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Rapid City Police Chief Gives Up The Gun But Keeps The Commitment

If you’re like me, you might have felt a mix of outrage and bewilderment and sadness when you first watched the video of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee jammed down on his neck.

So, you can imagine what Karl Jegeris felt, after a quarter-century career in policing that was aimed at least as much at respecting human life as it was at enforcing laws.

“I was in shock and disbelief,” says Jegeris, 47, of Rapid City. “It was grossly inappropriate and criminal in nature. And that was the sentiment throughout our organization.”

The organization Jegeris speaks of is the Rapid City Police Department, where he has worked since he began his law-enforcement career as a patrol officer in 1995. Jegeris rose smoothly and smartly through the ranks of the department, from patrol officer to detective, sergeant, lieutenant, patrol captain, assistant chief and, for the last six years, chief.

Now the married father of two sons is leaving the department and law enforcement to start a new job and new career as the director of collaborative excellence at the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota. If it seems like a complete change of career emphasis, Jegeris argues that it’s really much the same work, without a gun and vest and shield.

“It’s very similar to the work I’ve always done here, in that you’re taking a compassionate approach to helping individuals who are in vulnerable circumstances,” Jegeris says.

It would be hard to name a more vulnerable circumstance, or a less-compassionate response from authorities, than George Floyd faced on May 25th, lying belly down on a Minneapolis street with the heavy knee of a white policeman grinding into his neck.

That went on for more than eight minutes, which brings us back to Jegeris and his reaction to the deadly realities captured in the video.

“Eight minutes? I mean, if it was only 30 seconds it would get to the horrendous-and-outrageous stage,” Jegeris said. “But when you protract that out to eight minutes and then add three other officers present and observing what was happening, it just defies logic.”

What was the responsibility of the other officers? Jegeris says it was to a human being in a vulnerable, life-threatening spot.

“Yeah, I mean, they should have intervened. And, again, what happened did not follow any police training protocol,” he said. “It was completely out of bounds and clearly criminal in nature.”

Former Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter in the case. The officers who stood by are charged with aiding and abetting.

The emotional aftermath of the shooting has led to mostly peaceful demonstrations across the nation, along with less-common-but-disturbing instances of rioting and violence and vandalism. It also has led police and local officials to make or consider changes in policing practices and to open discussions on race relations in their communities.

Some protesters are also calling for defunding or reorganizing police departments, with some of the police budgets going elsewhere, such as human services, addiction treatment or mental health programs or specialists.

The national conversation inspired my friend Sam Hurst here in Rapid City to call me and suggest, for my blog, an interview with Jegeris, who recently announced his retirement from the police department.

I liked the idea enough to set up the interview, then called Sam back to ask for his three top questions for the chief. Here they are, with responses by Jegeris that I edited for length:

1. Without diminishing public safety, what things could police do to hand off some of their duties to social workers and health professionals and others?

“It’s a very good concept and a good direction. But I think the issue is that it’s not a snap-your-fingers, overnight fix. Police have become the primary gate keepers for all problems in our communities. And if you look back, a part of the issue is we’ve become so easily accessible. Everybody knows our number. If there’s a problem, you call 911. And we don’t have the option to say ‘no.’ If there’s a problem in the community, we’re going to go and we’re going to do whatever we can to help.

“Over time, that has created a lot of specialization in policing, and special projects or assignments, you know, like the CIT-trained (Crisis Intervention Team) officers. So, are police generalists or are they specialists? Because you can’t be a specialist at multiple specialties. And that’s what the public is demanding of us right now.

“And so, looking at some of the current defund-policing demands, you know, and shifting the resources toward education, social work, better health care, I agree with all that. But you’ve got to do that part of it first. You don’t take away police functions until you have their replacements in place.

“So, it is easier said than done. But that’s what needs to happen. Yes, bring police more resources so they would not have to be expected to handle every social issue in the community. And we will have a better response.”

2. Did the Rapid City Police Department increase military style armament after 9-11?

“Our most significant expenditures after 9-11 were in improved communications equipment. That’s when we went into the digital radio system, which was very expensive. But the benefit is the inter-operability among responders statewide. So, if we had a major issue and the Rapid City police and Sioux Falls police needed to be patched together, we could do that. It never used to be that way. Or, locally, now we do that all the time with the Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office, paramedics, fire services. So, communications was the biggest thing.

