‘Just the beginning’: Protests shed light on Sioux Falls’ need for police diversity, outreach
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Sioux Falls is a powder keg ready to blow, Vaney Hariri says.
The city was one of many to experience an eruption of violence as protests rippled across the nation in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in custody of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Last Sunday in Sioux Falls, what started out as a peaceful protest with an estimated 3,000 people gathering downtown turned into a clash between police and protesters at the Empire Mall and surrounding areas, leading to vandalism and a series of arrests.
The march, which Hariri helped organize, was in memory of Floyd. But his death extends to a larger issue of police brutality and institutionalized racism — issues that Sioux Falls is not exempt from, Hariri said.
The Sioux Falls Police Department faces challenges to address its broken relationship and perception among black and minority residents, especially communication with those communities and a lack of representation on the police force.
“We need to be doing more than just not doing things wrong,” said Hariri, co-founder of a Sioux Falls-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership development.
Protesters believe they have solutions. Now, they’re asking city and police officials to listen.
Running out of options
To be a black man is to be an assumed criminal in Sioux Falls, said Hariri, a Lincoln High School graduate who lived in Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to South Dakota.
Whether he’s in his own home or with his friends, he said he has been pushed around by Sioux Falls law enforcement; his identity questioned, and his rights stripped. That’s normal for a black man, he said.
The 39-year-old can remember a night about a decade ago when he and his friends were approached by a SFPD officer. The officer instructed the men to come to his vehicle and told them to place their hands on the hood of his patrol car. He didn’t explain why, indicate if they were being detained or justify his actions.
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As Hariri stood there, he didn’t question the officer or raise his voice. He feared standing up for his rights would escalate the situation. Eventually, he and his friends were let go without any charges.
“You’re treated as if you’re a crime waiting to happen,” he said.
Sioux Falls police chief Matt Burns counters that some interventions are necessary for police officers’ safety based on the situation. Even then, he wants people to report those instances if they feel they’re treated unfairly by police.
There were 39 complaints against SFPD officers in 2019. Nineteen of them alleged officers of assault or excessive force, and seven of them alleged officers of arrogance or disrespectful comments. All complaints were determined unfounded or not sustained by an internal review by SFPD supervisors, according to the city’s website.
“Based upon the reporting I’ve been given and the complaints that come into our department, I don’t believe we have a pervasive problem (of racial discrimination in SFPD),” said Burns, who was named police chief in 2015. “But if there are persons that don’t feel like they can talk and speak up about that, then that’s something we have to work on. Let’s hear from you. Tell us your concerns, please. We want to hear that.”
From a national perspective, video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he repeated that he couldn’t breathe was a tipping point for those who think the conversation hasn’t progressed quickly enough. Organizers of demonstrations, including those in Sioux Falls, hope stronger protest will trigger actual change in their communities.
“The question is why are the protests necessary?” said Hariri. “That gives context to why rioting is an option. These things become necessary because talking doesn’t work, pleading doesn’t work, praying doesn’t work, hoping doesn’t work — this is just people running through more options.”
Diversity remains elusive
Julian Beaudion’s voice shook as he spoke to thousands of protesters filling Van Eps Park in downtown Sioux Falls last Sunday evening. He paused, gathering himself and his emotions as he pleaded for justice and peace in the center of the crowd.
Then, hours later, Beaudion was on the opposite front line, sorting through the destruction of protesters hurling rocks at officers and store windows near the Empire Mall after the official protest was over.
Beaudion is one of a handful of black law enforcement officers in South Dakota, serving as a state trooper with the South Dakota Highway Patrol. He also was a candidate in this week’s Sioux Falls City Council race, falling to incumbent Greg Neitzert in the Northwest District.
It wasn’t the potential of facing a riot that Beaudion feared though as he spoke at the protest. It was the possibility of being ostracized by his own officers for speaking out against police brutality.
“But every time I take this uniform off, I am still a black man,” he said. “I had to give that speech not just for my community but for my family. It was necessary for the city. The black community sometimes can see a black officer or man in uniform and immediately think we don’t have their back. I needed to show the community that I not only have their back, but I will fight for and risk everything for that community I am part of.”
Burns, like those who served as police chief before him, has a stated goal to build a force that reflects the city’s population, though the numbers have remained relatively stagnant during his tenure. That lack of racial representation could lead to troubling situations, protesters say.
The Sioux Falls Police Department has just one black officer. That doesn’t include officers who list their race as “two or more races,” according to the city’s human resource office. While the Sioux Falls population of over 190,000 is comprised of nearly 20% minorities, SFPD is about 91% white.
In comparison, the Sioux Falls population is 6% black, according to an estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Statistically, the department would need 14 black officers to reflect the city’s population.
Burns recently set a goal for his department to have at least 20% of each training class be racially diverse officers. But recruitment efforts don’t always lead to a spike in diversity numbers, said Burns, who pointed to a need to hire the best applicants regardless of race.
An increasingly competitive job market has left applicant numbers down for several years, Burns said. The department is already short 18 officers to have “authorized strength” and sufficient coverage of the Sioux Falls population.
To address this, the department has increased its presence at job fairs, universities and recruiting forums — and now Burns wants to cast the department’s recruiting net to cities and states from outside the Midwest to reach more diverse communities.
