Retiring Rapid City police chief reflects on career

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Three days before retiring as the Rapid City Police Chief, Karl Jegeris took the time to meet with a citizen who wants to defund the department he’s overseen for the past six years.

“I’ve agreed to listen to her,” the 47-year-old said recently at his office. “And I will share some of my thoughts with her and show some of the work that we’ve been doing that is very proactive to decriminalize our efforts.”

Jegeris isn’t leaving law enforcement due to the recent nationwide protests about policing, but the meeting represents his passion for serving his community — the value that drove him toward law enforcement and his new career in social services.

On June 29 Jegeris began his position as Director of Collaborative Excellence at the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota, a nonprofit that serves women, children and families going through domestic violence, neglect and other traumas.

Jegeris said police departments and the Children’s Home do “very similar” and “potentially life changing” work for the community, and officers interact with victims and perpetrators who later receive help from the nonprofit.

“It’s human services work, it’s very complex, it involves oftentimes making the best out of bad situations,” he told the Rapid City Journal. “As police officers we’re responding to the trauma that young people are exposed to and we’re seeing it first hand. The Children’s Home Society is really helping to restore hope in individuals who have suffered extreme trauma.”

Jegeris is looking forward to his new job but also to spending Independence Day at the lake with his wife and their two sons, something he hasn’t been able to do for at least 15 years due to his leadership positions at the police department.

He said he’s not upset about missing the opportunity to oversee public safety during the visit from President Donald Trump and high ranking federal officials that will be met with crowds of supporters and protesters.

Jegeris said he was offered tickets to attend the fireworks as a spectator, but declined.

“That’s not my idea of a fun day — going up and dealing with a crowd during a COVID circumstance,” he said.

History of service

Jegeris said his family’s history drove him to serve others.

His father and grandmother were “forced out of their home” in wartime Latvia after his grandfather died while serving in the military. “He never returned” and his family wasn’t sure where or how he died, Jegeris said.

He said his father spent ages 5 through 10 at a refugee camp in post-Nazi Germany with his grandmother. The family eventually found a sponsor and immigrated to Minnesota where they relied on social service programs for housing, food and other basic needs.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the help of … many others along the way, they would have never found a safe place, they would have never achieved some of the things that they achieved,” Jegeris said. That made me “have a seriously deep desire to give back to others that are in similar circumstances.”

Jegeris served as a reserve officer while studying law enforcement at Minnesota State University in Mankato. During the summers, he worked as a county park ranger.

After graduating college in 1995, he began his first full-time law enforcement position as an entry-level patrol officer in Rapid City.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he said, adding that he’s glad to be safe after being shot at during his career.

Two years into his career, Jegeris responded to a domestic violence call and when he tried to arrest the suspect, the man assaulted him and tried to grab his weapon. Jegeris said he was able to arrest the man after a four-minute struggle without using a stun gun — which police didn’t carry at the time — or his firearm.

Eighteen years later, Jegeris received a call from the man who said he wanted to apologize. The man “gasped” when Jegeris said he’d already forgiven him.

That story “will stick with me forever,” Jegeris said.

Jegeris went on to serve as a school liaison officer and juvenile detective. He said he enjoyed working with youth at school or those who became involved in crime and is excited to continue working for children at his new job.

He was the patrol captain when he responded to the August 2011 scene where Officers Ryan McCandless and Nick Armstrong were fatally shot. Jegeris escorted McCandless and his family back to Michigan where they attended a funeral he helped plan. He then had to make sure his officers were continuing to serve the community while taking care of their own trauma.

“The death of our officers and really the (emotional) recovery” was the greatest career challenge, Jegeris said.

Jegeris later served as assistant chief of police before becoming chief in June 2014.

He said he hired about 50 officers during his term and felt like a “quasi-parent” to them, like he was responsible for their safety and development. His overall mission was to make the department community and victim-centered.

“I’ve worked very tirelessly on improving community relations, especially when it comes to race relations, especially when it comes to our Native American community,” Jegeris said.

He said he helped the department become “way ahead of the game” when it comes to police reform and decriminalizing social problems and low-level crimes through the Care Campus, various MacArthur Safety and Justice programs, and the Quality of Life Unit. “I think we’ve made some big changes. There’s more to be done but we’re on the right track,” he said.

Jegeris said he wasn’t in a rut, that he wasn’t out of ideas to improve the department. But he said he’s made his mark and it’s time for someone else to lead, and that it’s best for himself and the organization to leave when things are going well, so the department can keep positive momentum.

“It’s time for me to get out of the way here so that it can go to the next level,” he said. “It’s time for me to take all of that skill that I’ve built and put it in a new direction.”

Jegeris said he will miss the compassionate staff and officers who “come with a desire to change the world in a positive way.” He’ll also miss his visits the patrol division to “just see the energy and hear some of the stories of how they’re dealing with complicated situations.”

New role

Jegeris said he expects to be working with similarly passionate staff at the Children’s Home.

He said he’d been considering leaving the department for months and reached out to the nonprofit to say he’d be interested in working for them. The Children’s Home created the Collaborative Excellence position and Jegeris was recently hired after competing against other candidates.

Jegeris said he will have an office at the Children’s Home in Rockerville but will spend “considerable time” in Sioux Falls, where six of the nonprofit’s eight programs are headquartered.

He said his role will be more “behind-the-scenes” than his current job and that it focuses on “strategy execution” by making sure the CEO and eight program managers are working in the “the most efficient and effective manner.” Jegeris said the position also involves risk-management and helping roll out new projects.

Although Jegeris isn’t leaving due to the national conversation surrounding policing, it’s a topic that’s been on his mind.

“I wish there wasn’t tension in our community at the moment that I left,” he said.

Jegeris noted that he became police chief just two months before the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He said Rapid City saw anti-police brutality marches back then and some “horrendous behavior” towards local officers.

He said there have been “ups and downs” regarding the public’s views towards policing since then, but “what’s going on right now is a very obvious public ridicule of the law enforcement profession.”

It’s a “greater intensity” and combined with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, Jegeris said. “That war on our staff, that level of stress will wear on anybody … but I’ve seen that at the end of these kinds of conflicts, we come out stronger.”

Jegeris said some of the rhetoric to defund the police is “retaliatory in nature” but he actually supports some of the ideas if they’re done in the right way.

“Some of the strategies regarding shifting workload to more appropriate places like social work fields, I agree with that,” he said. But he said it would be a “recipe for disaster” to immediately defund departments without a transition plan.

Jegeris said he thinks there will be current employees interested in filling his shoes, and agreed with Mayor Steve Allender that external searches are only necessary if the department needs a culture shift.

The new chief needs to “share the power of the position with the community” by learning about local history and listening to citizens, Jegeris said. They also need to advocate for staff’s mental and physical health while maintaining a progressive culture so the department can continue to attract young, passionate officers.

Jegeris said he thinks the national discussion about policing will make it harder for many departments to find people interested in becoming police officers and chiefs, but not in Rapid City.

There’s “something special going on in Rapid City,” he said.