Maybe it was growing up without money on St. Paul's East Side. Or perhaps it was the repeated encounters with police that convinced Victor Rodriguez a fast and loose life on the streets was not the future he wanted.

But become a cop?

"I would have told you you're lying. You're full of it," he said.

Meet officer Rodriguez, approaching his second year wearing a badge on the same streets where he used to run around.

He's there thanks to the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program designed to supercharge diversity at the St. Paul Police Department by removing financial and educational barriers to college and a law enforcement career for low-income young people. Rodriguez is one of eight Career Path Academy students who are now officers. Two dozen recent grads — almost all people of color — have indicated that they plan to enter the next St. Paul Police Academy class of 50 to 70 future officers.

"This is a workforce development job," said Cmdr. Jon Loretz of the partnership started in 2017 between police, Century College, Community Action of Ramsey and Washington Counties and AmeriCorps. "Sometimes you have to go to the vine."

By "meeting people where they are," Loretz said the program seeks to smooth the pathway for job candidates who might not otherwise be able to earn the two-year degree required to become a police officer. Some of that is done in big ways — participants are paid a stipend, receive their first five college credits free, get continuous counseling and mentoring and can earn scholarships to make school even more affordable. Some of it is done in seemingly small ways, such as helping pay for child care.

But the department benefits as well. During the two years students attend Century College, they also work for the police community engagement unit, attending community events and getting to know the people and neighborhoods they could someday patrol. At the same time, the community meets young potential police officers who grew up in the same neighborhoods, speaking the same languages and facing the same challenges.

Of the 108 people who started the program since its inception, 101 are people of color, 84% are low-income and 41% are female, said Loretz, who leads the department's community engagement division.

Rodriguez's partner, officer Mahamed Dahir, just moved to Minneapolis. But before that, he called St. Paul's Frogtown and Highwood Hills neighborhoods home. Dahir, 22, wanted to be a police officer since he was 14, when St. Paul police started coming around Highwood Hills to play basketball and take kids on trips and bike rides.

"These officers just, like, interacted with us," he said. "I thought, 'These guys are really cool.' "

Dahir even joined the department's junior police academy. But it wasn't until meeting Rodriguez at an East Side boxing gym that he learned about the Career Path Academy program. That's when it clicked as not only a way to help pay for school but, through its community service component, to connect with "people from other communities, hear their concerns, see them as people." He met with Latino parents on the West Side and Karen families in Frogtown.

Loretz said the program is essentially a two-year apprenticeship with the Police Department. Applications for the fall are being accepted through Friday. Candidates must be 18 and have a high school diploma or GED.

"We want to provide the best service possible. We serve the community; we don't police the community," he said. "By tapping the community for our officers, that helps deliver a better service. It really is a win — for that individual and for the community."

State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, stood in front of the governor's residence Tuesday, commemorating the death of his friend Philando Castile and pushing state lawmakers to do more to hold police officers accountable when they cause harm. He praised St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell for launching the career path program, but said much more needs to be done nationwide.

"It's a start," he said. "I sit on Todd Axtell's advisory committee, so I know firsthand a lot of the work he's trying to do."

Edward Xiong is set to graduate from the career path program Aug. 20. The 25-year-old grew up in Frogtown and became interested in law enforcement while deployed in Kuwait with the National Guard. For the past two years, he has been attending college classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, as well as mentoring students at Johnson and Harding high schools, taking kids ice fishing, interpreting for Hmong speakers at food shelves and coaching T-ball.

He recently interviewed for a place in the next police academy.

"I get to connect with the community and see what they are dealing with," Xiong said. "It's important for an officer to know, to have empathy, understanding. Everybody becomes more human."

On a recent afternoon patrol shift, Rodriguez and Dahir cruised the city's Central District, from Annapolis Street on the south to Larpenteur Avenue on the north. Along the way, they stopped at a North End gas station to chat with the manager and took a few minutes to visit with the owner of a restaurant on Cesar Chavez Street. During an otherwise quiet shift, they found a parked car with a front license plate that appeared to be stolen. While Rodriquez looked for a tool to remove the plate, Dahir handed out police stickers to a group of children playing next door.

At a time when police are being accused of acting as an occupying force rather than members of the community they serve, Dahir said the Career Path Academy may help bridge that divide. Certainly, his and Rodriguez's backgrounds give them a perspective many other officers might not share.

"Everyone's experiences have something to do with how you police," he said. "For me, growing up in the city of St. Paul, growing up in the neighborhood, it helps me know the background and what they're experiencing."

Rodriguez said his background — getting into regular trouble from middle school into young adulthood — made him desperate to become a better example for his siblings.

In exchange for his commitment to the program, the program helped him clear up problems with his driver's license. He paid off old fines, started putting in 80-hour weeks between class and community work. And, along the way, his attitude toward law enforcement and police changed. He knows that he, too, is changing others' attitudes toward police.

"When people think of law enforcement, they think that officer … didn't have the same struggle," he said. "Then, you see them, they see you. You tell them a little of your back story and they know it's possible. They can see we're trying to be better."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428