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.
Calling for action
Protest organizers met with city leaders last Sunday before the the demonstration took place in Sioux Falls. Burns also met with minority leaders through the SFPD community ambassador program Wednesday to hear their concerns.
What he’s learned is that SFPD needs more communication about what steps are needed to better reflect and serve black and minority communities, he said.
Although SFPD has a low complaint rate among its officers — and Burns believes that’s because his officers are doing their jobs correctly — he wants to hear about instances of racism or when people feel they are treated disrespectfully.
Between Burns, Beaudion and Hariri, all agreed that communication is the first step.
“We want to merge together so we don’t just leave this at a conversation level,” Beaudion said. “We want to make sure there’s action behind this.”
An emphasis on minority staffing isn’t the only way to address racial justice issues. Burns said SFPD is reviewing its policies and use of force in light of the national conversation surrounding police brutality, adding that officers were already trained to avoid use of force in the neck or spine area.
On Friday, the city of Minneapolis agreed with the state to ban the use of chokeholds by police and to require police to report and intervene anytime they see an unauthorized use of force by another officer. Other cities are reviewing policies as well.
“We will treat everyone fairly, and we will not tolerate anyone in our department, or frankly in our city, that has a contrary opinion or action,” Burns said of the SFPD’s efforts. “It has to be that way. It must be that way. And we will ensure it is.”
The SFPD didn’t establish official diversity training until 2018 and it wasn’t implemented in recruit classes until the summer of 2019, Burns said. The training, which officers will receive annually, covers racial and ethnic bias, as well as gender, sexual orientation, religion and socioeconomics.
Beaudion said he plans to meet with other minority leaders in the coming weeks to create a list of “actionable items,” including lesson plans for SFPD diversity training more specific to Sioux Falls’ needs and policy change suggestions.
“This is just the beginning,” Beaudion said. “We want to make sure we provide a platform for everybody so that it works for everyone in our community and not just a certain group.”
‘I don’t hate police’
Gov. Kristi Noem also called on local police departments across the state to evaluate their policies, saying she’s open to suggestions for policy changes on law enforcement in South Dakota.
Protests have a purpose, but people should also look at policies and laws and suggest changes to their city councils, county commissions and South Dakota Legislature, Noem said.
Because it’s not just the police department that has to change, protesters and officials agree. Sioux Falls — and South Dakota — has to change too.
“I think there clearly must be change in the city and community,” Burns said of the sense of urgency created from the national protests. “These voices need to be heard.”
The city falls short on some policies that disproportionately affect minority communities, Beaudion said. And several protesters have pointed to instances of racism in Sioux Falls. Mayor Paul TenHaken said he noticed an undercurrent of racist remarks toward immigrants after the coronavirus outbreak at Smithfield Foods erupted in April.
“We’re working on it,” TenHaken said, pointing out that it’s only been a few days since Sunday’s protest. “There’s a lot of urgency and demand now. We already have had some discussions and are taking the next steps, but this is absolutely going to be a process, and process requires a lot of listening.”
Racial insensitivity and misconduct by the police department has only been brought up to TenHaken a handful of times, he said, and each time the allegations were determined unfounded. While increased representation was a priority three weeks ago, it’s now on the top of city officials’ minds.
“This isn’t me having my head in the sand, but to date it hasn’t been an issue,” TenHaken said. “That doesn’t mean we rest on our laurels and say we’re good here and it’s not a Sioux Falls issue. We always have to be looking inwards at what we can do differently.”
SFPD has programs set in place to better connect and increase understanding, such as an ambassador program started last year that allows community leaders to teach officers about their community while learning about the police department. Connections also come from school resource officers and regular meetings with representatives of the refugee and minority communities.
Hariri noted that his first positive interaction with police was with his school resource officer at Lincoln High School. He built a connection with the officer, and even when the officer had to question Hariri about stolen items he was investigating, he did so with respect and sensitivity to the issue of racial profiling.
“I didn’t hate police anymore,” Hariri said. “Because I knew one, I knew he was just a person; a human being. Before, they were just officers who came to arrest people and mess with you.”
Hariri wants to see the police department be open to more community engagement, feedback and interaction. He’d also like more transparency to show that the department is making changes or reviewing practices.
“I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction,” Hariri said. “But besides police, it’s our community, minority leaders, the average white person, city administrators and tax payers that have to step up and need to change the way they do things. It’s not just a police thing. It’s an everyone thing.”
Clock is ticking
For most police departments, it is actions taken after implementing diversity training that will lead to policy changes, 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.
In Sioux Falls, despite years of identifying police diversity as a priority, progress has come slowly. Protesters are among those stressing that a more aggressive pace is needed to keep up with changing times — especially as diversity in the Sioux Falls School District nears 50%.
“Our current situation will not be tenable in 10 years,” Hariri said.
Even with the changes that Beaudion and Hariri hope will be made after discussions with city leaders, it could be years before those new approaches make a tangible impact on the department.
“It’s not an overnight process for sure,” Beaudion said. “But step one has been taken, which is encouraging. We’re going to move forward with faith — faith in our leadership, faith in our community and faith in Sioux Falls.”
This content was originally published here.