When he was growing up in north Minneapolis, a police officer used a racial slur against Prior Lake Interim Police Chief Booker Hodges. Despite the interaction, Hodges felt called to become a cop.
”This is really what God wanted me to do, ultimately,” Hodges said. “I think this is my purpose, but I do firmly believe this is the best profession on the face of the earth. I think it’s one of the most noble professions. Every time a police officer puts on a uniform, they are telling the public that their life is less important than the public’s.”
Hodges was appointed by City Manager Frank Boyles as the interim police chief for the Prior Lake Police Department on Nov. 30 after the sudden resignation of former Prior Lake Police Chief Mark Elliott. His interim contract is for six months, after which the next city manager, Michael Plante, would decide what happens.
“We are fortunate to have an acting chief of police as qualified and as strong as Booker,” Prior Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs said. “Manager Boyles did great work on our behalf in ensuring that we had an acting chief to turn to and that there could be an orderly and timely transition of leadership.”
When he was 12 years old, Hodges’ mom died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He said he remembers the police officers standing in his kitchen, debating whether or not to charge his father in her death, as the cause of her death was not yet known and the couple had been in an abusive relationship.
“Why would we do that? Then we have two more n--- — kids in foster care,” one cop said, referring to Hodges and his younger brother.
“From a spiritual standpoint of that experience — what God called me to do, he wasn’t going to let the Devil override me with a negative experience,” Hodges said. “It’s one of those things that, as a leader, I make sure I do what I can to get those people out of organizations.”
When he graduated high school, Hodges read at a fourth or fifth grade level. He went to the Florida Southern College, where he was put in an English class with students who were learning English as a second or third language.
He struggled academically and came back to Minnesota for a year. During that time, Hodges took a job parking cars in downtown Minneapolis. He would listen to The O’Reilly Report, which would later become The O’Reilly Factor, and read the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“That really helped get me to the point where I could read a lot better and understand a lot better,” Hodges said. “When I went to high school, they gave you extra credit for putting commas after ‘and.’ It was tough. It’s too hard to play catch up in college if you can’t read.”
Hodges returned to school and earned his bachelor’s degree in 2000, a master’s degree in 2007 and a doctorate degree in 2015.
Hodges met his wife, Larinda, at Florida Southern College. He said he told her when they started dating that he was going back to Minnesota after graduation and that his firstborn son, if he had a son, would be named Booker. The couple wound up with two sons — Booker and Soren.
At the start of his career, Hodges worked at the Minnesota State Fair before moving to the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked for 10 years in a variety of roles — school resource officer, patrol, SWAT, narcotics, sergeant, overnight watch commander and court security.
From 2008 to 2013, Hodges served as the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. During that time, he focused on increasing membership and promoting education.
“I firmly believe that if people learn how to read and write and do basic mathematics, they’re not going to come in contact with police,” Hodges said. “To me, that’s where the research should focus.”
While he was president, Hodges advocated for Minneapolis education board members to be elected by district as opposed to across the city.
“A lot of people who were from poorer neighborhoods weren’t able to win citywide elections,” Hodges said. “A lot of the communities were affected by these disparities.”
After his time at the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, Hodges moved to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, where he was an inspector and a public information officer before he was promoted to administration undersheriff. As undersheriff, Hodges was responsible for a $57 million budget and overseeing human resources for the 450-people office.
Hodges also writes for PoliceOne, a news site for police officers. His latest column, which hasn’t been published yet, focuses on predictions for 2019 and advice on what law enforcement can do while interacting with people experiencing homelessness.
“We have to get a grapple on how we interact with homeless populations,” Hodges said. “Unfortunately, the current model is very police-heavy. I don’t think that, as law enforcement, our role is to necessarily deal with homeless populations, absent some significant violence.”
As a result of his childhood experiences with police officers, Hodges trains departments across the nation on unconscious bias, or unrecognized beliefs about groups of people.
“That’s the way I chose to deal with people,” Hodges said. “I taught that all around the country to alleviate that, so no kids have that experience I did.”
Before Hodges came to Prior Lake, he served as the acting chief deputy for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office while the chief was out on medical leave. During that time, he maintained day-to-day operations of the office.
Boyles said Hodges’ experience could help him relate to Prior Lake residents and staff.
“He can see things from a variety of peoples’ perspectives, and I think that’s critical, especially for a police chief,” Boyles said. “He’s got a willingness to do what it takes to work forward.”
Hodges said his goal in Prior Lake is to fill staffing vacancies with people of good character — “Hire people who have good character, and we can train them for competence,” he said.
The police department interviewed 50 applicants in December for four open positions at the department. Hodges said he hopes to have the department staffed in about six weeks.
“It’s an aggressive timeline, but we’re going to make it,” Hodges said. “We’re getting people in the door, and the city has made some investments in this police department. And we want to make sure we manage those investments to the best of our ability, and we’re going to do that.”
During his time in Prior Lake so far, Hodges said he has noticed an unmatched dedication to the city from its police officers.
“I’ve been around the country teaching, been around many police departments,” Hodges said. “This one is unique in terms of the duality of being both family with each other and dedicated to the city. It’s a hardworking department.”
Hodges said he doesn’t know what will happen in six months when his contract is up but that during his time here, he will exhibit dedication to and responsibility for the residents of Prior Lake and the Prior Lake Police Department.
“I really do feel a responsibility to this community to make sure they have the best police department they could possibly have and that we are responsible with their money — because it’s not our money — and that we are honorable and truthful with them with everything we do, even if it’s something that might not make us look good,” Hodges said.
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