BH Forum And Press Addresses Policing And Race Relations

Nov 18, 2016

Left to Right: Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris, South Dakota Highway Patrol Colonel Craig Price, Pennington County Chief Deputy Willie Whelchel and RCPD Community Advisory Coordinator Vaughn Vargas. Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety Chief Harry Martinez (empty seat) was unable to make the forum discussion.
Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB

Black Hills Forum and Press Club addressed the topic of race relations and policing at its most recent monthly meeting. The panel speakers included law enforcement officers from Rapid City, Pennington County and South Dakota’s Highway Patrol, plus a community liaison between the Native population and police.

The forum discussion was a chance to talk about sensitive subjects in the community.  But some left the event saying it didn’t include enough Native people.

Pennington County Law enforcement officials say 50 percent of the county jail population is made up of Native Americans while only ten percent of Pennington County citizens are Native.

The panel at the Black Hills Forum and Press Club focused on this issue during their discussion on Race Relations and Policing.

Vaughn Vargas, is a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Lakota and the Rapid City Police Department Community Advisory Coordinator.  Vargas says the police department is working to build the bridge between the Native communities and law enforcement.

He says law enforcement must be the first to set a good example.   

“You know, the burden of proof is on us to show how we’re moving forward, and when people see us continuing to do more and more progressive work they’ll start to soften up, and I’m beginning to see that already," Vargas says. "So, we’re beginning to soften people’s hearts and come together as a community and that’s the goal. It’s good to have the conversation so the community is informed of what’s going on. And it also gives them the opportunity to engage if they need to do so.”

But not all attendees agreed that forum helped foster cross cultural communication.   Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, an author, and former Native American studies professor.

Cook-Lynn says the forum turned into a discussion about how great South Dakota police departments are at enforcing the law. She says it didn’t include enough input from Native Americans in the community.

“It may be doing something for the community, the non-Indian community, and they do need—that community does need—to have more information,"Cook-Lynn says. "And so from that point of view it’s okay. But as an Indian person I always ask myself ‘what does it do for tribes?’ and ‘what does it do for Indians?’”

Cook-Lynn says there are disparities in law enforcement treatment of Natives and non-Natives. She says these issues need deeper public discussion and examination.

To hear the entire discussion on Race Relations and Policing at the Black Hills Forum and Press Club, click play below.