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
Jourdan Vian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.
“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
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