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Lakota Country Times: Police aim to improve race relations





The following article was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Lakota County Times editor. For more news, subscribe to the Lakota Country Times today. All content © Lakota Country Times.


Vaughn Vargas

Vargas chosen to newly created RCPD spot
By Brandon Ecoffey
LCT Editor

RAPID CITY—Fixing race relations in western South Dakota is a monumental task. Fixing the relationship between the Rapid City Police Department and the Native American community in the city is just as daunting, but, insteps Cheyenne River citizen Vaughn Vargas to try to help bring people together as part of a new endeavor undertaken by the Rapid City police Department.

The new position will be responsible for coordinating and chairing the RCPD’s first-ever Cultural Advisory Committee. According to a social media release from the RCPD the committee “will represent all races and cultures, with an emphasis on representing the Native American members of our community.”

In the same release the RCPD said that Vargas will also advise the department on issues concerning race.

“The committee is expected to be formed and functioning by the end of 2015 and will meet regularly to provide support, input, cultural understanding, and achievable recommendations to advance beyond the RCPD’s current working relationship between the department and the community. Mr. Vargas will advise the Chief of Police on other race and culture related community concerns,” said the statement.

Vargas is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation but grew up in the city and is well aware of the challenges he faces trying to improve relations between the minority community and the police department. At the age of 24 and a student who matriculated from Oglala Lakota College to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Vargas has encountered racism himself in the city but has steadily devoted himself to community organizing and raising awareness to other social issues like suicide.

“Well, I was appointed this position for a number of reasons. First and foremost, people want to focus on my tragedy to triumph story," Vargas said. "I have dealt with three core issues that affect our Native American community at a state level. Those issues are substance abuse, suicide, and high rates of incarceration. I have been sober from drugs and alcohol for almost six years. I lost a child when I was twenty. That loss left me broken and depressed. I tried using the avenues presented to me to treat depression. It didn’t work and it developed into an unsuccessful suicide attempt."

“I know what it’s like to be lost in alcoholism and depression. I know what it’s like to lose a child and I know what it’s like to be suicidal. I also know that not ONE person wants to remain in that mentality,” Vargas added.

Vargas’ willingness to draw from his own struggles and his understanding of what many people go through everyday in the city could potentially open the eyes of some police officers who may not have understood the core issues facing minority communities in the city.

“Through these experiences I learned that suicide, substance abuse, and high rates of Native American incarceration are symptoms of poverty. I changed my focus on spearheading that issue,” he said.

Recent incidents in the city that have included allegations that a group of 57 school children from American Horse School had beer thrown on them while at a minor league hockey game, and several shootings of Native American males in the city that some community members have found questionable and unnecessary have added to long lasting racial tensions in the city that may have existed since its inception in the 1800’s.

Vargas says that he understands that some people in the Native community are wary of the department and Chief Carl Jegeris but that the position is a move in the right direction.

“I am mainly concerned with the fact that this is happening now. This is a huge step forward for Rapid City Police Department, Rapid City’s Native American community, and Rapid City as a whole," said Vargas. "If this is successful, we hope to serve as a model for areas with similar circumstances. However, in order for this to be successful I need the help and support of our community."

“I know some people may be cautious and critical of the Chief of Police’s decision. It is understandable, but this is not the time for our Native American community to be divided," Vargas said. "Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. We are being recognized and invited to the table.”

Many in the Native community had hoped that some sort of civil rights probe would be opened in to the conduct of the Rapid City Police Department and that mechanisms be put in place that would curtail incidents of police brutality and discrimination. The position created by the department does not give Vargas authority to dictate policy but can help influence lasting change.

“As my position is currently defined, I am to design and establish a cultural advising committee to the Chief of Police. However, I can help guide police for the Rapid City Police Department," Vargas said. "We are hoping to start a positive change in the community, and that means the RCPD may have to change/adapt to some new protocols/techniques in the fight against crime."

“One thing Chief Jegeris brought to my attention is that it is important that I do not do the work of the committee. He is right, the Rapid City Native American community deserves to have proper representation," Vargas said. "It is not fair if I speak, or suggest policy changes, for an entire community. Not one person can, or should, do that. If there are suggestions made to influence policy, I would prefer the committee comes to a consensus.”

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at editor@lakotacountrytimes.com)