By Savannah Brooks, MFA '18
For most people, entering college with a fourth-grade reading level would be an insurmountable obstacle. But Booker Hodges, DPA ’15 is not most people.
Despite growing up in a violent household that possessed no love for law enforcement and racist encounters he had with police officers when he was young, Hodges felt a calling to the profession.
“I’m not going to judge an entire group of people based on limited interactions or other people’s perceptions of them,” Hodges explained when asked why he turned toward law enforcement instead of against it. “I think this profession chose me.”
Now an inspector for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, Hodges has worked as a law enforcement officer for 11 years. During that time, he earned his Doctorate of Public Administration from Hamline. The first black officer to earn a DPA from Hamline, Hodges serves as an example and support to other officers of color who want to follow suit. In addition, his thesis, which focused on the lack of diversity in law enforcement and how it affects officers of color, has been used nationally as the basis of new research.
Upon graduating from Hamline, Hodges began writing a column for PoliceOne, the largest law enforcement website in the nation. He said that officers around the country have contacted him with questions about how to recruit and retain officers of color. Hodges hopes the interest will bring about a shift in law enforcement demographics, which he believes should have occurred 30 to 40 years ago.
“The department should not look the way it does now in terms of diversity,” he said. “But government agencies are slow to change—law enforcement probably more so because people stay 25 to 30 years.”
The column Hodges writes focuses on neighbor relations, a phrase he prefers over community relations because “it’s easy to segregate when you say community versus neighborhood. A community can be mine or yours, but we’re all neighbors.
“If it were up to me,” he added, “we’d have cops on foot, walking a beat, making those connections. Your crime stats might go down, but your relations would go up. And you’d get to see that not everyone is a bad person.”
Law enforcement is practically the only sector of public administration where one habitually deals with the worst segment of the population, Hodges pointed out. “No one calls the police and asks them to come over because they’ve had a really good day,” he said. “That affects the way you view the world.”
Hodges believes that when officers embed themselves in the communities where they work and make connections with neighbors, real change can occur. “The way to find out how a system really works is to be a part of it,” he said.
Being a part of the system is something Hodges knows well. He’s heavily involved in politics as well as public service. For five years, up until 2013, Hodges served as the Minneapolis president of the NAACP, and in 2002 he ran for governor of Minnesota.
The positions Hodges has held and the endeavors he has pursued would be impressive by any means, but they’re even more stunning when contrasted with the fact that he initially dropped out of college because he entered with what he described as a fourth-grade reading level.
“I was always good at hearing something and somewhat understanding how it looked on paper,” Hodges said. “But in college, that ‘somewhat’ wasn’t working. I couldn’t comprehend the books in class.”
So Hodges returned to his hometown of Minneapolis and took a job valet parking cars, where, during slow times, he read the newspaper.
“I would read the newspaper and watch The O’Reilly Factor, and from there it progressed,” he said. “I just kept reading and watching TV to make those connections. It took about a year.”
Hodges didn’t let his circumstances stop him from earning bachelor’s degrees in political science and criminology, then a master’s in public safety administration before going on to complete his doctorate. That amount of schooling is not for everyone, he readily admits, but for intellectuals passionate about public administration who want to contribute to society and provide direction to the profession, Hodges believes earning a doctorate is the best path.
“A lot of what dictates us is written by professionals who have never worked in this profession,” Hodges said, referring to law enforcement. “My goal is to see it dictated by people inside the profession.”
And, if Hodges’s recent contributions to law enforcement research are any indication, that’s a goal that might not be far away.