The racial demographics of the La Crosse Police Department line up with the community it serves pretty closely, according to U.S. Census Bureau data; however, Chief Shawn Kudron said that didn’t mean there wasn’t room to get a department that better relates to the people it serves.
“Those percentages are very important, but as a department we don’t just rest on those percentages,” Kudron said.
La Crosse is a majority white community – 90.1% of residents are white, according to the census bureau – but the number of Black people living in the city is growing, and Kudron said it’s important for them to feel they are represented by the department.
“It’s very important that the demographics of our police department really match or represent the demographics of our community,” Kudron said.
The department has one Black officer, two Hispanic or Latino officers, and three other people of color who serve as sworn officers. It published that information in June as part of its Transparency in Policing objective.
Percentage-wise, it breaks down to a force that is 93.8% white, 1% Black, 2.1% Hispanic and 3% a different race, such as Asian-American or Indigenous. U.S. Census Bureau data shows La Crosse is 90.1% white, 2.5% Black, 2.1% Hispanic and 4.3% other races.
Kat Sletten, a La Crosse activist who has helped organize multiple Black Lives Matter protests, agreed that the percentages don’t tell the whole story. While the racial make-up of the city is reflected in the police department, the numbers are so small that it’s not enough for true representation.
“Because there is such a small population of (Black and Indigenous people of color) represented in the city and in the police department, it’s a lot easier for racism to go unchecked and therefore it can thrive more. On top of that, because there are so few voices when racism does happen, it’s easy for the majority to ignore it,” Sletten said.
La Crosse used to be what’s known as a “Sundown Town,” a city or village with either formal laws or informal codes of conduct that discouraged Black people from settling down there. Historical demographic data shows the city’s Black population went from 1 to 2 percent in the late 1800s to less than a hundredth of a percent black by the mid-1900s. It is now at 2.5%.
“Most of the officers grew up here where racial comments are not only made, but encouraged as jokes,” she said. “And also because there are so few voices being heard, the stereotypes are taken as truths when they’re not.”
If all people know they are represented by members of the police department, it allows for better communication and understanding, Kudron said, which ultimately provides a better service.
“We are a service-oriented department, providing service and security and safety for the La Crosse community,” Kudron said.
As the department recruits officers, it works to be as welcoming as possible to candidates from all backgrounds while searching for the highest qualified individuals, he said. The department looks at it as a way to add diverse perspectives from all cultural backgrounds to fully understand the community they serve.
“It’s very important for officers who are serving the La Crosse community to be diverse and have diverse perspectives,” Kudron said.
If the department wants to take racism seriously, it shouldn’t be content with emulating the make-up of the city, Sletten said.
“Instead they would be actively hiring as many BIPOC people as it took to make it uncomfortable for officers to be racist in front of each other,” Sletten said.
Kudron agreed that those percentages aren’t enough. Diversity is something he looks at when finding the best, most-qualified person to fill open positions.
“We do value diversity. We’re working hard. We can always be better and we will be,” Kudron said.
The department has been accused of racism in the past, with a former officer, Anthony Clark, suing the city for “persistent racial harassment.” The federal lawsuit was dismissed after the city came to a $50,000 settlement in which the city did not admit to the alleged conduct.
Kudron, who was not chief at the time, addressed the lawsuit by saying, “It is unfortunate that in our history we’ve had circumstances with a couple of different officers, officers who were African-American and, for a wide variety of reasons, they are no longer part of our department.”
The agreement prohibited representatives of the city, as well as Clark, from publicly discussing the settlement.
Sletten pointed out comments like the one that led to Clark’s lawsuit are enabled by the small minority population.
“The racist comments were able to be made because there were so few voices. If officers are able to make comments like that to their ‘brothers in blue,’ imagine how easy it is for them to be racist towards civilians they don’t care about,” Sletten said.
“Because there is such a small population of (Black and Indigenous people of color) represented in the city and in the police department, it’s a lot easier for racism to go unchecked and therefore it can thrive more. On top of that, because there are so few voices when racism does happen, it’s easy for the majority to ignore it.” Kate Sletten, La Crosse activist
As civil unrest over police brutality against minorities continues fomenting throughout our nation, millions of Midwesterners are being served by police forces that, by percentage, look nothing like them.
