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South Dakota student becomes interested in policing

February 2, 2019
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In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, photo, Sydney Word poses for a photo at the Western Dakota Tech library in Rapid City, S.D. (Ryan Hermens/Rapid City Journal via AP)

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — When 19-year-old Sydney Word went back to her father’s home in Kadoka over winter break, she and childhood friends reflected on the career paths they’ve chosen.

“I would have never have thought that you were going to school to be a law enforcement officer,” Word said a friend told her.

Word didn’t expect it either. She described herself as a “little renegade” who was “constantly getting into some kind of trouble” with friends while growing up.

But after taking health care classes in Mitchell and working as a ranch hand for her family near Kyle, Word decided this past fall to sign up for the criminal justice program at Western Dakota Tech in Rapid City.

Soon, Word told the Rapid City Journal, WDT and the Akicita program — a mentorship program for Native American students taking criminal justice classes — helped her develop a passion for the field and set her sight on becoming a police officer and maybe a detective someday.

“In the Native American culture what we do is that we’re healers and we’re fighters and we’re protectors,” said Word, who is Lakota. “And for me, I just feel like I’m one of those people that wants to help others and wants to help people become better.

“So for me wanting to become a police officer, I want to help those that need the help, I want to help take someone out of a bad situation and get them away from abuse ... I want people to know that they’re safe,” Word said.

In addition to her studies — which have resulted in making the dean’s list with a 3.6 GPA — Word is a member of student government, a Native American cultural club and the Akicita program. Akicita means warrior in Lakota, Word said.

The program, which began in the fall, pairs Native WDT criminal justice students with a mentor from the Rapid City Police Department or Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. It’s funded with a grant to the police department from Community Oriented Policing Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Akicita is meant to be mutually beneficial — students benefit through networking, mentorship and being introduced to various fields within the criminal justice system, while law enforcement agencies hope to increase their number of Native officers and deputies.

“It sets you up with someone and gives you kind of a foot in the door to kind of figure out what you want to do, that’s what I like about it,” Word said.

Word calls her mentor, Hollie Strand, a forensic examiner with the Internet Crimes Against Children department at the sheriff’s office, a “tough lady.”

She said Strand has introduced her to people with different jobs in the criminal justice system so she can learn about their various roles. Word also frequently checks in with Strand via email to catch up or receive advice.

“I love her passion for law enforcement,” Strand said. “She wants to make a difference and has chosen a path that gives her the ability to make a difference every day she is on the job.

“I think the Akicita program is important because this field can be rather intimidating, and there are so many different areas of law enforcement that a person might not know about,” Strand said. “I would not have made it this far into my career without my mentors.”

Heidi Mecham, support specialist for Akicita, said the main goal of the program is to create “a good support system for the Native American students who are in our program. Making sure that they have some hands-on experiences” and a network.

Mentors benefit by learning about cultural sensitivity from the Native community, Mecham said. “These officers are learning as much from our students” as students learn from the officers, she said.

Of the 128 officers in the police department, just three are Native Americans, said Assistant Chief and Akicita mentor Don Hedrick. Out of 98 deputies, one is Native, said Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom. Both departments have other minority officers, and more Native employees who work in the jail, at the Care Campus, in juvenile services and in other more behind-the-scenes roles.

“We target applicants from all walks of life, but we struggle annually receiving applications from Native Americans. The ultimate goal is for our department to reflect the community we serve,” Hedrick wrote in an email. “Historical trauma is a real issue for our community and we need to acknowledge some of the truths from the past that have impacted our community. Some Native Americans might be hesitant to join our department due to law enforcement being a symbolic representation of generational mistrust. Building bridges is something we are continuously working on with programs like the Collective Healing Initiative, trauma-informed policing trainings, and the Akicita mentorship program.”

“Any claims of profiling and other discriminatory behavior by officers are thoroughly investigated; in 2018 we did not receive any allegations of such behavior,” Hedrick said when asked if current, not just past discriminatory, behavior could help explain why RCPD has few Native officers.

Mecham said half of WDT’s criminal justice program has many women and Natives, but she said not all students want to be police officers. Others want to work as parole officers, in administration or in other positions. She said students are also split between whether they want to stay in the Rapid City area, work on a reservation or work elsewhere in the state.

Native people may not apply to be officers in the Rapid City area if they don’t see other Native officers, Word said.

As for her future, Word said she’s “leaning toward” wanting to work at the Rapid City Police Department.

“There’s something new each day,” she said of policing.

Word said her plan is to work as a police officer for five years in order to gain experience and credibility and then transition to investigations.

“I like a challenge,” Word said of why she wants to become a detective.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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