Into the Breach: Rapid City Police Chief Seeks to Heal Fractured Community

On Wednesday, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris introduced the members of his new community advisory committee to the Rapid City Police Department.

“It’s very clear to me there is a tension in the air; an anger you can’t touch – yet, it’s there.”

—Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris

On Wednesday, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris introduced the members of his new community advisory committee to the Rapid City Police Department. The committee’s formation, primarily in response to community anger over four officer-involved shootings in recent years, took on greater urgency in the wake of an alleged racial incident at an event in the city’s civic center a year ago that sparked a regional firestorm of anger.

When interview, Jegeris said, “I haven’t been the chief for two years yet, and we’ve had four officer-involved shootings. That’s alarming to me. For us, in the small town of Rapid City, the frequency today – compared to what we had 10 years ago – is much more tragic. We typically would go a year without any officer-involved shootings. Now we’re averaging two or more a year.”

Jegeris tapped Rapid Citian, Vaughn Vargas, a young Si Tanka Lakota and member of the nearby Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, to head the committee. Vargas is an engineering student at Rapid City School of Mines. Other members of the committee include Oliver White, Erik Bringswhite, Eric Whicher, Gary Nelson, Tim Doyle, Anthony Picket-Pin, Jennifer Giroux, Susie DeHart, Kayla Pritchard, Linda Palzkill, Lloyd LaCroix, Beverly Lafferty, Harriet Brings and Thomas Raymond.

The formation of the committee is the latest in a series of initiatives Jegeris hopes will build bridges between Rapid City’s sizeable American Indian population and a majority population that has often been characterized as, at best indifferent to its minority members’ culture and needs. Jegeris says that, because this lack of understanding did not spring up overnight, it will take large doses of patience, on every side, to overcome it.

Jegeris said nothing in his early life prepared him for his current posting, which isn’t exactly Mayberry, RFD. His father emigrated from Latvia, but beyond the occasional spark from siblings, it was fairly staid. Raised in a suburb of Minneapolis, Jegeris came to Rapid City right after college to join the RCPD in 1995.

“My childhood was content free of the chaos of crime,” said Jegeris. “My first exposure to conflict was my first day on the streets as a police officer. In the first 30 days, I experienced what wasicu (white person) and winkte (homosexual) meant. I got some understanding of what Rapid City’s conflict involved.

“I was very fortunate to have as my first training officer Jerry Big Eagle, a Lakota officer now retired after 20 years on the force.” After a few years, Jegeris admits he developed a preconceived notion of what the Pine Ridge Reservation, 110 miles to the south, was like. He’d heard many stories, some from Officer Big Eagle, some from people he had interacted with on the streets.

“So, in the summer of 1996, I decided to jump into my car and go see for myself,” Jegeris said. “I figured I’d find extreme poverty, a lot of social problems related to the need for police services, etc. Going down there made me understand [the Lakota people] more. It helped me understand why there are higher levels of frustration.” Jegeris also said he came to know Native people on a footing of equal respect and friendship.

In 2007, Officer Jegeris, with then Police Chief Steve Allender, initiated a formal officer exchange program between the RCPD and the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Dept. of Public Safety. He’d noticed RCPD had little to no relationship with the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Public Safety force; despite the fact that a sizeable portion of Rapid City’s Native population came from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and many of whom regularly go back and forth.

“There was just no interaction,” said Jegeris. “But it’s necessary because we’re often dealing with the same [law breakers]. We have issues where we have a major crime, Pine Ridge should be instantly notified – and vice versa when they do – so we can work together.”

He believes the exchange program, which ran for five years, was an unqualified success. “At least 70 of our officers took part in it and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They said they really learned to see things through the eyes of their Lakota brothers in law enforcement.”

The main objectives for the program, according to Jegeris, were to have Rapid City’s officers experience Lakota culture first-hand in a good way, and to develop meaningful relationships with their Lakota brothers and sisters in law enforcement. “We’re engaged with the Native American community on a very frequent basis; last year, 63 percent of arrests were Native American; we do have disproportionate minority contact.”

Jegeris’ experiences and initiatives came in very handy when, not eight months into his tour as new Rapid City Police Chief, he faced a fast-moving community prairie fire when a year ago in February, 57 Lakota children from the American Horse School, in attendance for a hockey game, had beer poured on them and were attacked by racial slurs from a group of non-Natives in a VIP suit. The incident at the city’s civic center gave the perception of being swept under the rug further fueling the tensions within the community.,

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It produced outrage, and it went viral. Within a few days, a contingent of the American Indian Movement based in Minneapolis held a press conference and rally, and held a protest march down the city’s main street. Through town halls with Jegeris and then Mayor Sam Kooiker in attendance, the Native Community saw real sincerity in their outreach from the top. Tensions began to cool, and real possibilities for change began to seem possible.