Protesters streamed onto the Interstate 35W bridge just days after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police when, suddenly, a tanker truck barreled down the closed freeway.

Suwana Kirkland, a commander with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, watched in horror at the near disaster.

Three of her children were in the crowd, demonstrating against police excessive force. Miraculously, no one was hurt by the driver, who state officials say may not have known the road was closed.

“I’ve raised my children to stand, to be present, to be impactful,” she said of the peaceful protests while condemning looting and rioting. “I agree with them wanting to see better from law enforcement. We all know that we’ve got some work to do in this state.”

As president of the state chapter of the National Black Police Association, Kirkland is among Minnesota law enforcement leaders responding at a critical time to rebuild trust and diversify a predominantly white profession. Amid rising tensions over policing and racial justice, Kirkland’s phone is ringing nonstop with requests to speak to Twin Cities community groups and journalists from the BBC to the New York Times.

“The world is watching Minnesota,” said Kirkland, who has led the chapter since 2019, an all-volunteer position, and is the vice chairwoman of the national association. “As Black law enforcement leaders, we’re being asked to speak up and to be part of the reform, to be part of the improvement, to be part of the change … For those of us who truly want to see better, this is it.”

The association, which has about 150 members — from students to corrections and patrol officers, including several white sheriffs and police chiefs — has boosted outreach, from meeting with community groups to volunteering to feed people facing homelessness. The chapter, one of 23 in the U.S., has also focused on mentoring and diversifying hiring as well as increasing mental health help for officers, adding a chaplain to take calls.

“It hit home, especially for a lot of officers of color,” Kirkland said of Floyd’s death and the aftermath.

She opposes the calls from some activists and Minneapolis City Council members to defund or dismantle police departments. In a Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll, a majority of Minneapolis residents surveyed opposed reducing the size of the police department, with half of Black residents against reductions. In the poll, residents did overwhelmingly support shifting some funding to social service programs.

Kirkland agrees that reforms are needed — from more implicit bias training to increasing de-escalation training to reduce the use of force.

“We might wear a uniform. We might carry a gun and a badge. But we’re people just like you,” said Kirkland, 48, of Rogers. “We want what’s best for the community.”

When she’s out in the community, she often gets asked the same question.

“Everyone wants to know — especially if you’re a Black law enforcement officer — they want to know, ‘How are you surviving?’ ” said Kirkland, a mother of five children, ages 9 to 27. “Before I’m anything, I’m a woman. Before I’m anything, I’m a mother. Before I’m anything, I’m a person. And things that affect the general community, they affect us as well. And we’ve seen some difficult days.”

Diversifying the profession

Kirkland was a trailblazer when she landed her first job in 2005 with Minnetonka Police: the first African American to join the suburban department. Then at Ramsey County, she was the first African American female hired as deputy sheriff and the first to be promoted to sergeant and commander.

Now, she’s looking to inspire the next generation. She started a women’s academy at the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, which is a women’s-only introduction to law enforcement, and teaches at North Hennepin Community College.

Of about 11,000 officers in Minnesota, 12% — nearly 1,300 — are women, according to the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Kirkland estimates there are 270 Black officers, 2% of law enforcement, despite Black Minnesotans representing nearly 7% of the state’s population, according to the Census. There are even fewer Black women, especially in leadership roles, she said; of four Black police chiefs, all are men.

“We’ve got work to do,” Kirkland said.

Bridging the gap

Law enforcement wasn’t her first career. Kirkland worked as a real estate agent before enrolling at 29 at Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) to study psychology. She worked for Hennepin County Medical Center in records in the high pressure and sometimes deadly world of the cardiac/renal floor.

But, intrigued by criminal justice, she switched fields, propelled into a new career and passion.

“She’s doing an exceptional job,” said Nick Kellum, a former St. Paul police officer who started the Minnesota chapter of the National Black Police Association in 2008.

There are similar statewide associations such as for Asian and Somali American officers.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community,” added Kellum, who teaches at MCTC. “It’s hard being Black in this uniform.”

Black officers, he said, are likely asked more to respond to the killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky or Floyd, both of which he condemns. “Wrong is wrong,” he said. “The community thinks you have the answer for everything. That’s why I think departments have to be more diverse.”

Besides hiring more people of color, Kirkland said officers have to get out in the community more, not just show up when someone calls 911.

“Law enforcement has gotten away from telling the community about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said. “Every day, I wake up and ... I’m working for someone other than myself. I’m working to make the profession, the interactions and the engagement better.”