In their own words: Three Black Minnesota officers reflect on race and policing

Updated: 9:58 p.m.

There are around 12,000 peace officers in Minnesota. About 250 of the officers are Black, according to the National Black Police Association’s Minnesota Chapter.

MPR News talked with three members of the organization as they reflected on race and policing, one year after the killing of George Floyd.

Suwana Kirkland

A woman stands for a portrait.
“See me for the mother, and the wife, and the daughter and the sister that I am,” Kirkland said. “And know that all those traits, those values, that integrity that I carry with me also transitions to when I’m in my uniform.” Kirkland poses for a portrait outside of her home in Rogers, Minn., on May 21.
Nicole Neri for MPR News
Listen to the full interview with Suwana Kirkland

From her kitchen table in Rogers, Minn., Suwana Kirkland explained what first drew her to law enforcement more than 16 years ago.

“Actually, I was a single parent at the time — had just moved to Minnesota from Beaver Falls, Pa., and knew I wanted to start some sort of career classes at MCTC (Minneapolis Community and Technical College).”

Kirkland noticed the pride the future officers she met displayed. Their sense of community drew her in.

“So the very next semester I switched up and got into criminal justice law enforcement.”

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From there, Kirkland has held positions in various law enforcement agencies from the Metro Transit Police Department to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, where she rose to the rank of commander.

A few months ago, she became director of Dakota County Community Corrections. Kirkland is also president of the National Black Police Association’s Minnesota Chapter.

Kirkland explains that her many titles make up only a part of her identity.

“See me for the mother, and the wife, and the daughter and the sister that I am,” Kirkland said. “And know that all those traits, those values, that integrity that I carry with me also transitions to when I’m in my uniform.” 

Kirkland estimates that of the 12,000 peace officers in Minnesota, only around 2 percent — 250 of them — are Black officers. The state does not track the demographics of officers in Minnesota, but many individual departments can.

Kirkland said it has become more challenging over the past year to recruit Black officers since the killing of George Floyd.

But she said there has also been time to reflect.

“It has forced us to see some underlying issues that Minnesotans have been well aware that we have,” Kirkland said. 

Kirkland said many officers are reluctant or barred from speaking about their experiences to journalists because of concern their words will be mischaracterized. She said she wishes people saw more stories about officers doing good in the communities they serve. 

“There are many who put on the uniform and badge and represent the profession in the most honorable way,” Kirkland said.

But Kirkland said there is room for reform.

“We absolutely have to acknowledge that there is systemic racism in policing, as there is in many professions, and until we can acknowledge that, then we really can’t truly do the work that needs to be done to eliminate it.”

Suwana Kirkland hopes that when a few members of police organizations speak out, more officers will do the same. And maybe more Minnesotans will see commonalities and a space for everyone at the table.

“Especially for Black women in law enforcement in this state, it is quite the challenge, but when we get to lead and demonstrate our leadership, it is absolutely quite the reward.”

Chaunte Ford

A woman stands for a portrait.
Chaunte Ford is a school resource officer in the metro area. “I battle with this," Ford told MPR News. "Am I part of the problem? I am working for the system. Am I hurting my own people? Is me speaking up enough? Can I do more?’”
Nina Moini | MPR News

Chaunte Ford found inspiration from the officers she met while she was working at Caribou Coffee nearly a decade ago. Ford now works with students as a school resource officer and said she rarely feels a lack of support from people she serves. 

Listen to the full interview with Chaunte Ford.

“I ride for my community, and they ride for me too,” Ford said with a big smile.

Ford said she also struggles with the different parts of her identity.

“I battle with this. Am I part of the problem? I am working for the system. Am I hurting my own people? Is me speaking up enough? Can I do more?’”

Ford wore a shirt with George Floyd’s image on it the day of our interview which she said a member of the Floyd family gave to her as a gift.

Ford said she believes in showing up to community events and volunteering in the area where she works. But she prefers to live elsewhere, so she can leave work behind when she goes home.

Ford often attends community vigils for victims of gun violence and participates in demonstrations that call for police reform. Ford said officers should hold each other accountable within departments for misconduct. She does not understand how Derek Chauvin’s fellow cops would allow him to kneel on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes.

“I just don’t understand why this keeps happening,” Ford said. “I don’t understand, you know, why being a Black person is perceived to be threatening, or as a Black woman you’re aggressive when you get a little attitude.” 

During April’s protests over the killing of Daunte Wright by then-officer Kim Potter, Ford found herself literally standing in the middle between protestors and the law enforcement guarding the Brooklyn Center Police Department.

“It was like time was frozen for me, and it was just like, what can I do to help this come together? Because, you know, I am on both sides.”

But over the last year, Ford said differences seem amplified.

Celina Barukzoy

A woman stands near a police car.
Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office Celina Barukzoy, a school resource officer, and her squad car in Arden Hills, Minn., Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Listen to the full interview with Celina Barukzoy.

Growing up in the north metro suburbs, Celina Barukzoy wanted to join the Navy. But when her mom said no, Barukzoy joined law enforcement. She enjoys working as a school resource officer for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.

Barukzoy said the students often make her laugh. She wants to help young students, especially students of color, trust police officers.

“When they get excited about things, you get excited about things. When they’re like ‘I got an A on my test’ or ‘I got an A in gym,’ you’re like ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’”

Barukzoy was on maternity leave when George Floyd was killed. Feeling a lot of difficult emotions around race and policing, she said she sought help from her school’s therapists. At the time, she was afraid to park her squad car outside her home.

“Because I was like, ‘I don’t want people to drive past my house and throw a brick in my window,’” Barukzoy recalled.

She would like to see more mental health services offered for officers, who experience many traumatic events. 

While Barukzoy wants to have more open conversations around race and implicit bias, she feels law enforcement has been largely scapegoated in the past year. 

Barukzoy said lawmakers, judges and prosecutors should also be held accountable for an entire criminal justice system that needs to change.

It hurts, she said, when people question Barukzoy’s career of service.

“I’ve gotten the same rhetoric since I started, and it’s been by — in my experience — other people of color,” Barukzoy said, “Like, I was told to kill my family. I’ve been called an Uncle Tom.” 

Barukzoy said those words don’t deter her from her mission.

“You have to have change agents within. You have to have people within that have a broader horizon.”

Correction (May 27, 2021): The story has been updated to more accurately describe the National Black Police Association.