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Allender hears from North Rapid

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Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender speaks during a press conference at the Public Safety Building on Sunday, August 7, 2011. Allender announced at at the conference that Rapid City Police Officer Nick Armstrong, 27, had died at Rapid City Regional Hospital on Sunday as a result of his injuries from an August 2 shooting. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

Members of the North Rapid community greeted Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender with thanks and concerns about racism at a North Middle School forum Thursday night.

Allender hosted the forum in the aftermath of the Aug. 2 shooting at a North Rapid intersection in which two police officers and the civilian shooter died.

More than 200 people attended the forum, where Allender discussed efforts to fight crime in North Rapid before taking questions.

"People somehow associate violence with North Rapid," Allender said. "The shooting that occurred had no more to do with North Rapid than anywhere else."

The North Rapid area does have more police officers than any other area of town, Allender said -- a response to the fact that the police department receives more 911 calls from there than any other neighborhood.

But Allender and members of the crowd said crime has significantly improved in recent decades in North Rapid.

Community member Leonard Bryant, who has lived in North Rapid for more than 40 years, said he had seen "the change in North Rapid for the better, and I have seen a change in the Rapid City police for better."

Allender highlighted the importance of community policing, where officers get to know residents and deal with nuisance issues rather than just responding to 911 calls.

"The neighborhood is degraded by nuisance crimes, such as drinking and littering and stacking up junk in the yard," he said.

The solution, Allender said, is to systematically engage a neighborhood, doing things that seem more like "social service work."

"Why are cops doing social service? Because it works," he said.

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Although Allender and the Rapid City Police Department received applause and plaudits during the two-hour forum, there was also plenty of criticism.

Multiple audience members told Allender they see problems with racism against Native Americans from police officers.

"I know that there are good cops out there, and there are racist cops," Sandra Little said. "I've seen it. I've lived here most of my life."

Allender defended the department but also asked for help.

"My preference is that we would never have another shooting, ever, involving a Native American," he said.

Saying it was "probably very unprofessional to say," Allender said that "as a white police chief, I wish we would only use force against white people, because it would erase that issue that's so hard to deal with and is so troubling for so many people."

Allender said more than 50 percent of the Rapid City Police Department's arrests are of Native Americans -- far larger than the Native share of the population. He noted that a large number of those involved both victims and perpetrators who are Native Americans. "We have more contact with Native American people than we do non-Native; I can't lie about that," he said.

After multiple speakers called on the police department to hire more Native officers, Allender said the police department had tried and failed in the past.

"If you have a great idea for how we can go out and get little Native American boys and girls interested in being law enforcement officers in Rapid City, I'm all for it," he said.

Another call at Thursday's meeting was for dialogue.

"I want to see this racism stop over here," said Cynthia Gonzalez, who identified herself as a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "You guys can be more educated in our culture, as well."

Allender said he is "always looking for the next great idea of how to facilitate something that will help us get our issues on the table" and asked for suggestions on constructive ways to move forward.

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