STORM LAKE, Iowa -- Earlier this summer, Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser walked through a Storm Lake neighborhood, greeting strangers.
He approached members of a Spanish-speaking family sitting on the front steps of their home, introduced himself and struck up a conversation with the help of Maria Ramos, a Storm Lake resident and immigrant from Mexico.
By the end of the conversation, Prosser was posing for photos, the family members amazed that a police officer would stop by to meet them.
"They asked me to take a picture with him because that's not something they're used to in their country," said Ramos, accompanying Prosser that day on his department's outreach mission.
The impromptu photo shoot is a snapshot of Prosser's desire to make immigrants feel safe and comfortable in Storm Lake.
Storm Lake is home to thousands of immigrants, some from countries in which police forces are corrupt and abuse their power. The treatment leaves immigrants new to Storm Lake suspicious of police, afraid to call officers when they need help because of a fear that police will use it as an excuse to harass or arrest them.
Prosser has made it clear through continuous community outreach that he wants Storm Lake's police department to be trusted. His officers are not out to round up people and send them away, but to help them settle in.
He also takes his message to Twitter, where he often tweets to politicians and others he believes are spreading misinformation about immigrants and the law.
Politicians and activists who talk about building walls and sending people back to where they came from cause fear of law enforcement, Prosser says, and if immigrants -- documented or undocumented -- are scared that any authority figure is ready to deport them or family members, they're not going to call police when they need help.
Prosser's message: let federal authorities handle immigration enforcement. Storm Lake police officers will focus on keeping people safe, no matter where they come from.
"That's why I'm outspoken as well as our mayor and our council that we're not in the immigration business," Prosser said. "If you have documentation issues, that's not our job. We don't have training for that."
In part because of his outspokenness and commitment to helping immigrants assimilate, Prosser, who's also the city's public safety director, will receive the Keepers of the American Dream award from the National Immigration Forum on Nov. 7 in Washington, D.C.
"He has been a staunch supporter for immigrants in Storm Lake and really is an example of the type of leadership in our country in terms of making immigrants feel safe in the community," said Dan Gordon, assistant director of communications at the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit immigrant and immigration advocacy group.
Prosser speaks out when he sees immigrants misrepresented as criminals or detriments to the community. He corrects politicians on Twitter, offering statistics and facts based on his experiences in Storm Lake.
He'll tell them that in 2018, at a time when Storm Lake's population was at its most diverse ever, the number of serious crimes in the city hit a 27-year low.
"There's a variety of individuals that beat the drum that immigrants are always involved in crime, and that's false. It's just false," Prosser said.
Through his willingness to speak out and interact with those who are new to this country, Prosser and his department have made the immigrant community feel safe, Ramos said. Immigrants do not worry that any interaction with a police officer could include a demand to present immigration papers.
"They feel safe here. They can go out there without worrying about being targeted," said Ramos, a co-founder of SALUD, a multicultural health coalition in Storm Lake that focuses on community members' physical, mental and social well-being.
It's why when Prosser or any of his officers stops by a park or school to chat, immigrants open up. They feel they can trust law enforcement.
"For them to come and say, 'Hi, we're here to serve you and help you' is a big deal," said Ramos, a human resources director for a local community health center who moved with family to Storm Lake in 1991 for employment at a meatpacking plant and became a U.S. citizen three years ago.
Prosser arrived in Storm Lake from O'Fallon, Illinois, in 1989 after being hired as police chief. The city had begun to diversify with a notable southeast Asian population that had arrived via a refugee relocation program under Gov. Robert Ray.
In the early 1990s, expansion at meatpacking plants led to an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
"We really started to see the shift at a much faster pace," Prosser said.
Since then, Storm Lake's diversity has continued to grow, due in large part to the need for workers in local meatpacking plants. In addition to Spanish-speaking immigrants, people from African nations began to arrive.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's five-year estimates from 2013-17, about 37 percent of Storm Lake's approximately 10,600 residents (some estimates place the population at 14,000 because many immigrants don't participate in the census) are Hispanic. Another 16 percent are Asian and 4 percent black or African.
That diversity is evident in the public school system. Storm Lake Community School District data shows that of its 2,632 students, 84.2 percent are non-Caucasian.
Raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, by parents who traveled frequently to Guatemala as missionaries, Prosser said that shortly after he arrived in Storm Lake, community leaders realized their city was changing, and they studied how to meet the needs of their new neighbors.
"Everything came back to language, the ability to communicate," Prosser said. "My attitude has always been our organization had to serve the people the best it can. I realized we had to broaden our outreach."
That outreach includes a mandate that during every shift they work, officers must interact with at least one person they don't know. Responding to a police call doesn't count.
"I don't know if street officers or local police chiefs ever have an impact on immigration reform, but we can have an impact on the people we serve," Prosser said, deflecting credit for the success of outreach efforts to his officers.
The whole police department may be involved, but there's no doubt why it works, Storm Lake school superintendent Stacey Cole said.
"It always starts at the top. The values and mission you create as a leader trickles down," Cole said. "When (Prosser) says we're about community building, he means it and he shows it."
Prosser isn't shy to stand up at public meetings to counter anti-immigrant comments. He's spoken to local and national media about how communities can benefit from immigrants.
"They see him speaking about it in the newspaper, they see him on TV," Ramos said. "You can really tell that he's honest and genuine when he talks about things. It is very comforting."
Prosser knows his message isn't always popular. Early in his tenure, residents would visit his office, telling him his job was to run "those people" out of town. He doesn't hear that anymore, but he said he isn't so naive as to think that sentiment doesn't continue to exist.
"I'm sure there are people in Storm Lake who wish things were different," he said.
But because things are changing, Prosser decided to work not just locally, but nationally, to find ways to help immigrants feel safe and welcome.
Through the National Immigration Forum, Prosser has joined the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement leaders from cities large and small that serves as a resource to media, researchers and policymakers. The group urges responsible border security based on data, not political haggling, Prosser said. The group also believes in streamlining the documentation process for immigrants and prosecuting violent crime and deporting offenders.
"Our immigration laws are broken. It doesn't matter who's in power," Prosser said. "Let's create a process to get (immigrants) out of the shadows" so they can live here legally.
While politicians seek solutions, Prosser said Storm Lake officers will continue to reach out to the newest members of their community, whether it's buying kids ice cream cones, dropping off a bag of groceries for a needy family or stopping by a school at recess to hang out with students.
"I'm the mouthpiece, but our officers and investigators are the ones that make it work," said Prosser, who will retire on Dec. 31.
Ramos said Prosser will be missed in his official capacity, but she hopes his retirement means he'll have more time to be involved in immigration issues in Storm Lake.
"We have a great community, and a lot of that is because of Mark Prosser and the people around him," she said.
Courthouse and City Hall
Woodbury County Courthouse
Courthouse mail chute
Courthouse terra cotta
Courthouse terra cotta
Election Watch Party
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.