State’s first Latina police chief is looking for ways to connect and serve

Two people stand by each other
Le Sueur City Administrator Joe Roby and Police Chief Pilar Stier pose for a photo after her swearing-in ceremony at Le Sueur-Henderson High School on Monday.
Courtesy of Pilar Stier

This week, the small town of Le Sueur between Mankato and the Twin Cities made history when it swore in Pilar Stier as its police chief. Stier is believed to be the state’s first Latina police chief. She spoke to All Things Considered host Tom Crann on her first day on the job about her new role. 

For the full conversation, click play on the audio player above. A condensed and lightly edited version of the conversation is below.

How’s it going so far?

So far, I'm trying to breathe in and out and make sure that I am understanding everything that is going on, and just getting familiar with the little things and the big things. I know that there’s a lot more to learn. But I'm here.

It’s a time when a lot of law enforcement officers are retiring or taking leave and departments are struggling to find new recruits — and yet here you are retiring from a long career with the State Patrol to take on another law enforcement job. Why are you bucking the apparent trend?

I knew I needed something different, something that was a little bit more connected with the community. And obviously 20 years with a State Patrol is a great career. I received great training, I had great experiences. But I was missing something. I was looking for a different mission. 

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In recent years, what specifically have you been seeing or hearing that’s keeping you engaged and motivated in law enforcement and police work? 

What I’ve seen is that there’s always room for improvement. The standards of policing have already been there, but right now the expectations are different because society is different. I just want to make sure that it becomes better. And that my children feel safe out there.

I want to ask you about being the first Latina police chief in the state. Does your background influence how you’ve been thinking about or working on police reform in recent years, especially when it comes to police and community relations and relations with people of color?

I’ll be very honest with you. Early in my career with the State Patrol, the last thing I wanted people to see was my gender or my ethnicity. In my mind, I needed to prove that I was just a good trooper.

A person pins a badge on someone
Belle Plaine Police Chief Terry Stier pins a badge on Pilar Stier, his wife and the new chief of neighboring Le Sueur.
Courtesy of Pilar Stier

And that can be good. But that also doesn’t give me credit for more things that I can bring in. What I can tell you is that I’ve gone through everything I can in my life. I’m almost your American dream. When we came to the States, we didn’t have anything. And even though I came to the States when I was 15 years old, there’s still a lot of Latina in me.

With the culture that I’m bringing in, I feel that I can relate to different people better. And it's not just being Hispanic or Latino. It’s also being a woman. It’s also being somebody that was under the poverty level. It’s also being somebody that hunts and fishes. 

I want to hear more about the community of Le Sueur that you'll be serving, and especially in terms of demographics and what you bring to the table for the community.

I’ve worked in this area for the last 10 years of my 20 year career. Le Sueur is 18 percent Hispanic, and a lot of the people in this community are at poverty level. I’m hoping that my presence will make a difference. One of my officers is also Hispanic and speaks Spanish. I’m really hoping that we can use that to build relationships.

I understand you believe that when it comes to police and community relations and support for the police, there’s a pendulum that has swung back and forth over the years. But it’s not doing that currently. 

In law enforcement education back in the day, that was one of the things that we would talk about. The pendulum swings back and forth. Things happen in the community and the community supports you and then the community doesn’t like you, and then it comes back.

Post-George Floyd, I was talking to one of my partners about it. And he said, the pendulum is not coming back. And I said, “Well, it’s probably because it’s broken.”

We’re rebuilding it. And it’s just going to stay on our side or to stay in that middle where we’re constantly having to prove ourselves. And that’s OK. Police legitimacy starts with getting to know the community and extending that arm first to say, “Yes, I'm here for you.”