History says Sgt. Booker Hodges shouldn’t be nine years into a career with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. And he shouldn’t be the recent recipient of a doctoral degree from Hamline University.
“For me, if someone would tell me I’m not supposed to fit a certain mold, I’m going to automatically do the opposite,” said Hodges, a night watch commander with the Sheriff’s Office. “I preach that. And if you preach that you have to live that.”
Hodges received his doctorate in public administration last month, the first black officer to receive one from Hamline. It is the latest milestone in a life that has so far included a long-shot gubernatorial campaign at age 26 and election as president of the NAACP’s Minneapolis branch while working as a deputy.
While police-involved shootings stirred unrest around the country the past 18 months, Hodges was finishing a dissertation on how a lack of diversity on the police force can affect stress levels among officers of color.
“Booker always seemed to be one or two thoughts ahead of the rest of us, typically when it comes to things we struggle with as a society,” said Blair Anderson, who supervised Hodges in Dakota County and later became St. Cloud’s first black police chief in 2012.
Hodges emerged from a north Minneapolis upbringing that saw the breakup of his family and the shooting death of a classmate’s brother outside their high school during graduation rehearsal. Growing up, Hodges said, there weren’t a lot of positive interactions with law enforcement.
“I wanted to change that,” he said.
Early one morning, a 12-year-old Hodges returned home from his paper route to see fire engines and ambulances surrounding his home. An autopsy later revealed that his mother, Vera, 33, died of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by blunt force trauma. His father, also named Booker, had abused her for years, but charges were never filed, Hodges said.
The morning of her death, as Hodges and his brother huddled together in their home, detectives within earshot discussed the possibility of an arrest. The memory is vivid for what Booker said he heard one detective say to another, using a racial slur: Why bother prosecuting? There would just be two more black kids in foster care.
“I’ll never forget that,” Hodges said.
After his mother’s death, Hodges and a younger brother lived with their grandmother. He said his guilt-ridden father suffered mentally until his death from a stroke in 2006.
Before Hodges could graduate from Florida Southern College with degrees in criminology and political science in 2000, he flunked his first year with what he called a fourth-grade reading level.
Hodges found his way back to the Twin Cities to lead a youth ministry after graduating, and soon became enmeshed in community activism and politics. By 2002, at the suggestion of a friend, he staged a long-shot campaign for governor, running as an independent while highlighting education reform. While a candidate, Hodges received threats that included a bullet placed on the top of his car and letters describing the inside of his home.
He stayed active after his law enforcement career began, writing newspaper columns and appearing on public television. On one such show in 2005, he ignited controversy after using a racial epithet while criticizing a Minneapolis council member’s remarks on the campaign trail. In 2008, by then a Dakota County sheriff’s deputy, Hodges became president of the NAACP’s local branch, a post he kept until 2013.
For his dissertation, Hodges studied “perceived work stress among police officers of color and white officers,” and implications for agencies’ leadership. He polled three Midwestern law enforcement agencies and received responses from more than 300 officers.
He found that the racial composition of a department’s command staff influences the stress levels of those not represented. Officers of color experience higher levels of stress when there are few leaders of color, according to his research.
“[Law enforcement] is a good job. It’s gotten me out of poverty,” Hodges said. “And that’s the aspect that doesn’t get sold because a lot of people of color in organizations that have homogeneous command staffs are not willing to recruit because of their own experiences.”
One agency Hodges studied said 45 percent of its minority employees resigned to take positions at other law enforcement agencies over a four-year period, costing the agency more than $500,000 to replace them.
Hodges will present his findings this month at the National Latino Peace Officers Convention in Miami and at the National Black Police Association’s conference in Atlanta in August.
Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom, the first law officer to receive a doctorate from Hamline, said he can now use Hodges’ study to point to reasons why minority candidates merit a closer look during the hiring process.
“Just because someone does not fit the exact profile of what we’ve seen,” Bostrom said, “if we see where they started and the journey they made, these are some high-character, amazing people.”