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No black women? St. Paul cops adjust recruiting tactics

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Senior Cmdr. Shari Gray, right, and Deputy Police Chief Mary Nash
Senior Cmdr. Shari Gray, right, laughs as Deputy Police Chief Mary Nash dips her head into a sink at Sense of Style beauty salon in St. Paul with owner Torih Michelle and Latesa Pye.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

When Sgt. Val Namen retired last September, the St. Paul Police Department lost its last female African-American officer. The 628-member force consists of 12 percent women — but no black woman cop for the first time in 46 years.

That lack was baffling to Sheletta Brundidge, co-host of the "Two Haute Mamas" podcast. She interviewed Deputy Chief Mary Nash about this.

"And she was talking about attrition and this and that," Brundidge recalled. "And we were like, 'OK, what are you going to do about it?'"

Nash told her the department is promoting an upcoming recruitment event the way it always does — on social media, Facebook and  Twitter.

"I said, 'black women don't have time for all of that. We got kids and husbands," she said. "And we got jobs. We don't have time to go looking for this kind of stuff on social media. You gotta go where the black women are."

So Brundidge and her co-host, Lindy Vincent, took officers to a place they're sure to connect with black women: a black-owned beauty salon in the Rondo neighborhood.

It's where they ran into Anika Bowie. While she would be a good fit — she has a degree in criminal justice — she's more interested in the policy aspects of law enforcement. Bowie is the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Minneapolis and serves on the St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission.

"Where does community come in as far as really pipelining our young people to be leaders?" she asked. "We could change the dynamic of our relationship with the police, so where it's not police versus community. The police  is the community and the community is the police. Because at the end of the day, it's all about ensuring the public safety of our communities."

People of color make up about half the city's population, according to the latest census figures. Black people make up 16 percent. Recruiting police officers has been hard in general, nationwide, but the fraught relationship between police and the African-American community makes it even more difficult to attract black women to the job.

Khulia Pringle said she's not surprised the St. Paul Police Department lacks diversity. 

"It's a field where we don't see ourselves, so we don't go into," she said. "Those of us that do enter in the field, it's like a trickle, one-at-a-time thing. So then you feel bombarded by this racist system, so you end up coming out ... then our experiences with these people aren't good. So it's not like I want to go into the police force, when they're not treating me well on the street."

Deputy Chief Nash said the negative interactions have "rocked the law enforcement world." But she doesn't want isolated incidents to overshadow the positive, everyday work. She said women police differently and de-escalation comes naturally.

"I had one lady stop me early on in my career and say, 'You saved my daughter's life on the domestic you were at,'" Nash said. "I had to stop and think about what that was, until I met her daughter, who said, 'You came that night and I got out of that relationship because you helped me.' That's the stuff that gives you goosebumps. Those are the stories that remind you why you do this job."

Nash stood at Sense of Style and greeted customers who walked in. She handed out flyers for a recruiting event this Saturday and told them what to expect from the presentation.

The department has been deliberate about recruiting lately. Police officers plan to visit churches and schools, as well as another beauty salon across the river in Minneapolis.

Nash said department leaders are also exploring different ways of shortening the academic requirements in Minnesota — which include a costly skills-training portion required by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards (POST).

"We run a 16-week academy already, and our academy matches up pretty well with the POST requirements," she said. "So is that the future, where we can eliminate that eight grand, and actually pay somebody while they're in a police academy, where they can start chipping away at those student loans and start landing on their feet?"

But a proposal like that would need approval from the state.

Two years ago, St. Paul created the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy to offer financial support for college and to mentor young men and women of color.

Rae Brown, right, and Tanisha Morgan chat with Khulia Pringle.
Rae Brown, right, and Tanisha Morgan, students of the first cohort of the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, chat with Khulia Pringle at Sense of Style in St. Paul.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Rae Brown, who's black, is part of the first class. She hasn't always seen herself pursuing a career in law enforcement — until Philando Castile, a black man from St. Paul, was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer at a traffic stop in 2016.

"I remember reading after that shooting, there was a quote that said Philando looked like a suspect because of the size of his nose," she said. "And I just remember, that's so odd. His nose? Like you saw that, driving by?"

So after actively avoiding it for a while, Brown decided to become a cop.

"For me to find out that a department is actually trying to hear what people's concerns are and together come to a solution so that everyone, officers and communities feel safe," Brown said, "I would be foolish not to want to be part of that solution."

Other women from the department plan to share their own stories of why they've chosen policing as a career at Saturday's recruitment event. The Women in Uniform event starts at 10 a.m. at the Richard H. Rowan Public Safety Training Center in St. Paul.

Correction (Jan. 16, 2019): In an earlier version of this story, Rae Brown was misidentified in a photo caption.