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Storm Lake Chief of Police Mark Prosser (Extended Interview)

posted on April 19, 2007

My name is Mark Prosser.

Q. And your position here in Storm Lake?

I am the public safety director for the City of Storm Lake.

Q. Does that mean you are also the Chief of Police? Or is it a separate job?

No, I am the Chief of Police also, correct.

Q. How long have you been doing those jobs?

I was hired as Chief of Police in October of 1989 and asked to serve as public safety director in June of 2000.

Q. So you've got quite a bit of history with this recent wave of immigration here in Storm Lake, don't you?

I arrived when the changes started to move a little bit more rapidly and become a little bit more profound.

Q. So from a public safety point of view, from the Chief of Police's point of view, has this wave of immigration caused particular law enforcement problems? Tell me your overall opinion of what's been going on.

I think we certainly have to do our job differently. Prior to the major change in our demographics, we operated in a single language environment, being English. But since that time, we've had to learn to operate in a multi-lingual environment. That brings challenges in just being able to communicate and understand individuals. That's the biggest challenge we have, is communications.

Q. Have you seen a change in the crime rate, for example? Is that attributable to more lower income people, anything like that?

Storm Lake has seen an increase in crime, but it's not specifically attributed to any one ethnic group. Storm Lake has grown. Because of our immigration numbers and our ability to grow in the 1990's, our raw numbers grew, and with that crime rates escalated. Also in the 90's, rural America experienced higher levels of serious crime. So we were no different than any other rural community in the Midwest or in the United States. So that collectively brought with it some new challenges, but we've plateaued based on our growth. We don't see any major shifts that are otherwise not experienced in the Midwest.

Q. If I had never been to Storm Lake, if I didn't know what Storm Lake was, and you didn't have a lot of time to tell me, how would you describe this community?

I would describe Storm Lake as a thriving, diverse community with a strong retail center, a strong base of education with Buena Vista College, a community college, parochial and public systems here and a very good quality of life. It's just a great place to be.

Q. How has the most recent influx of immigrants -- I'll say that because I know there are Southeast Asians that came during the 70's, and there are some Sudanese, I believe, you told me about -- but since the Swift raids - because of all the publicity, because of mostly the Latino migration into Iowa, how would you say that has affected Storm Lake overall?

It's made Storm Lake a picture of what the world is all about, with its diversity, people of color and a variety of languages. It's brought opportunities and challenges. Wherever there is change, there's challenges. And you're going to find individuals on both sides of that spectrum. But most certainly we have new types of businesses opening, our different ethnic groups are bringing their culture here and opening businesses based around that, and our school enrollment is growing. I think it's been an overall positive impact, but it has certainly not come without challenges and hurdles that we've had to learn how to jump through.

Q. You mentioned the language hurdle as one of the challenges. Are there other challenges that you can tell me about?

From a law enforcement or public safety standpoint, our community -- by the nature of its change in demographics -- is very transient. So from a law enforcement standpoint, we deal with a lot more individuals who may be here and involving themselves in criminal activity and then gone. We deal a lot with West Coast, California and Texas authorities, where prior to that transient nature, we had not dealt with those types of law enforcement agencies.

Of course, the language issue. You can't appropriately serve people that you can't communicate with. Above and beyond any argument about what should be an official language, when they're standing on your doorstep on a particular day and they need help, you have to be able to communicate with them. And so we've had to learn how to do that via interpreters, language classes and so on.

The other issue with cultural differences is some of the cultures and groups that live here, their experience with public safety is completely different than the experience we try to provide in Iowa and in the United States. In some cases they have dealt with individuals in public safety in their homeland that are corrupt, or they are the police, the judge, the jury and the executioner. And for that reason, it takes us a lot of time and a lot of effort to bridge those gaps and build a trust between law enforcement, government and our new citizens. That is always a work in progress.

Q. Are there some overt measures you've taken to build that trust? Can you describe those for me?

One of the programs that we are involved with actually is a partnership with the Iowa State University extensions office here. That is called Community Voices, and that is where we assist in providing classes in a bilingual environment. That talks about government, that talks about immigration laws, that talks about public safety, education and health. We deliver information about our local service and access to our local services, but we do it via interpreters in their languages. So that we can not only help educate individuals, but hopefully develop a comfort level with our new citizens here in Storm Lake. Hopefully, they will want to help take leadership positions and feel a comfort level in getting active in the community.

Q. I want to go back to the change in crime rate. Is there a disproportionate number of the crimes being committed by these new immigrants would you say?

