Akicita Mentorship Program aims to diversify law enforcement

BLACK HILLS, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Native Americans make up more than eight percent of South Dakota's population, and that number is even higher in Rapid City.

Class taught by South Dakota Highway Patrol in the Western Dakota Tech Criminal Justice department.

With the purpose of reflecting the community it serves, the Akicita Mentorship Program pairs local law enforcement with criminal justice students at Western Dakota Tech.

"For me to even be able to say I'm a student at Western Dakota Tech, I am a criminal justice student, I am going through the law enforcement portion of this fourth semester here, it's a really amazing feeling that I can't even put into words honestly," said Sydney Word, criminal justice major at Western Dakota Tech.

With plans to become a police officer, Word said it is worth the time and discipline.

"I was able to see both sides of it, not only the law enforcement side but also the community officer side of everything, so that way we can try to figure out how we can help people these people so it's not a revolving door," said Cameron Moser-Asbjeld, patrol officer for the Rapid City Police Department.

Moser-Asbjeld graduated from this program in May 2019 and has been a patrol officer with RCPD since July.

"It's a partnership to solve the problems that we have, such as a lack of diversity, or shortages in the workforce, and so what better place to go to the place that already has these students that have this particular interest," said Peter Ragnone, director for the Criminal Justice Program at Western Dakota Tech.

This shortage of officers especially impacts the Pine Ridge Reservation with response times taking up to an hour.

"We've always been outnumbered, and my force went from at the beginning of this administration from I believe 28 to 30 officers, to now we have 54 officers, which is still understaffed for the three million acres that we're responsible for," said Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The mentorship program is in its second year and hopes to increase Native American employment, along with giving students an inside look at the industry.