That is a key finding of a sampling of 68 different municipal, county and state police departments spanning Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota through a special Lee Enterprises investigation.
Amid protests alleging systemic racism in police departments throughout the country, reporters at 14 Midwestern newspaper and online media companies owned by Lee worked together to measure the diversity, or lack thereof, in police agencies throughout their news markets.
The resulting data in the sample ultimately compares the racial and ethnic makeups of those 68 police agencies with the equivalent racial and ethnic populations, as reported in the most recent U.S. Census estimates, served by those agencies.
In all, the Lee Enterprises Midwest sampling analyzed data from police departments that provide services for 29.2 million people living in those four states.
In many cases, the gaps discovered between the way minorities exist within those populations and their representation on police forces are wide.
By the numbers
By percentage, the Lee Enterprises Midwest analysis shows:
Local and national minority advocacy groups have long pushed for diversity in hiring so police agencies contain a look and life experience closer to that of the populations the agencies serve.
Some Midwest police agencies, including Wisconsin’s Madison Police Department, have made deliberate efforts to hire minority officers commensurate with their populations.
Black citizens make up 6.8% of the Madison population, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Meanwhile, the capital city’s police department has a sworn force that is 8.6% Black, making it one of only a handful of departments within the Lee sampling in which Black people have a larger police-to-citizen ratio.
Other departments, including the police agency in Merrillville, Indiana, are on the opposite end of the diversity spectrum.
Despite its existence within the urban core of one Indiana’s most heavy concentrations of minority citizens, Merrillville had the widest gap in the Lee sample between between percentages of minorities within the population versus the police force.
Merrillville’s Black residents account for 44% of the town’s population. Meanwhile, only 5.3% of its sworn police officers are Black, according to the agency.
Most police and other public officials interviewed for the Lee diversity analysis acknowledged diversity in proportion to community demographics is important on police forces.
But challenges persist in recruiting that balance, and diversity within police ranks is no panacea for the systemic racism alleged by many who continue seeking reform throughout the nation’s web of law enforcement agencies, many officials throughout the four states say.
Bridging the gap
The Merrillville Police Department’s new administration seems to realize something needs to change to bridge the wide gap in how it reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
Assistant Police Chief Kosta Nuses said Merrillville’s new top cop, Chief Wiley Luther Cuttino, is in the early stages of a new recruitment strategy that partners with local schools on an Explorers-type program.
Cuttino, who was sworn into the role in June as the department’s first Black chief ever, hopes to interest more diverse youth in joining police ranks through that program.
Merrillville isn’t the only department serving a diverse urban community in the Midwest to fall short in reflecting community racial and ethnic demographics.
As one of the largest and most diverse cities in the state, Hammond, Indiana’s police force is made up of 22.5% in minority officers versus the 65% of minorities that make up the municipal population, department and Census data show. It’s the second widest gap of its kind in the Lee Midwest data sampling.
Meanwhile, white officers compose 77.5% of the Hammond Police Department’s force, while white citizens account for only 37.8% of the city’s population.
And in Crown Point, Indiana, a suburban community about an hour south of Chicago, the city recently announced the hiring of its first Black police officer — ever.
The move brought the department in this heavily white community from a police force that reflected nothing of its 5.4% Black citizens to a force that is now 2% Black.
Just north of Chicago and a short distance from the Illinois border in Racine, Wisconsin, the police officials say they struggle to close the gap between a population that is 53% minority with a police force comprised of 18% minority officers.
It’s the biggest racial diversity gap among any of the Wisconsin communities analyzed in the Lee Midwest sample.
In 1992, The Journal Times in Racine published a story titled “Cop force still white, male.”
Nearly 30 years later, while more women have joined the Racine Police Department, the number of Black officers has only gone up by one.
Racine Police Chief Art Howell, who became the city’s first-ever Black chief in 2012, noted that like the police department in Merrillville, Indiana, his department hopes to do a better job of identifying and attracting diverse police prospects at a young age.
“As we recruit new members under the current environment, significant changes in recruiting will be required,” Howell said. “Potential officers will need to be identified at a relatively early age and cultivated within the communities they will eventually police.”
Howell said he is working with Racine Unified School District to possibly establish a public safety “pathway” in Racine Unified high schools. Right now, RUSD high schoolers have nine Academy pathways to choose from, ranging from health sciences to culinary arts to computer sciences.