That's certainly a myth, but the facts don't bear that out. We have monitored that and tracked arrest rates and charges by ethnicity for well over 15 years now. And in no time in that period has there ever been a disproportionate amount of minority arrests as compared to their presence in the community. Now, those numbers have changed, but our demographics have changed. But 10 years ago or 15 years ago, as an example, if we had one minority group that represented five percent of the community, their arrest rates were at five percent and so on. There is the belief that perhaps a handful of one particular ethnic group is responsible for 90% or 95% of the criminal activity. And that has never been the case.

Q. Do we know where that belief comes from? Is it just the fear of the unknown?

I think it's the fear of the unknown. I think there are individuals who embrace our diversity, and I think there are individuals who are scared of it or don't like it, based on a variety of their own reasons. And when you see crime reports and see those types of things, and it's a common northwest Iowa name, that may go in one ear and out the other. But if you hear a foreign name, or one that is difficult to pronounce or read, it tends to stick with you. And in the history of our community, in the last fifteen years, that's a short span of history. Those new names, I think, strike a tone.

Now, as our new different ethnic names and cultures start to pop up on the crime radar, at the same time our community grew. At the same time, different types of crimes popped up in our community that perhaps we didn't deal with prior to 1989 -- or at least at the volume we do now. And so there was an easy jump from new immigrant citizens to a new level of crime. Well, who caused that? But the facts and the statistics don't support that myth.

Q. You talked about the growth of Storm Lake. Can you put some figures on that? I know we spoke over the phone about how some of it is a little bit tough to track.

It is tough to track. The official census numbers put us in the mid-to-upper 8000's in the 90's, and then over 10,000 at the 2000 census. Based on experts who have given us opinions from Iowa State University and elsewhere, looking at school enrollment figures and employment figures, there is an estimate of about a 35% undercount on our minority citizens. So the projected growth is probably around 12,000, although it's very difficult to get your arms around that. And at the same time, with the transient nature, we have a lot of people flowing into the community and flowing out of the community, sometimes on a weekly basis.

Q. I imagine that where those growing numbers or those changing numbers have had their biggest impact has been in the school system?

I would think so. Their numbers and the change and their makeup of the schools and their growth is pretty impressive.

Q. So you've seen Storm Lake change a great deal in the last 15 years or more that you've been in this office. You were talking 18 years. In your estimation as a citizen of Storm Lake, maybe outside of your office, does this feel like a good thing for Storm Lake?

I think it has. I think if you look at other rural communities unattached to urban areas in our state, or in similar type states, you don't see a lot of growth and expansion. Storm Lake has been blessed with that. There are, again, challenges and good and bad, but I think the goods far outweigh the bads. In recent history, or at least in the tenure that I've lived in Storm Lake, I have never seen the explosion in commercial growth and the development of housing growth and recreational growth that I've seen in the last two or three years in this community. A lot of it has to do with just the community getting larger and people being very supportive, whether they are long-time Storm Lake born and bred residents, or they are new immigrant residents. They are very supportive of the Project Oasis, and the building of an indoor and outdoor athletic plan, and the development of our beaches, and so on. It's been unprecedented in our community by everyone who is here. So you've seen a real partnership develop around the natural resources in our community and around the new and the old people who live here.

Q. How have you seen the attitude of the native Storm Lake people change as more and more people have come to this town?

I think early on, there was a fear of the unknown. There is a touch of discrimination and prejudice in all of us, and I think we saw that. You continue to see that with some individuals. But for the most part the largest group of our community led by our churches, led by our educators and our professionals, have embraced diversity here and understand that it's not something that's going to go away. It's just not here for a year or two and then leaving. It's what Storm Lake's future is. And although they're apprehensive and maybe not knowing what that specific path is that this community is going to take, for the most part the community has dealt well with it, with welcoming individuals, learning to adapt, making mistakes and learning by their mistakes, changes in marketing strategies and so on.

There are extremes to all of that, but as a whole the community has done well in a pretty dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.

Q. So it seems to me that Storm Lake is a success story. I'm guessing part of the reason it is a success story is that you've got Tyson, which is a successful organization that has a lot of jobs at that level. But also, on the other hand, you have the two educational institutions, and so you probably have a fairly well-educated population. Do you agree with that assessment? Are there other ingredients that you think are important?

Most certainly, our two large packing plants in the community have a huge impact on the jobs and the economy of the community. Having Buena Vista University here and Iowa Central Community College brings that high level of academia, which allows people to see things through a variety of different viewpoints. But above and beyond that, I think that Storm Lake has a base of welcoming good people, who have stepped forward and opened their doors and their businesses and so on to our new immigrant citizens. It has not been easy for them, and I think there are some individuals who are still very troubled by it. But for the most part, many are partnering and welcoming and understanding that this is the future of our community.

Q. You mentioned the transient nature of a lot of these immigrants. But are there some who have settled? Are there some who are starting businesses or changing from entry level jobs into other types of jobs? What have you seen?

