SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Police have been under intense scrutiny across the country after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and much of that scrutiny deals with race relations.
We’ve had several conversations with the Sioux Falls Police Department about this nationwide issue–now we’re diving into just how diverse our local officers are and why it matters.
“I think it goes to credibility in the eyes of every resident and citizen of your city,” Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns said.
Chief Burns knows diversity on his police force is important for the Sioux Falls community.
“They want to see somebody that is in government and in police that reflects them and what they look like and where they’re from to have a better understanding of the challenges that they’ve had in their life,” Burns said.
“Being able to identify who you look at and say, he or she is like me, may open some of those doors or beat down some of those walls that exist right now,” Sioux Falls resident Tim Hughes said.
Long time Sioux Falls resident Tim Hughes agrees having a diverse police department can help better serve the entire community.
“Diversity on a police force allows you to reach an African American neighborhood or Latino neighborhood or Asian neighborhood that otherwise might feel undeserved or feel some of those ill feelings towards law enforcement based on personal experience or just based on things they’ve seen on television or social media,” Hughes said.
Right now, the negative images many people are seeing are dominating the perception of the law enforcement field.
“I think a lot of kids have fallen by the wayside because again with what they see on social media, it’s not something that they want to be a part of,” Hughes said.
Hughes has been a teacher and coach in the area for more than 20 years; he’s seen a big change in the way his students view law enforcement as a potential career.
“About 10 years ago, Criminal Justice was a popular major. A lot of the kids I taught wanted to do Criminal Justice, now its not so popular,” Hughes said.
“Post Ferguson era, its been tough to get police applicants, not just here, but across the country,” Chief Burns said.
Burns says the number of applicants for the police force has dramatically dropped since 2014, still the Sioux Falls Police Department gets hundreds of applications every year.
“Out of the 400 and some that apply… since January 1 2017, we’ve hired 81 individuals,” City of Sioux Falls Human Resources Coordinator Kim Stulken said.
Stulken says the SFPD has made some changes to their hiring process to allow anyone to apply to the department anytime of the year. Just one of several new initiatives the city is using to trying and recruit a more diverse group of applicants.
“We do things with our advertisement and putting things out there to show that we do have people of all backgrounds working with the city,” Stulken said.
Chief Burns says the city has worked for years to increase diversity on the department
“It’s been a goal for the department with chiefs prior to my tenure, trying to make the department reflect the community. The community has become more diverse over time so that’s a moving target,” Burns said.
Right now the department’s reflection of the community is a little off target.
The latest population data for Sioux Falls shows more than 15 percent of the city self-identifies as non-white, but right now just 23 out of the city’s 255 police officers are from a diverse ethnic background, just nine percent of the force. But of those, only one Sioux Falls police officer self-identifies as African American, even though this group makes up six percent of the city’s total population.
“As Sioux Falls continues to grow, I think having one officer who identifies as African American is going to probably end up being an issue. There again, there’s that trust within the community,” Hughes said.
Hughes says growing that trust in the community at a young age is essential for helping to recruit more diverse officers in the future.
“I know that people become teachers because there was a teacher in their life that made a difference, the same thing in other jobs, the police officer that takes time to play basketball with a kid at a playground, the kid all of a sudden sees the police officer differently and thinks, that’s something I want to be,” Hughes said.
“As we become more engaged in the community and make more outreach especially through our community ambassador program, those relationships that we build through those efforts will bring forth those persons in those diverse and ethnic communities who we know are there, we know they have a heart for service and want to service the city to step up and say I think I want to take on that challenge of being a police officer,” Burns said.
City leaders agree the current officers on the Sioux Falls Police Department are the city’s best chance of increasing diversity in the future.
“Really your greatest recruiters are your employees, our officers have interactions daily with all members of the community,” Stulken said. “I’ve seen multiple times where they’ve had a positive interaction with an individual, talked with them about their career in law enforcement and as a result someone who may never have had a career in law enforcement has gotten into it.”
Chief Burns recently set a goal for the department to have at least 20 percent diversity in every new class of recruits for the Sioux Falls Police Department.
“When you set a goal you tell your entire team and you tell your community that this is important enough that we set a goal and we’re going to work very hard to attain it,” Chief Burns said.
“We’re always taking efforts to try to get better because the end goal is to try to better represent the community,” Stulken said.
Another way the city is working to improve diversity on the police force is by sending out their group of recruiting officers to colleges and high schools in states all over the region, widening the group of potential out-of-state applicants they may have.
For a full breakdown of the numbers of diverse officers on the Sioux Falls Police department, check out this KELOLAND.com original.