the Rapid City Council recently rejected a candidate for the police chief's position who had Native American ancestry, the issue of diversity came up again.

When Anthony Picket Pin is on the job in Rapid City, he is likely to turn a few heads.

That's especially true with Native Americans, who don't often see one of their own wearing a Rapid City Police Department uniform.

Picket Pin, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Tribe, is one three Native American officers in a Rapid City force of 119.

That troubles Lakota journalist Tim Giago, publisher of the Native Sun News in Rapid City.

"I still feel with the percentage of Native Americans living in Rapid City, which I would say is 15 or 20 percent of the total population, I think we need more Native Americans on the force," Giago said.

He won't get an argument from Steve Allender, who retired in May as Rapid City Police chief.

"In a perfect world, I would have ten or 20 percent Native Americans working here," Allender said in an interview prior to his retirement. "But we just can't achieve that. And I don't believe it's because the system is unfair. It's because there's a pretty serious lack of interest among the Native Community in being police officers."

While Giago suspects the failure is the department's, Allender argues that Native Americans are discouraged by negative reactions from some in their own community about the same as city police.

"And, you know, I can't say that if I were Native American, I would want to be a police officer here," Allender said. 01:58

Picket Pin joined the department to build a career, help Native citizens and improve race relations.

"I wanted to help people, especially coming from a Native American background," Picket Pin said. "Not too many people in law enforcement. I want to help try to make a difference and change people's perspective of law enforcement."

Picket Pin is now a community resource officer who handles investigation after the fact. But he is working to become a regular officer.

After not quite a year on the job, Picket Pin says he feels comfortable with both the town and the department.

He also says he hasn't faced prejudice on the job.

"Absolutely not," Picket Pin said. "Completely opposite of that. Everyone welcomes me and treats me just like everybody else."

Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris says he is continuing recruitment efforts aimed at Native Americans and other minorities, with promotional posters and direct contacts with schools and tribes.

"Diversity is very important to a police organization," Jegeris says. "The closer you reflect your community's population, the more the community feels like they have a connection to the police organization."

Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker sought to strengthen the minority connection when he nominated Lt. Elias Diaz - a Hispanic with Native American ancestry - to replace Allender. But the city council soundly rejected Diaz, with some members saying he wasn't prepared to lead the department.

Although angered by the rejection of Diaz, Kooiker nominated Jegeris, a well-experienced supervisor who was Allender's assistant chief. He was unanimously confirmed.

Jegeris says he will continue to lead outreach efforts to attract more Native American candidates to the force, hoping to increase trust among Native people.

Meanwhile, Picket Pin is building trust each day on the job. He says Native people seem comforted when he arrives to investigate a crime report, with some saying they knew his relatives. He likes that and doesn't worry about negative reactions by some Native people.

"I'm aware of it but it's never really affected me," Picket Pin said. ”I'm just worried, you know, I'm just concerned more about my immediate family. Everybody there is happy with what I do. So what goes on beyond that, it really doesn't bother me one bit."

He has work to do, after all, building community connections.

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