Absolutely. We've seen a stabilization in a good portion of our new citizens who have moved here. They are able to purchase homes, some have opened new businesses -- be it clothing business, jewelry, food related businesses -- and they're quite popular types of businesses in our community. One of the admirable things we see with our Spanish speaking citizens and Southeast Asian citizens is their partnering with other family members to help someone succeed. That's not necessarily something you would see in my culture, or in how we do things in the United States. Where one group will merge their money and help one family buy a home, and then once that is established, they move on and help a cousin or a sibling or whatever. They do that quite effectively. We're seeing many, many more property owners in our community who are new citizens from different ethnic groups, and that stabilization helps any community.

Q. Does it feel like one community, or does it kind of feel like two separate communities still - that there are Latinos and there are Anglos and there's not much mixing?

I think that kind of depends on who you ask. In an overall response, I'd say it feels as one community. But there are many, many subgroups within the community, and there's not a lot of interaction between Euro Americans and Hispanic citizens, or Spanish speaking citizens and Laotian citizens. And there's a lot of differences between Spanish speaking citizens from different Spanish speaking countries. There is the assumption that the citizens who speak Spanish in Storm Lake are from Mexico, and that's just not the case. That is one of many countries they are from. So there's not necessarily a cohesiveness with those individuals, because of geographical reasons or otherwise. So there are a lot of splintered groups, and that coming together still needs to occur. I think the success stories you'll see are not with the adults who live here now, but with the children who go through our school systems and who are the next generation of leaders in our community.

Q. You said that you got here in '89 to start this job. Where did you come from?

I was born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois and came from the Metropolitan St. Louis area to start life.

Q. The disparities or the differences in East St. Louis, Illinois are probably more black and white as opposed to white and Latino?


Q. Were you in the police force down there?

I worked for a suburb on the Illinois side, the city of O'Fallon, Illinois. I worked for their police department. I was in law enforcement for 10 years when I was hired as the Chief here.

Q. What did you know about Storm Lake? Was there the Latino presence here to any extent when you arrived?

No. There was certainly a Southeast Asian presence here when I arrived. I didn't know a lot about Storm Lake. I was actually looking for a police administration job around the metropolitan St. Louis area, or in the Midwest, and I knew of someone who had lived here and spoke highly of the community, and so I pursued an opportunity here. There were hardly any Spanish speaking citizens when I arrived in 1989. But shortly thereafter, they started moving to our community pretty rapidly.

Q. Any regrets for coming to Storm Lake?

No, it's been a wonderful experience. Very good community.

Q. Tell me how this situation or the diversity of this town has affected you personally.

As a public safety administrator, it has certainly heightened my awareness that we have to be able to provide services to anyone despite their language or their culture. We need to learn how to do that. When a person has been victimized or witnessed a crime or been in a car accident or whatever that might be, no matter what their language is, we still have a responsibility to serve them, and to get the information, and to bring a particular incident to a close, and also to ensure that their civil rights are adhered to and honored. So we have to learn and have learned how to deal with that multi-lingually. Training our officers on the different cultures, that's been quite a learning experience for our entire organization.

Q. So every officer that works in this public safety department knows a little bit of Spanish?

Some. We have full-time interpreters both in Lao and Spanish -- civilian community service officers -- and they are our primary interpreters. We also have bilingual office staff. Some of the officers have taken classes and grasped Spanish very well, others know a little bit and work through the interpreters.

Q. I imagine that was an extra expense for the department. I'm just wondering how those expenses were...?

It was actually some great foresight on the part of our elected officials. As our community was growing and we saw a need to add staff to the police department in 1994, one of the options was -- as opposed to hiring a lot more police officers -- to supplement our sworn force with civilian staff, known as community service officers in our urban counterparts. What our city council added to that was: Okay, we're going to do that, but those will be full-time bilingual positions to help us with our language barriers. That has been a great program, and we could not function without those bilingual employees.

Q. So somebody had some foresight.

They did.

Q. They could see the future coming.


Q. What do you see in Storm Lake's future? More groundedness by these newcomers? What's happening?

I see continued growth in our community. I see a continued increase in diversity, and I've always felt for at least for the last ten years that what is on the horizon for this community is what we see in our school systems. The children and the youth, and we see even larger numbers and percentages of diverse students in our school system than we do in the community as a whole. I believe that is our continued future.

Q. Last question -- what would Storm Lake be like without this large group of Latinos that are living here?

I'm not sure what Storm Lake would be like. Most certainly we don't have the labor force existing here by itself to help staff the many jobs that are available in our community. So would that impact the keeping of those businesses in our community, or the ability for new businesses to expand here? I'm not sure. I don't think that the future of Storm Lake would be as bright as it is today without the growth we've experienced in our different cultures.

Tags: culture interviews Iowa Storm Lake


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