Ask Keia Pettis about how many police officers are on the streets of Minneapolis today, and it might take her a minute to come up with a number.
Ask the 13-year-department veteran how many of those are black women, and the answer is immediate: Seven.
It’s one of the reasons that Pettis has been working to organize a leadership and wellness academy for women of all races — a first for the department — to learn about policing and criminal justice as a potential career path.
Modeled after a similar program that launched in Ramsey County last fall, the academy will offer an up-close, hands-on look at what it’s like to put on the uniform. Over the course of a week, attendees will visit the firing range at the Fourth Precinct station and hear from a homicide detective. They’ll learn the basics of report writing and processing crime scenes for evidence. They’ll walk through role-playing scenarios that mimic a traffic stop, just as any rookie cop would.
More importantly, Pettis says, they’ll get to see that police officers are people, too, with lives outside of the job.
While she admits she sometimes has to get creative about child care, Pettis says that her assignment with the Third Precinct’s community response team — which, like its counterparts in the other four precincts, focuses on street-level crimes such as drug offenses and prostitution — hasn’t kept her from being a mother to her two young children. Even while pregnant, she says she was still helping serve search warrants “until a week before I gave birth.”
Earlier this month, the department put out a video on social media promoting the academy, which runs from Oct. 14-18. And the Minneapolis Foundation’s Chanda Smith Baker plugged the program at her most recent conversation series, saying that the city’s police force needed to diversify its ranks to better reflect the communities it serves. The initiative also comes as police officials have set an internal goal boosting the department’s ratio of women officers to 24% by 2022. The deadline to apply is Aug. 23.
To attract more female candidates, the department is considering changing its conditioning test for new applicants amid criticism that it discriminates against women and that other tests, such as one using a rowing machine, offer more accurate measures of fitness capacity. An internal report found that many seemingly qualified female candidates were failing the old exam, with many simply not showing up on testing day. The report, released earlier this year, blamed some of the department’s continuing problems with recruiting women and people of color on its drawn-out and often confusing hiring process. Other hurdles remain.
“You have to deal with stereotypes, isolation, lack of support, even just self-doubt,” Pettis said.
And while the department has made strides in cleaning up its boys’ club image of years past, some say a culture of machismo is still quietly thriving — a point underscored by a recent lawsuit accusing the city of failing to rein in a veteran male K-9 supervisor accused of creating a work environment of “hostility toward women.”
Still, the outgoing and chatty Pettis says that she may not have lasted as long as she did without a strong support network of other female officers, both inside the department and out, as well as some of her male colleagues.
Lisa Clemons, a former Minneapolis officer and an outspoken anti-violence crusader, said that as a black cop she dealt with bullying and harassment throughout her career on the city’s police force. She said the department has historically gone about recruiting ethnic minorities and women in the wrong way. It’s not enough to attend area career fairs and visit colleges, she says; police have to meet women of color where they are.
“They don’t have anybody coming out in the community and talking to black women,” she said, adding, “We don’t sell them that they could be the change agents for what’s happening to the community, to our sons.”
Striving for women officers
Like other departments across the country, Minneapolis has struggled in recent years to recruit and hold onto qualified officer candidates, especially women and particularly women of color. Aside from the seven black women among the department’s roughly 890 sworn officers, only two identify as American Indian, and while white female officers have higher numbers, they are still underrepresented compared with their male colleagues. Overall, women make up roughly 14% of the force.
Women also simply aren’t applying for police jobs in Minneapolis — of the 292 people in the current recruit pool, just over 9% were women.
The picture is just as bleak across the river, observers say.
With the retirement of a longtime sergeant last December, the St. Paul Police Department found itself without a black woman officer for the first time in 43 years. Spokesman Steve Linders said diversifying the department is a top priority of Chief Todd Axtell, who has touted the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, which helps pay for schooling for nontraditional officer candidates while providing them with volunteering and mentoring opportunities. The department also recently teamed up with WCCO Radio producer Sheletta Brundidge for informational sessions at black-owned beauty salons around the city, hoping to reach a population that may not necessarily attend a career fair.
An upcoming recruit class is expected to be the department’s most diverse ever, he added.
Pettis, who grew up on the city’s south side, graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato with a major in law enforcement and minor in Spanish, and she always knew that she wanted to work as a cop in her hometown.
She hopes that the academy might pique the interest of women who have never before considered law enforcement as a career.
If its attendees only come away with a greater appreciation for the profession, Pettis said she would consider the program a success. If some of them end up applying for department jobs, that’s a bonus, she said.
While Pettis maintains that she has wanted to be a cop since witnessing a drive-by shooting outside her childhood home in the Central neighborhood, there were plenty of doubts along the way.
After being sworn in, her mother turned to Pettis and asked when she would “grow out of this phase,” she says.
“She used to call me when I was working, and say, ‘You’d better not be going down no alleys,’ ” she said. “And I would say, ‘But Mom, that’s where the bad guys are.’ ”