In her two decades with St. Paul police, Sgt. Valarie Namen’s assignments ranged from patrol to narcotics, and she helped rescue a man who lay unconscious in the snow and ice, nearly undetectable in the middle of the night.
“You can make a difference,” Namen said of her career. “You can be that voice of calm and be the connection between the police and the community.”
Namen, who is biracial and identifies as black, retired in late September, leaving the state’s second-largest police department without a black female officer for the first time in 43 years. It’s paradoxical at a department that has had a strong history of promoting black male police chiefs and comes at a time when overall interest in the profession has plummeted to “crisis” levels. It also highlights the difficulties departments have attracting both women and people of color.
“We have to have people who look like us in those positions,” said Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “We do need to have African-American women as well as other minority women on the police department. They will have an understanding of how to work within their community.”
By contrast, St. Paul has 38 black male officers.
Aside from black women, the only other racial and ethnic groups with no representation on the force of 628 officers are Hawaiian/Pacific Islander men and women.
The department has seven Asian female officers, two American Indian/Alaskan women and one Hispanic woman — Cmdr. Pamela Barragan, the department’s first Latina commander. Three additional women identify as multiracial.
Why no black females?
There are a mix of reasons why a city that is about 16 percent black has no black female officers. Namen, police officials and community leaders believe the range of factors include: aversion to the profession due to use-of-force incidents involving blacks, lack of targeted recruitment, higher salaries in some suburbs and competition between departments to hire qualified candidates.
“It is a tremendous loss not only for the St. Paul Police Department but for our community,” longtime black activist Tyrone Terrill said of Namen’s retirement. “We need to do more … in terms of getting more of our young women to become police officers. We shouldn’t have waited until Val was gone and the last one.”
Namen, 55, grew up a self-proclaimed “military brat,” following her father’s career in the U.S. Air Force from Minot, N.D., where she was born, to Wisconsin and then to Mendota Heights.
The second youngest and only girl of five children, no one pegged her for a career in law enforcement.
“Just short of having glasses with the tape in the middle, I was about as geeky and nerdy as you could be” in high school, Namen said.
But she started taking law enforcement classes to “break up the monotony” of her computer programming classes in college and eventually switched career paths.
Namen said she was motivated by her innate interest in the field. There’s also the day her car broke down on the way to work when she was a teenager. A Mendota Heights police officer who knew Namen stopped to check on her and drove her to work at McDonald’s.
“I just thought that was the coolest thing,” she said, “that they take the time to help you out.”
Namen began her career with the military police in Athens, Greece, and joined the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 1991. When she joined St. Paul police in 1998, she said she was one of four black female officers, which included the pioneering Debbie Montgomery, who became St. Paul’s first female and black female officer when she joined in 1975.
Namen said she never felt pigeonholed in her time with St. Paul, but she found her racial background to be helpful and a hindrance when dealing with the public.
“There’s been a few times where I went out to a scene … and they were shocked that I was the supervisor,” Namen said. “They were like, ‘You’re the supervisor?’ And they were like, ‘I never expected to see a black female supervisor.’ ”
Others, she said, “look at the fact that … you’re not black — you’re blue.”
It’s not known if more black women joined and left in the intervening years. When Sgt. Constance Bennett, among the original four, retired in 2015 it was widely known that Namen was the last.
“It was disheartening to say the least, and it motivates me to do as much as I can in the years I have left in this post to make that change,” said Chief Todd Axtell. “Every single assignment that Val has worked over the years has been done with extreme professionalism and hard work ethic, and we’re missing her terribly.”
Recruiting the future
Axtell hopes the department’s Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program aimed at mentoring recruits, will be part of the solution. Three black women are part of the 2 ½-year program started in 2017.
The department also continues to hold its women-oriented, but open, informational sessions. Community leaders said seeing representation in the field is the best recruitment tool.
Minneapolis police officer Yolanda Wilks said she developed an antagonistic view of police growing up black in St. Paul and in Nashville, Tenn. But when she was struggling with her career path in 2006, a black female officer from Minneapolis gave a talk at her school.
“I saw her and heard the passion in her voice, and saw that she was committed to change,” Wilks said. “It inspired me.”
Wilks, who was 23 at the time, pursued law enforcement and joined Minneapolis police as a community service officer in 2007. She was promoted to officer two years later.
“That background and that trauma is not pretty,” Wilks said of the experiences of communities of color. “Being able to relate to them goes a long way.”
Namen, who has since moved from Minnesota, said women shouldn’t feel constricted by social biases or misconceptions about the profession.
“People told me that all the time. ‘Oh, you’re too nice to do that job,’ ” Namen said. “And I would tell them, ‘Don’t let the dimples fool you.’ You’re tough when you need to be tough, and you’re gentle when you need to be gentle.”