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SPD swears in four; including first African American officer

Superior advocate Kym Young, left, hugs Superior Police Officer Ronald Robinson after his swearing-in ceremony Thursday at the Government Center. He is the first African-American officer to join the department. Robinson was one of four new officers sworn in Thursday. Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander had his eye on developing a more diverse police force before he ever sat in the chief's chair. Thursday, a step toward that goal was made when the department's first African-American officer, Ronald Robinson of Superior, was sworn in.

Although the department has four female officers — that number has been as high as six in the past — and Alexander himself is of Greek, Mediterranean descent, this marks the first time an African American has worn the SPD badge.

"Since day one, I talked about it during my application process," Alexander said. "(It) really was something I thought would happen sooner. Part of me is disappointed it's taken this long to come to the opportunity. It wasn't without effort."

A lot of work goes into recruiting, he said, but the area is predominantly Caucasian. For the chief and members of the Police and Fire Commission, diversity is a key issue.

"We want the police and fire departments to look like the community they serve," said commissioner Bonny Copenhaver.

In December, 130 candidates applied to become officers. Of those, 106 took the entry level test in January and 101 passed it.

Those with the top 50 scores were tapped for oral interviews with a three-member panel consisting of a police department manager, a police department officer and a member of the Police and Fire Commission.

"All 50 were interviewed in one day," Alexander said.

The commission certified the top 16. When it's time to hire a new officer, Alexander can pick from the top five names on that list. He doesn't see the rest, but the ultimate hiring decision rests on his shoulders.

Robinson was one of four new officers sworn in Thursday. Russ Milroy of Superior, who is already a certified law enforcement officer, will begin the department's field training program Sunday. Robinson, Charles Mahlen of Danbury and Patrick Denigan of Duluth will attend the Wisconsin Basic Recruit Academy in Eau Claire beginning Monday.

To date, Alexander has hired 13 new officers. Up to six more hires are expected in the next two years, leading to a lot of opportunity.

"When I was hired as chief, I was naïve," he said. "I thought it would be easy to get diverse applicants."

Alexander didn't see any make it to the oral interview during his first hiring process as chief. This year, he said, at least four applied.

"I know several made it, at least to the oral interview," Alexander said.

He continues to focus on outreach to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, including a close connection with the Black Student Union. Eleven of the chief's 13 hires were UWS students.

"I believe ultimately in building relationships with diverse groups," Alexander said. "Hey, we're people just like everybody else; we're fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and parents and yeah, we do go to work and wear a uniform but don't let that be the sole way of defining us."

Members of the Police and Fire Commission are taking a new view of the entry level exam, as well.

"We're looking at the test, making sure it's the right one to be given," Copenhaver said.

For the last 20 years, the city has used an exam put out by Darany and Associates. Prior to that, the city used the state civil service test.

The Police and Fire Commission made the move to the Darany exam to focus on community policing, according to city Human Resources Director Cammi Koneczny. It includes a "biodata" section with questions related to personal history, preferences and attitude. Although there is no correct answer, according to the test overview, some answers can be an indicator of future job success.

"For the most part, we can train people to be proficient with a firearm and to drive a car well in emergency situations, but you can't train qualities of honesty and integrity and empathy and compassion," Alexander said. "Those are things they need to come to the table with."

Two commissioners took the test last month, checking to make sure the process is fair and equal to all.

"To me sometimes the best way to learn and get perspective is to go through something myself," Copenhaver said.

She'd never taken a test like it before, but according to Koneczny both Copenhaver and fellow commissioner Charlie Glazman would have passed.

Although the Darany test has been updated over the years, the commission felt it was a good time to examine both it and the hiring process.

"It never hurts to look at something after it's been used so many years," Copenhaver said, and make an informed decision. "You can't change it if you don't know what it is."

The commission will be discussing the exam, and what tests other departments in the region use, at their June 14 meeting.

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