The Missouri State Highway Patrol is trying some new tactics to attract more minority candidates as it opens the application process for its next recruit class.
But the agency recently acknowledged it has struggled to diversify its ranks in recent years, and some local observers say, while these efforts are a good start, the law enforcement agency needs to do more.
The agency’s Superintendent, Col. Ron Replogle, said it is a “huge concern” that only three percent of the Highway Patrol’s 1,275 troopers statewide are African American, though Missouri’s population is 11.7 percent black.
Recent recruiting doesn’t show much progress. The agency accepted 45 candidates from 1,100 applications in its last recruiting cycle. Of the remaining 32 candidates since training began this past January, only one is black, two are Hispanic and three are white women, according to Lt. John Hotz of the public information and education division. Applications for the next class are due March 29.
“I’ve been very concerned with our minority recruiting over last several years,” Replogle said, at a recent presentation during a federal civil rights hearing on Ferguson. “Our numbers have fallen, our minority numbers within my agency.”
That concern was echoed by Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP. He said the Highway Patrol’s number of minority officers has been dropping for the past decade.
“I don’t know if anybody has done any good research to look at what have been the historic reasons for that happening,” he said.
Replogle said the agency faces “a lot of hurdles” in its recruiting in general, but particularly when it comes to recruiting minorities. Those challenges include its lengthy “stress recruiting” application process and training period to its less competitive pay compared with other law enforcement agencies, such as the St. Louis County Police Department.
Additionally, Replogle said many potential recruits are turned off by not knowing where they will serve. The Highway Patrol requires troopers to live in the communities they serve, but assignments aren’t made until six weeks before graduation.
Observers like Pruitt said better recruiting could help overcome some of these challenges. The Highway Patrol’s Hotz said the agency’s three full-time recruiters have traditionally gone to trade shows, career fairs and historically black colleges and universities in states including Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
But waiting until people are at the university level is too late to introduce them to law enforcement as a possible career path, Pruitt said. He said the Highway Patrol needs to do a better job of communicating career options and mentoring young people as early as high school.
“Even myself, I don’t have a good indication of just everything the Highway Patrol does and what sort of career fields exist within it,” Pruitt said. “I don’t think the community has a very good idea of all the areas that develop as a career choice.”
Wesley Bell, a criminal justice professor at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus, agrees. The son of a police officer and a municipal court judge in Velda City, Bell said he’d like to see the Highway Patrol do more recruiting at community colleges where they could find hardworking candidates looking to get into the workforce.
“I’d be happy for them to reach out to me,” Bell said. “We have students - minority, black, white, you name it - students who are interested, students who want to go in law enforcement."
The problem, Bell said, is that many of his students – like others in the community – don’t know how to pursue these opportunities. While the Highway Patrol offers internships and ride-alongs to introduce people to opportunities within the Highway Patrol, Bell said often people don’t know about them. Moreover, though Hotz said Highway Patrol employees are expected to act as “recruiters every day,” Bell said the agency needs to look beyond its own ranks to get the word out when seeking recruits.
“The typical channels where police departments find recruits are people who know about process, police officers, their friends, families,” Bell said. “A lot of particularly African-Americans don’t have a lot of information about it. A part of that problem is because we’ve seen tensions between law enforcement and youth in economically challenged areas in particular. A lot of these people are turned off by the idea of being a police officer.”
That’s why Bell wants to see the Highway Patrol take a “step further” into community-oriented policing and “get out and know people on their beat.” That will help in getting young people “exposed and seeing police are good people,” Bell said.
“If you start doing that now, you’re going to have a whole generation of young people who see police as different,” he said. “They have positive early experiences with police as opposed to negative experiences. When you get exposure or do an internship or get to know officers, and officers allow themselves to get out and know people, that misconception starts turning.”
In this vein, the Highway Patrol is trying a new effort to reach deeper into minority communities. With the help of State Sen. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff, the agency has launched a special partnership with a local pastor and his church in Caruthersville, in which troopers will tutor and engage with local teens and children. A similar program is being launched in Charleston, and Highway Patrol’s Hotz said the model may be used elsewhere in the state. The goal, Hotz said, is to begin “planting seeds” with kids at a young age to think about a career in law enforcement.
“This has been a goal of ours for many years: we want to represent the population we’re serving,” Hotz said.
Additionally, the agency changed some of its requirements for applicants as of its last recruiting round. Now, people only need to have a minimum of 30 college credits, versus 60, to apply. Eligible candidates can also have two years of federal active duty military service with an honorable discharge, or two years of full-time post certified experience as a law enforcement officer with arrest authority at the time recruit training begins.
“That’s one of the things we looked at, dropping down that minimum down to 30 would hopefully attract some quality applicants that maybe we were excluding,” Hotz said.
Bell said these efforts are a step in the right direction, but he said they have to be sustained and reflect a culture change.
"You have to change the way that you approach situations...It has to be a commitment to it," Bell said. "We have to start looking in areas we traditionally don't look and doing more. Those are the kinds of ways you're going to recruit and you're going to change that misconception that many, particularly minorities and African-Americans, have of law enforcement."