Although career aptitude tests pointed her toward a future in law enforcement, Rae Brown had little interest in the profession until the death of Philando Castile.
"As a human being, it was a spiritual upset I couldn't shake," Brown said of Castile's fatal shooting by a St. Anthony police officer during a 2016 traffic stop. She recalled thinking, "If I'm going to change this institution, I need to be a part of it."
So the Army reservist, who is Black, invested three years in becoming a St. Paul police officer through a program that taps young adults from underrepresented groups to work in the community engagement unit while earning their law enforcement degree. But that goal was dashed when budget cuts abruptly forced the department to cancel its fall police academy. The news left Brown and seven other minority recruits in limbo, unsure of whether to seek employment in another city.
"It's heartbreaking," said Chief Todd Axtell, who fears losing the diverse talent pool his agency has worked to cultivate. "These students were part of our family."
It's a challenge faced by departments nationwide, now under intense pressure to retain and recruit candidates of color to better reflect the communities they serve. But the effort comes at a time when finances are strained from the coronavirus pandemic and overall interest in the profession has plummeted. Unprecedented levels of public scrutiny following a series of high-profile police killings have resulted in a marked shift in public attitudes toward police officers.
Officials say those factors, coupled with low pay and high turnover, have driven a 25-year low in applicants. As George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake become household names, prospective cops are simply reconsidering whether to brave the storm.
In Shakopee, two police recruits unexpectedly dropped out halfway through the hiring process this spring, citing the current climate.
"It's a toxic environment right now, plain and simple," said Chief Jeff Tate, adding that he's concerned about the ability of urban departments to fill vacancies. "Who puts their name on an application right now for a major city in the U.S.? How are they going to replace people?"
The predominantly white profession has long faced an uphill battle in its efforts to diversify its ranks, said Cmdr. Suwana Kirkland, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Black Police Association. That's forced agencies to get creative by tailoring recruitment efforts to underrepresented groups, like the women's academy Kirkland started at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.
Of about 11,000 law enforcement officers in Minnesota, Kirkland estimates just 2% — 270 officers — are African American, despite Black Minnesotans representing nearly 7% of the state's population. Even fewer are Black women. (St. Paul police employ only one, even though their nonwhite officers represent roughly 28% of its force.)
Still, signs of interest
Yet Kirkland is hopeful those numbers will continue to rise. Since Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, she's seen more students of color enrolling in her introduction to criminal justice class at North Hennepin Community College who are pursuing a law enforcement track.
"In spite of everything going on right now, you still have women and men of color saying 'sign me up,' " Kirkland said. "They honestly want to be part of the change."
As a kid on St. Paul's East Side, Kristina Ijomah found a mentor in Sgt. Constance Bennett.
She was the first officer Ijomah met who looked like her. Their weekly interactions fundamentally changed the child's outlook on police. Soon Ijomah found herself dreaming about wearing a badge — and reaching back to help those struggling in her own community.
The Central High School graduate was inherently qualified. By 25, she knew what it was like to overcome poverty, teenage pregnancy and housing insecurity, but still claw her way to an education.
In St. Paul's Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, Ijomah found a calling to help bridge the divide between police and minority residents, many of whom mistrust the cops. She passed the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training exam in August and was ready to leap over the final hurdle when the city suddenly canceled its academy. The loss was a gut-punch after years of training.
"My whole life is in this city," said Ijomah, holding back tears. "I wouldn't choose to go anywhere else."
Pursuing her dream
Now the mother of four is working security at Regions Hospital until she gets her foot in the door with another agency. In the meantime, Ijomah is having hard conversations with family and friends, who she says are fearful of what they don't understand.
But Ijomah is not immune to current events. Her 6-year-old daughter is named Justice, a nod to the fight for racial equality and those brutalized at the hands of police. She recounted the trauma of learning about Castile's death and how she agonized over how to explain it to her Black son.
"I know what that feels like," she said. "I'm just willing to put myself in a position to try and make it better."
Another aspiring St. Paul recruit, Jesus Palapa, remembers the 911 call that strengthened his resolve.
A woman was robbed at knife point on St. Paul's West Side, left bloodied from a gash on her arm. He was the only first responder on the scene who could speak Spanish and helped translate to get her medical assistance.
"It's important to be that light at the end of the tunnel for people in need," said Palapa, 26, who wants to help break down communication barriers within the Latino community. Without the ability to speak the language, he said, it's nearly impossible to rebuild trust and combat the narrative that police are working hand-in-hand with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I may not be able to change the world's view on police officers," he said. "But if I can change their view of me, maybe that's a start."
For now, Palapa is working security while he scrambles to find another department with openings.
In Minneapolis, budget cuts terminated the Community Service Officer program, a two-year curriculum that funnels diverse applicants onto the Police Department while they earn their law-enforcement degree.
Top brass hopes to restore the program next year but admit they will have to take another look at the way the agency recruits, trains and promotes ethnic minorities and women on the force. If you keep employing the same tactics, said MPD chief of staff Art Knight, "you're just going to get the same old white boys."
More work to do
The cycle of unflattering news coverage that follows each police shooting of an unarmed civilian seems to roll back even modest gains in recruitment efforts.
When tragedies occur in the line of duty, it's often Black and brown officers who are called on to help explain the actions of law enforcement. Sometimes they can't.
Brown watched in horror as now-fired Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. It left her speechless.
The next day, a supervisor played the same bystander video during roll call. Senior officers told the group: "If you think this is OK, you need to turn in your badge" — a position echoing Chief Axtell's departmentwide e-mail on the arrest.
Brown waited until she got home to cry. There was clearly more work to be done. It would be up to her to demonstrate empathy every day she wore a badge. A saying from her grandmother suddenly came to mind: "Kindness doesn't cost anything."
"It just solidified my purpose," said Brown, who was sworn in last week as a Maplewood police officer. "I think people need us more than ever."
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.