“But we also had a couple of armored vehicles for our special-response team. We have brought them out in public a couple of times and overall the response from our community has been supportive. They recognize the vehicles are primarily to protect our officers. We call them rescue vehicles, because that’s what they are. If you have to go into a hot zone, it allows you to do so. We deployed one last January up on Racine Street. If you remember that situation, we had an active shooter, and we successfully extracted him without using firepower back on him, which was miraculous.”

3. Why, after a long law-enforcement career, are you leaving the police for Children’s Home at this time? And was the change motivated by the George Floyd shooting and what’s going on across the nation? Are you responding to what protesters are talking about, looking for a better way to deal with law enforcement issues?

“It’s going to be similar work, helping individuals in vulnerable positions. In the case of Children’s Home, it’s obviously women and children and families who are the main recipients. And it goes deep with me, in a desire to help those vulnerable populations. It goes to family history. My dad and my grandma immigrated from Latvia during wartime and were forced out of their homes. My grandpa was killed, war-time related. And so, they went to Germany and were in a refugee camp, or a displaced-persons camp, which was a former Nazi camp, but it was post Hitler. So, my dad and grandma and aunt lived as homeless individuals for five years in Germany, not knowing where they were going to go or how they were going to get there. And eventually through a sponsor they were able to travel to Minnesota and work on a farm for a year to pay back their travel. And they did rely on the help of others, to restore their lives and basic security. So for me, there has been an internal desire to give back.

“And it (the Children’s Home job) is similar in that it attracts a super compassionate team ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard for the benefit of others. And the job is something I’d been in discussions about with their current CEO for some time (months), so it’s not relative to the current climate. I had expressed interest to them. And it’s a new position they’ve created, a statewide position. They have 350 to 375 employees, about 300 in Sioux Falls and 75 out here. And I’ll be working primarily with the strategy team for the eight programs they have, and supporting the COO and the program directors, and doing other duties as assigned.”

After Sam’s questions, I had a few of my own.

How has your police experience helped prepare you for the Children’s Home job?

“I think I developed skills as an officer, there to make an impact on the community. Then as a supervisor, I was there to have an impact on the officers who make that community impact. Then as a chief, my impact has been at the community level, deeply engaged in community issues. And, basically, my experience in managing a complex human-resources organization (160 employees, $16 million annual budget) that provides services to sometimes-very challenging populations, it’s very similar. Now my law-enforcement portion, my gun belt and vest, I’m taking that all and setting it aside. And with this lane change, it’s completely human-services oriented. But if you look at law enforcement, that’s really a super majority of what we do. The enforcement aspect is probably 10 to 20 percent of our work. Eighty percent is quality of life, social welfare and peacekeeping.

So you won’t wear a gun?

“Oh, gosh, no. On the Black Hills and Sioux Falls campuses, you’d have to go through the school sentinel. They didn’t hire me for my law-enforcement skills. They’ve hired me for my organizational and management experience and ability to create change.

Do you leave the Rapid City Police Department with any regrets?

“Yeah it’s going to be very sad to leave all the men and women of the department. As chief, I’ve hired at least 50 officers. They are some of the most compassionate individuals who are willing to work super hard to keep our community safe. And so it’s going to be challenging to leave that. But I’m joining another super compassionate organization with individuals who have a strong sense of purpose. And that sense of purpose is to help others. So I’m equally excited.

Minority recruitment to the police force has been an issue. Do you feel like you made gains there or fallen short?

“We did make gains. There’s more work to be done. I’ve been questioned by members of the media and sometimes members of the public asking why we don’t have more minority police officers. And those are valid questions. And we need to keep working on that. But my answer is also, partly, that we should also pause and celebrate the officers we do have. Because it’s a tough job for everybody. And in the last couple of weeks especially, our minority officers have endured some extremely harsh criticism from members of the public. And that takes a toll.”

You mean they faced harsh criticism in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing?

“Yes. What’s happening now, is our profession is under nationwide ridicule. And so going back to the law enforcement code of ethics, the importance of the work we do in our communities, it’s a noble profession. And overall, our officers are displaying courageous calm and great self-restraint. But it’s not easy. It’s very stressful. Several are reevaluating their commitment to the profession. And in most cases, it causes them to be even more committed to the work that has to be done for the community.”

Out of 132 sworn officers in the Rapid City Police Department now, 121 are white. There are also four Native Americans, three Hispanics, three African Americans and one Asian/Pacific Islander.

So the next chief will have work to do in further diversifying the police force, along with dealing with the ongoing fallout from high-profile officer-involved shootings and calls for reform or even dismantlement of the current policing structure.

And Karl Jegeris will be watching all of that as he tackles his new job serving the vulnerable in different ways.

This time without a gun and a vest.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.