CALEDONIA, Wis. — Kiara Riser started losing friends in high school when it became clear she wanted to be a cop.
Nobody told her why she wasn't being invited to any gatherings anymore. It was obvious. She started becoming friendly with cops. It cost her friendships.
"Nobody wants to be friends with someone who is really close to a police officer," Riser recalled of the teenage drama. "Everybody looks at police in a negative way."
When she was 16, Riser became close with Case High School's school resource officer, Justine Justman. Riser now considers Justman to be a mother figure. To Riser's friends, it didn't make sense why anyone would want to be a cop. In the City of Racine neighborhood where she grew up, it was more normal to distrust and hate cops than it was to trust them.
"I don't think I really had interactions with police as a kid," she told The Journal Times of Racine. "The whole stigma growing up was: 'You don't like the police.'"
Riser, who is now 21, doesn't care. For nearly six years she has known that she wanted to wear a badge. She wants to be for someone else what Justman, who is now a detective, has been for her.
Soon, Riser will have that chance.
She is on track to graduate from the police academy at Gateway Technical College in September. She has already been hired by the Caledonia Police Department, which will make her the department's first-ever Black female officer.
In September, her dream will be complete. And her career as a cop will begin.
Finding the career
Nobody in Riser's family works in law enforcement, and she had few interactions with law enforcement growing up. Her dad, she says, "wasn't the best father figure."
At age 15, she said she still didn't know what she wanted to be. But then Riser met Justman. They first talked out of necessity when Riser was required to talk to Case's school resource officer about what was going on with her father after the courts got involved. Now, Riser and Justman talk almost every day and go on runs together once a week.
Riser also developed a close friendship with Eric Oertel, the current resource officer at Case High School. Oertel and Riser started going to church together. They still do, at Hope City Church on Main Street.
She was (and still is) a stellar athlete. She was a four-year starter on the Case basketball team, went to state for track twice and then played junior college basketball at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois. There, she studied criminal justice — a good education background for a future cop.
Riser said that the police officers she is now close with "didn't have a perfect background either. They had trouble with their parents too." Those connections, Riser said, are what allowed her to start seeing police officers as "humans too," a bridge a lot of her childhood friends never crossed.
"They're more than just the badge and the job."
With the Caledonia P.D., she wants to be a bridge builder. The Community-Oriented Policing Model the Racine Police Department centers on, and the Mount Pleasant Police Department also utilizes on a smaller level, is something Riser wants to help bring to Caledonia.
She knows that, as the only Black female who has ever worn a badge with the Caledonia PD, she's entering new territory. But that also means that the example she sets can be more impactful.
"I'm looking to show society, and my community, that you can have good relationships with police officers," Riser said. "I'm showing people, girls younger than me, you can do it."
Visibility in this way is important. A study by the federal National Institute of Justice found that law enforcement agencies where police officers have more informal interactions with community members, the more appreciation that community will have for law enforcement.
"As society changes, and the expectations of society change, so too must the police. Increased diversity within law enforcement has certainly been a part of that change," Caledonia Police Chief Christopher Botsch said in an email to The Journal Times.
Nationwide, 12.8% of police officers are Black and 14.7% are women. The federal government does not publicly track how many officers are both Black and female.
Thirty-one out of Caledonia's 34 officers are White. The other three are all Black. Likewise, there are only three women in uniform with the department.
Caledonia's population is 86% White, 4.2% Black, 7.1% Latinx, 0.8% Asian, 1.3% Native American and 0.6% "other."
Riser was hired by Caledonia at the end of April, one week before Botsch was sworn in as chief. But he has already shown pride in the new recruit.
"The makeup of a police department should be representative of the larger community it serves," Botsch said. "This helps to provide credibility for the police within the community. Diversity also helps ensure that different thoughts, experiences and viewpoints are represented in the conversations regarding policing philosophy and action."
About Riser, the chief said "Kiara was hired on her own merit regardless of the color of her skin. We are confident she will be an excellent police officer for the Village of Caledonia. The fact that she is the first black female, and the diversity she helps add to the department, is an added bonus."
When asked why she still wants to be a cop, despite rising anti-police sentiments nationwide, Riser replied "There's never going to be a perfect time to do something."