While many police officials throughout the Midwest acknowledge the importance of diversity within their ranks, nearly all cite various challenges to meeting the goal.
Competing and poaching
In Carbondale, Illinois, a college town of roughly 25,000, discussion about police reform has been ongoing for two years.
Attempting to maintain a police department reflective of its community has proven challenging as other departments — which target the same diversity goals — poach or compete for the best and brightest from Carbondale’s minority police ranks, officials there said.
Of the city’s 60 sworn officers, 56, or 93% of the force is white. This stands in contrast to the 58% whites accounted for in the overall city population. The total minority population of the force is 6.7%, but minorities make up 42% of the city’s population.
City Manager Gary Williams and Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said diversity is something the city takes very seriously.
“There is a sentiment that government might work best when public agencies, the demographics of public agencies, match the demographics of the community,” Williams said. “We try to hire through that lens.”
But both officials noted Black officers there often are lured away by other, higher paying departments. Grubbs said of the sworn officers hired between 1991 and 2020, 22% were minorities.
In nearby Anna, Illinois, the police department has never hired a Black officer, according to reporting by the Southern Illinoisan.
White police officers in Anna comprise 100% of the force, even though the community has a 13% minority population.
Anna’s hiring records notwithstanding, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police has made the hiring of more diverse police departments a key focus since 2018.
That year, the association signed a pact of “10 Shared Principles” with the NAACP State Conference. The document was borne from the civil unrest that exploded after a Black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, four years earlier.
“We believe that developing strong, ongoing relationships between law enforcement and communities of color at the leadership level and street level will be the keys to diminishing and eliminating racial tension,” one of the focus areas said.
But exacerbating this goal are the very same social struggles that have fueled a renewed push for diversity in policing to begin with.
Stigma stumbling block
Isaac Wallner, 30, is a lifelong resident of Kenosha County, Wisconsin who still weighs a future career in law enforcement based on criminal justice classes he took in college.
Wallner, whose Wisconsin community is located just north of the Chicago area, also has organized several of the recent Black Lives Matter protests pushing for police reform in the community.
Unfortunately, the civil unrest surrounding the perceived treatment of minorities by police may be a stumbling block for more diverse police departments, he said.
“There’s a major separation between the police department and the minority community because of the systemic racism. I feel that, due to that, they’re not going to have many people of color that are going to go and apply for those jobs — because of the fear they have and the chip on their shoulder, rightfully so,” Wallner said.
The focus on hiring more diverse police forces gained steam in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota in May.
The death of Floyd and other Black citizens during encounters with police in recent months have spurred scores of violent riots and peaceful protests throughout the country.
Some Midwest police officials also worry the unrest that has exacerbated an already tenuous distrust between the Black community and police may impact the ability of law enforcement to recruit minority officers.
“I would fully expect to see fewer people of color apply and fewer people overall apply with the intense scrutiny on every move an officer makes,” said Dan Donath, who heads the police department in Bloomington, Illinois.
Jeanelle Norman, president of the NAACP chapter in nearby Decatur, Illinois, said the issues go much deeper.
“It’s about the perceptions that African Americans have about the police, and those perceptions are not very good,” Norman said. “And whether those perceptions are true or false, they are there.”
Miltonette Craig, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University, said that impression is hard to shake.
“When it comes to those that are disadvantaged, high-crime, high-poverty — then they don’t see the police unless they are coming in for law enforcement purposes,” said Craig, whose research focuses on racial disparities in policing outcomes.
Finding a way
Still, some Midwest police departments have managed to find a balance in the policing diversity formula.
“People in the community want to see officers that look like them,” Madison, Wisconsin, police official Jennifer Krueger Favour said.
That sentiment is reflected in the makeup of the capital city’s police department.
Krueger Favour, chief of personnel for the Madison Police Department, noted the department has no formal or specific goals or quotas for the hiring of minority officers. But its culture strives for diversity in hiring, she said.
With a city in which Black residents account for 6.8% of the population, the Madison Police Department fields a team of sworn officers that is 8.6% Black.
The percentage of overall Madison minority officers, at 20%, is more reflective of its community, which is comprised of 27% minorities, than most other departments throughout the Lee Midwest analysis.
