Racial politics and policing are two interconnected subjects that have gripped our nation, particularly after last summer. This week, we explored these and other subjects through interviews with two informants: Storm Lake Police Chief Chris Cole, and former Chief Mark Prosser. We posed some difficult but necessary questions to our guests, who have had to deal with these issues every day in a local context.
Before our conversation with Cole, we began class on Monday discussing Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind, a short book that investigates the decline of rural life in America. Wuthnow’s study relies on interviews and case studies from various small towns, similar to our project.
When you look at a picture of an American farm, Wuthnow writes, it could be from the 1910s or the 1980s, and you wouldn’t be able to tell much difference. During our conversation with Dr. Whitlatch, he had brought up something along these same lines, saying that Storm Lake in the 1980s was practically identical to Storm Lake thirty years later, a trend that would be nigh impossible to find in any big American city in the 20th century.
While farms might not have changed much in the middle twentieth century, businesses did. It is very difficult for mom-and-pop-type stores to thrive in rural America, where they are competing against the likes of Walmart, which can offer a seemingly endless variety with unmatched prices. Small-town shops must therefore provide some sort of niche service unmet by big companies. The resulting loss of businesses and jobs not only causes economic decline, it also has significant cultural impacts as well. In these small towns, everyone tends to know each other, and so when someone loses their job, people talk, and “the conversation can quickly shift from what happened to them to what could happen to me,” causing fear among townsfolk. Referring back to our discussion with Dr. Whitlatch again, Wuthnow made a very similar point: many of the local businesses in Storm Lake are very niche and pertain to Storm Lake’s diverse culture, such as a Hispanic bakery.
In Wuthnow’s work, many of his informants were kept anonymous, and towns were left unnamed (e.g., “a New England town”). We understood how this added to the argument that the scholar was trying to make: it doesn’t matter who said what or where they’re from, because these themes are happening all across rural America. Wuthnow aims to recognize these shared problems. Talon Wolter, a fellow student, put it nicely: “This is looking at the microcosm that is the macro of the entire United States and…rural zones in general.”
While Storm Lake and other towns like it may be experiencing some of the effects of this decline , the town is embracing its unique and diverse population to try and counter the trend.
Police Chief Chris Cole spoke to this in a far-ranging conversation on topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial issues and reactions to Black Lives Matter, community relations, and his various experiences over the past twenty-five years. From the outset, we sensed how Cole embraces his role within the Storm Lake community. He detailed some of his past and how he has grown as a person and police officer. He recalled one of his first days on the job when he had chased down and tackled a man. Upon identifying him, a Hispanic man with the name Jesús, Cole declared, “You’re in trouble now Jesus!” (Cole had used the Anglo pronunciation, ‘gee-zus,’ as opposed to the correct Spanish pronunciation, ‘hay-soos.’) Cole laughed at the memory.
As an outsider coming into Storm Lake, Cole experienced a bit of a culture shock, but thanks to the rigorous diversity training that all Storm Lake officers had been undergoing for years (before required by law), Cole quickly acclimated. Talking with a lot of the people he had arrested also helped him out, he said. Officers can have a lot of down-time when taking people to the station for processing. (Officers have to drive them to the station, file paperwork, fingerprint them, and, if they are injured, officers must take them to the hospital and stay with them while they are being helped.) Cole thereby accumulated hours upon hours of conversations with Storm Lake locals, he said, “and so I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and different peoples’ experiences just based on…basic conversations.”
When we interviewed Cole’s wife, Dr. Stacey Cole, last week, it was clear that she was very aware of her schools’ shortcomings and had plans to improve upon them, so I posed a similar question to Chief Cole: what challenges were his officers facing? One of his biggest ongoing challenges is the need to maintain good relations with the local community. Despite having two community relations officers, Cole has felt a disconnect; a fair number of crimes go unreported. Cole attributes this in part to the current level of distrust that many communities across America have with police officers. In Storm Lake, as a town with an extremely diverse community, some of those feelings are represented. Another factor is that Tyson’s aggressive campaigning south of the border has resulted in a significant undocumented immigrant community, which in turn has resulted in immigrants fearful of reporting crime, in order to avoid the spotlight.
Despite these fears, Cole made it clear that tracking down and rounding up undocumented immigrants is not in his job description. His job is to protect the entire community, not just those who “won the birth lottery,” and he wants to protect “with equity.”
Cole intends to continue to strengthen his department’s community relations, and he will do so in various ways. He reaches out to community leaders to anticipate and resolve any issues, and he also talks with other police chiefs, though they tend to be from larger cities. Cole gives back to the community on his own time, as well. He mentors young athletes in Storm Lake, who experience both implicit and explicit racial bias when traveling to other towns.
Cole also struggles to recruit people of color to join the force. Despite the town’s population, with an estimated 70% to 80% people of color, the police department does not reflect that level of diversity. Cole recognized that his POC officers have significantly better relations with their respective communities than his white officers. He also appreciates the value of having diverse role models for children, and he is working hard to diversify his department as much as possible.
On Wednesday, we got the chance to talk with former Chief of Police Mark Prosser, who retired in January of 2020. Prosser currently works as a deacon in Sioux City while also serving on the board of the National Immigration Forum. His career in Storm Lake aligned with the heavy influx of Hispanics to town, and we focused on his relations with the Hispanic community in particular.
We were curious as to when Prosser first noticed changes affecting Storm Lake. He said it was pretty early on in his career, in the early 90s, when they had arrested an undocumented immigrant who spoke very little English. Prosser thought, “What the hell do we do?” He quickly came to a conclusion that Chief Cole later reached. In his words, it came down to “communication, communication, communication.” That is the key to maintaining good, strong relationships with the community they swore to protect. Later in his career, there were instances when he was notified of a new racial group moving en masse into Storm Lake. Well-versed in working with a multicultural community, Prosser didn’t break a sweat, saying, “Been there, done that, business as usual.”
Prosser also spoke of lessons he learned on the force. In a poignant moment, he reflected on one of the biggest detriments to community relations: when his department assisted an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid at IBP, where officials detained about 200 people. Although almost all of the people were released within a couple days, it stoked fear within the community and “it really negatively damaged relations” and had profound consequences, he said. Prosser recalled, “We scared the hell out of the people, and we put a lot of families in fear.” From that day on, though, he knew that he had made a mistake facilitating the raid. He made it known loud and clear to the public that his department would no longer assist such raids. “It was the worst professional decision of my life to be involved with the raid,” he said.
When asked about some of the best strategies that he employed to try and rebuild his department’s trust with the community, Prosser said that he realized Storm Lake’s police couldn’t do business like they would in “white America.” The SLPD accomplished this through all kinds of diversity training and cultural humility training. He even brought in experts on ethnic groups present in Storm Lake to train his officers to best serve and protect this community. “It’s the infamous marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “It has to be infused into what you do every day.”
Prosser also made sure that his officers and he participated in as many communal events as possible, and that they never turned down an invitation to be with their immigrant communities. Whether it was a festival or a church function, SLPD “wanted to be there, so [immigrant populations] knew we were part of the community as their brothers and sisters.”
Other than people like Cole and Prosser, who promote change and diversity, there are still those who wish to “turn back the clock,” in Dr. Whitlatch’s words, to the time before Storm Lake was host to thirty different languages. Prosser recalled that during the INS raid in the 1990s “there were people standing on the streets, cheering when they saw the INS buses coming through.” Even to this day, Cole expressed that some resentment persists, and “that there’s definitely people that have that mindset.”
“We have a long ways to go,” Cole said. “America has a long ways to go.”
Justin Hobart is a junior at Miami University studying History