FARGO — As a linebacker for North Dakota State University, Tommy Ray found a place where skin color didn’t matter. Coaches wanted skill, and he had what they wanted. He found the same camaraderie with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office in 2008, where he’s now a sergeant involved in court transport services.
“Doesn’t matter what color we are or how big or how tall, and that’s what I like about law enforcement. It doesn’t matter about your color, your sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter about any of that kind of stuff: You can be a cop,” Ray said. “But we all know there are bad cops out there, because we’ve seen one in Minneapolis.”
As an officer of color, he said he can reach out to communities that are sometimes fearful of police.
"Me being a man of color gave me opportunities a lot of times when there were people of color who were in trouble, we were able to connect more," Ray said. "You win more battles with your mouth than you do with your hands."
Ray, however, is one of only six Black officers in the sheriff's office. And if law enforcement agencies should be a racial reflection of the community, then local agencies have some catching up to do.
One of the demands that activists associated with the May 30 Fargo Marches for George Floyd protest want to see realized is more people of color on the city’s police force.
As a child in Minneapolis, newly moved from Louisiana, Ray found role models in school resource officers and in his mother, Nevaida Ray. He said he didn't get pressure from family to become a law enforcement officer and that he understands the negative bias against officers out there now.
"From my experience in general as an officer of color, I will say that I feel included," Ray said. "But I can understand why a person of color might be afraid of going into law enforcement. Maybe some people think cops are not the best because they've had a bad experience with them."
In Fargo, non-Hispanic white people comprise 83.6% of the population, with Black people representing 6.1%, and Native Americans at 1.2%. Hispanics comprise 2.8%, and Asians represent 3.8% of the city’s population, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.
The Fargo Police Department reported it has 174 officers. Of those, 167 officers are white (96%); three officers are Black (1.7%); two Native American officers (1.1%); one Hispanic officer; and one Asian officer, according to information from city spokesman Gregg Schildberger.
Cass County Sheriff's Office
The Cass County Sheriff’s Office reports it has 190 officers, with 179 who are white (94%); six who are Black (3%); three Native Americans (1.6%); one Hispanic and one Asian.
The West Fargo Police Department reported it was too busy at this time to compile data on the department's racial makeup.
North Dakota Highway Patrol
In North Dakota, about 84% of residents are non-Hispanic white people, according to U.S. Census estimates. About 5.6% are Native American, and 3.4% are Black. Hispanics represent about 4.1%, and Asians are at 1.7% of the state’s population.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol has a total of 199 employees, with 95%, or 190 troopers and others being white. The agency has four Hispanic employees, which is 2%; two Black employees, which is 1%; one Native American employee; one Asian employee; and one Pacific Islander employee.
When the Dakota Access Pipeline protests began in 2016, Trooper Jenna Clawson Huibregtse had only been working for a year. She originally thought her plan to facilitate better working relationships with tribes and people of color was about 10 years down the road.
“The protest happened, and I was watching things through the lens of a human being and a cop, and through anthropology and all this, and so toward the middle and end to the protest, I wrote up a proposal and sent it to my colonel.”
Within a couple of hours she received the go-ahead to put her plan into action.
“It was really highlighted to me that we had not established relationships and communication channels that we could rely on in times of crisis,” Huibregtse said. “We need an agency that represents the people who live in North Dakota.”
Hard to reach
Fargo Police Chief David Todd said hiring people of color is difficult, and his department has been trying to recruit younger people into community programs. Through the Fargo Police Academy, the department aims to create a well of approved candidates for training.
“We’re always trying to,” Todd said of recruiting officers of color. “I think there is a resistance for people to serve in the police department. Some feel it’s betraying their own people by having feet in both worlds. But it’s always good for a police department to reflect its community.”
Fargo Police Officer Michael Bloom is frequently in contact with local youth, and he said he's been working toward rebuilding trust for the past five years. "I don't blame them for having a distrust in police, but it's about repairing the barriers and building that bridge," Bloom said.
Compared to the Fargo Police Department and the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office is the most diverse, but the agency is “always looking for good people,” Sheriff Jesse Jahner said.
Ray, with 12 years working for the Cass County Sheriff's Office, said the best way for law enforcement to become more diverse is to have full-time dedicated units focused on outreach programs across the state.
"I would definitely encourage individuals and people of color to get involved in law enforcement," Ray said. "Change can happen if you become part of that change."
Clay County Sheriff's Office
Across the Red River in Minnesota, the city of Moorhead's population is 85.9% non-Hispanic white, 4.8% Hispanic, 4.3% Black, 1.5% Native American and 1.3% Asian, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting reported that 98% of the 101 deputies are white. Seventy of the deputies are male and 31 are female.
“I will say that hiring, in general, has been more difficult over the past years due to the number of applicants being down,” Empting said. “We used to get around 60 applications, but … now we are getting 15 or so.”
The Moorhead Police Department has 61 sworn officers with 56 currently working; eight of those are female and 48 are male.
The department has two Native Americans, of which Chief Shannon Monroe is one. He’s from the White Earth Nation.
The department also has one Hispanic sworn officer, but no Black officers, Monroe said.
Are the department’s efforts to attract officers of color working?
“Unfortunately not. What we have seen success in the last decade is the amount of women officers that we’re seeing come through," Monroe said. "We're hoping that wave continues into the minority community."
Since recent protests have put police departments under scrutiny across the country, Moorhead police have been meeting with city officials and the Moorhead Human Rights Commission trying to identify changes that are needed.
“A big challenge here, too, is that everything you see going on in the media does not make this an attractive job for anybody, especially people who are a minority,” Monroe said.
"We need to have more of that dialogue with those communities of color and say, 'Why wouldn’t you choose this field? How do we get your participation in the operations of your community’s police department, so you feel like you are an active contributing member of this community and not a member that is on the outside of this community and looking in.'"