The success of some departments in fielding diverse police forces shows challenges to this goal can be overcome, one Midwest diversity official said.
Vanessa Allen-McCloud, a Gary, Indiana, native and president and CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, said departments should make minority recruitment a top priority — even those that are cash-strapped or have long struggled to find minorities.
“These departments are saying ‘Well, we can’t find any (minorities).’ My question to them is ‘Well, how far are you casting your net?’ Are you casting your net only in your neighborhood, or are you reaching out to those neighborhoods with an African-American population?” McCloud said. “Consult with your mayor, the controller, and find the money and make it a priority.”
WATCH NOW: Riding Shotgun with NWI Cops series
The wearing of face masks has for months been a divisive issue, with some feeling the ask infringes on their rights and refusing to patronize establishments with a requirement.
But while a potential loss of business was a concern for Global Grounds co-owner Alina Piotrowski — especially after closing the coffee shop for the months of April and May in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — health outweighed any hesitation.
After reopening its doors, Global Grounds, co-owned by Jorge Galván, joined the list of businesses taking the La Crosse County Health Department’s Check the Spread Pledge, which was created weeks before Thursday’s announcement of Gov. Tony Evers’ state masking mandate, which went into effect Aug. 1.
The pledge — nearly 170 businesses had signed as of Saturday — asks owners to enforce the wearing of masks by employees and monitor them for potential COVID-19 symptoms, accommodate physical distancing, and implement heightened cleaning practices and sanitizer stations, in addition to posting signage strongly encouraging customers to mask up as well. Global Grounds took it a step further, requiring customers to do the latter as of June 1.
“I was really excited the Health Department (issued the pledge). It’s nice to see who is supporting this and taking precautions.” Piotrowski says, noting she doesn’t want to risk visiting establishments not following recommendations as she could contract the virus, potentially infect employees, and have to close her own business.
Taking the pledge was an easy decision for Global Grounds, with customers responding positively overall and staff “very much onboard.” Many of the employees at the coffee shop, Piotrowski says, happen to be college students with public health majors, “So they very much care about what’s going on.”
Wearing a face covering in a food establishment, where ovens and stoves are on or, in this case, hot coffee is brewing, can become uncomfortably warm, but Piotrowski says staff has adjusted, and she is working right there next to them, “going through the same thing they are,” and the solidarity has been appreciated.
Prior to the mandate, Piotrowski says, one of her employees had circulated a petition to issue a citywide masking order, and though it didn’t come to fruition, the Global Grounds team is pleased to see Gov. Evers take action.
“Were very excited. We’re hoping this allows our community to improve in how we’re doing here, and (across) the state,” Piotrowski says.
Laurie Miller, who co-owns Cool Beans Coffee Shop with her husband, Steve, was also an early adopter of the Check the Spread initiative, signing on two days after it launched.
Cool Beans too had started requiring employees to mask pre-pledge, and when the community began to see an uptick in coronavirus cases they shut down indoor seating so as not to put the baristas — and customers — at risk.
Currently, the establishment is still offering outdoor seating only, with the potential of slowly reopening interior tables pending the local pandemic status.
“In a small space, it can be hard to (maintain) social distancing,” Miller says.
Staff responded “very positively” when told they would need face coverings while in the building, Miller says, and customers “have stayed pretty loyal.”
Business, she notes, tends to drop during the summer months in general, with people vacationing and recreating and students returning home.
Miller, like Piotrowski, is in favor of the statewide masking mandate, saying, “Given there is not a vaccine right now, I only see two choices — stay inside your home or wear a mask.” The latter, she notes, offers the opportunity to continue life at least somewhat normally.
Many of Cool Beans’ baristas have two jobs, Miller says, and she and Steve care for his elderly parents, so knowing masks are required by everyone, everywhere (the mandate offers some exemptions relating to age or health conditions) offers some comfort that employees and customers are less likely to become infected elsewhere and bring the virus into the coffee shop, with the spread potentially reaching high-risk family members.
The impact of a chain reaction concerns Miller not just for her own family and staff, but the community at large.
“I see it as very much an interconnected web — no one (entity) is isolated,” Miller says. “What you do has consequences for others.”
For a list of businesses that have signed the Check the Spread pledge, visit www.checkthespread.org/safe-businesses.