Western Dakota Tech program aims to help diversify law enforcement

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- Law enforcement in Pennington County is taking some innovative steps to bring more Native Americans into its ranks.

Thursday at Western Dakota Tech the efforts took center stage at an open house for the first class of students coming through the Akicita Mentorship Program.

Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Pennington county Sheriff Kevin Thom have made it clear they want more Native officers on the front lines and they want law enforcement to represent the community it serves.

There are three Native Americans out of 128 RCPD officers and one Native out of 98 sworn deputies in the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. Some estimates put Rapid City's Native population at over 20 percent. In 2017, 52 percent of the inmates in the Pennington COunty Jail were Native American.

The problem in diversifying the ranks of law enforcement, leaders say, is a dearth of qualified candidates.

Enter the Akicita Mentorship Program designed to identify potential Native candidates early in their education, nurture them along with hands-on law enforcement mentors, and turn them into qualified candidates.

"We've seen in the past history a limited amount of (Native) candidates that are applying for us and this will hopefully enhance those numbers," said Jerry Moore who served 26 years as a Rapid City Police Officer and is currently involved in the Akicita program as a mentor. Moore is enrolled in the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

There are 22 Native students in the Western Dakota Tech program with five more joining next semester. The first class is slated to graduate in May and become eligible to potentially apply for a job in Pennington County Law enforcement.

Students expressed enthusiasm.

"I'm excited. I'm really, really excited," said student Cecelia White Eagle.

And pointed to the program's opportunities.

"My mentor has given me the options to meet up with people," said student Sydney Word. "If I wanted to do a ride along she can schedule it for me. If I want to go and shadow a corrections officer she can set that up for me."