Nick Kellum was 18 when he was pulled over while driving his mother’s car in Minneapolis by a “rude” police officer who insisted on searching the vehicle. The experience infuriated Kellum, who is black, and pushed him to become a police officer and combat racial profiling.
Today, the 39-year-old St. Paul police officer helps train others interested in police work. But two decades after that traffic stop, the reality remains that few potential recruits look like him.
In an effort to help change that and improve diversity in departments across the state, Kellum, along with several other officers, recently organized the Minnesota chapter of the National Black Police Association (NBPA).
The chapter, which has successfully qualified as a nonprofit, met earlier this month and plans to elect its first board of directors soon.
“I think you need [diversity] because you need people of color on scenes,” said Kellum, who added that it is important to have officers who reflect the backgrounds of the community they serve.
About 200 of Minnesota’s 10,000 police officers are black, Kellum estimates. In St. Paul, only 36 — or less than 6 percent — of the department’s 610 sworn officers are black. About 15 percent of the city’s residents are black, according to the latest census figures.
Sgt. Paul Paulos, a spokesman for the St. Paul police, said the department is trying to change its recruiting to reach a more diverse pool of candidates.
“I do believe in reflecting the community,” he said.
Part of the difficulty in recruiting a more diversified workforce is convincing potential minority candidates to think of policing as a desirable career, said Kellum, who works for the department’s A Community Outreach Program (ACOP).
“We have to be able to tell our kids that police stuff isn’t bad,” he said.
Another goal of the newly-formed chapter is to help support black officers already working across the state.
When former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington joined Metro Transit as its chief in 2012, there were only three blacks in the ranks. Today, there about a dozen, he said.
Some departments across the state, however, have only one black officer, Harrington said.
“That sometimes is a fairly lonely situation to be in. … This is a way to give them mentors and a support system,” he said.
Besides working on recruitment and retention, another goal of the chapter is to give back to the community, Kellum said.
Last winter, the chapter worked with a local professional black fire fighters group to donate gifts and food to families during the holidays, he said. The chapter also hopes to participate in events such as Juneteenth celebrations and Rondo Days, Harrington said.
While there have been efforts to start chapters before, they didn’t get off the ground, Kellum said.
The NBPA chapter wouldn’t be the first to be formed locally by a minority police group. Similar groups have formed for Latino, Asian and female officers. All have St. Paul police ties.