© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues

Recruiting minority officers is still a challenge for local police departments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2010 - Achieving racial diversity has become a goal for many local police departments -- and not because of political correctness. Increasingly the departments recognize that having a mix of officers enables them to be more responsive and build better relationships with the surrounding community.

It's particularly important for police to reflect their community, says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of crime and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, "because they deal with the public often with respect to difficult questions of guilt and innocence, which makes it essential for the public to attribute legitimacy to the police department and have trust in them. Those goals are furthered when the department looks like the public."

Local police departments aren't likely to disagree. But as much as they say they're striving for diversity, they're not always successful in achieving it. Significant obstacles remain, they say, to attracting and keeping minority officers.

THE RECRUITMENT CHALLENGES

Erica Van Ross, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Police Department, said in an email that, historically, fewer minorities have had an interest in law enforcement as a career. "It means that the department must continue to try harder to sell the career of policing to people of color."

St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom agreed that the pool of minority applicants is considerably smaller than the pool of white applicants. And Steve Tedoni, the supervisor of personnel services for the St. Louis County Police Department, said he's found the same to be true.

Tedoni, who makes recruiting and hiring recommendations, said the largest effort has involved attracting more black officers. Of the St. Louis County Police Department's 1,014 police officers and civilian employees, 86 percent are white, 11 percent are black, and about 2 percent combined are Hispanic and Asian.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006-08 American Community Survey, an estimated 73 percent of county residents are white, 21 percent are "black or African American" and about 5 percent combined are Hispanic or Asian.

Redditt Hudson, a former police officer and and now a program associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said St. Louis County and municipalities in the county "by and large could do a better job of reaching out" to non-white candidates.

"We're not where we want to be; we're always seeking to do better in terms of attracting minorities," Tedoni said.

Part of the challenge in recruiting a cross section of the region, Isom said, is that "often times minorities don't necessarily think of law enforcement as a viable career."

Jim Buford, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said people in the black community often view police as adversaries and don't think about entering the profession, either because of the negative perception or because they feel the pay doesn't warrant the high level of danger. That helps to explain the comparatively small pool of black applicants, he said.

"The image is that it isn't a job where you'll be looked up to with respect to your community," Buford said. "And if you grow up in a black community, you are well aware of the level of violent crime out there."

Another roadblock, Buford said, is the sizable portion of young black males who are disqualified because of a felony conviction. 

Mike Guzy, a spokesman for the St. Louis Sheriff's Department, a former St. Louis Police officer and a columnist for the Beacon, added:  "In neighborhoods where lots of young men are arrested, you're going to have a lower percentage of eligible applicants."

The requirement in St. Louis that new hires live in the city at least for the first seven years also prevents the department from attracting some applicants who live outside the city and don't want to relocate, Isom said.

He added that jurisdictions compete fiercely for minority candidates who have the qualifications for police work. The city is up against other local and federal agencies that can offer higher pay, he said.

Added Tedoni: "The more qualified the person, the more opportunities they have in law enforcement. It's good for them but not good for us all the time. We're competing with other state and federal agencies and other departments in the area."

Hudson said in his experience, more than enough qualified people of all races and genders were interested in law enforcement.

Eddie Simmons Jr., president of the Ethical Society of Police , a group of more than 200 black police officers, said that in the past, police academy classes were often mostly white and that minority recruits were sometimes unfairly penalized for what he considered "minor infractions," including having unpolished shoes. Under the Isom administration, Simmons added, recruitment of minorities and their treatment in the academy has improved, but that "there's still a long way to go" as far as reaching out to potential black applicants.

Isom's predecessor, Joe Mokwa, hired an outside firm in 2008 to look into accusations of racial discrimination within the police academy. The investigation also looked at how black employees were treated within the entire department.

The firm, Carmody MacDonald, found that the policies and processes that the academy used for issuing discipline "lacked uniformity and that this lack of uniformity has created the perception among some, including present and former members of the Academy staff, that discipline has been applied unfairly." The report says, however, that there's no evidence of racial bias with respect to how discipline was administered. It concluded that there's also no evidence to support allegations of racism in the department.

Isom said he agreed with the findings that the department does not discriminate against blacks, as Simmons and other members of the Ethical Society have contended. Isom did agree that there was a lack of consistency with how discipline was administered in the academy, which "led to the perception of a racial imbalance there."

At the St. Louis Sheriff's Department, getting enough minority applicants hasn't been a problem, Guzy said. According to data provided by the sheriff's department, of the 178 employees, 38 percent are minorities, the vast majority of whom are black.

But Guzy said he recognizes that there are simply times when an applicant pool isn't a cross section of society. "If I'm not getting enough qualified candidates, I'm not going to take unqualified people ... just so we can say we have the group picture looking right," Guzy said.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

Over the past few decades, the trend is for those group pictures to become increasingly filled with more non-whites and women, Rosenfeld said.

The St. Louis Police Department doesn't yet reflect the city's racial composition, but "it's on its way," Rosenfeld said.

According to Census data, an estimated 49 percent of city residents are white, 47 percent are "black or African American," 3 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 2 percent are Asian and less than 1 percent are "American Indian and Alaska Native" and "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander" combined.

That's compared with data showing that about 64 percent of city police officers are white, 33 percent are black and less than 3 percent are Asian, Hispanic or Native American.

Isom said that the department is "always seeking to improve" on its ethnic and racial diversity. He said he would like to add more Hispanic officers given that the Hispanic population of the city is on the rise. "We want the police to reflect that community's growth," he said.

Isom, who has been police chief for less than two years but has been in the department for more than 20, said he has seen a slight increase of Hispanic and Asian officers in recent years. The percentage of black officers has remained about the same in that time, he said.

In St. Louis County, of the 131 police department employees who are sergeants and higher, 14 are black and two are Hispanic, according to department records.

Hudson said the city has "done a pretty good job" diversifying its ranks, but added that "it could go further in addressing issues that remain relevant to intra-department race relations."

Isom said that "the issues of race and racism are something that for whatever reason are ongoing in America. I don't think in any way the police department is any different from general public." But he added that he doesn't think racial tension is "rampant" in the department, either.

Both Rosenfeld and Guzy point to the racially diverse command staff at the St. Louis Police Department as a sign of progress for minority officers. Three out of the last four police chiefs have been black, including Isom.

Isom said that overall "we do very well" as far as getting minorities into leadership positions.

Ed Clark, recording secretary for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said he's seen progress as far as racial, ethnic and gender diversity on staff.

"Any new hire should have the belief that they can have any position in the department if they work at it," Clark said.

Simmons, who has been president of the Ethical Society for eight years and an officer for 27 years, said that's not a reality. Minorities are still not promoted at the rate they should be (though he credits Isom for making improvements in this area), and too many blacks are clustered in the lower ranks, he said.

Simmons said black officers often are hesitant to take a written test that helps determine promotion within the department because they are concerned that they won't do well. Under the Mokwa administration, a new company was brought it to administer the test. 

"On the issue of testing we don't dictate the number of people who perform well," Isom said. "And neither the chief nor the board of commissioners dictates who is going to be promoted prior to the testing process."

Responding to Simmons' concern about overall department diversity, Isom said it's important to consider that while the city's black population is nearly 50 percent, the department recruits from across the region, which is, as a whole, less racially diverse.

Rosenfeld said smaller police departments vary greatly in their diversity -- some are predominantly white, while others can be quite mixed racially and ethnically.

The Hazelwood Police Department, for instance, is 96.5 percent white and 3.5 percent black, according to Police Chief Carl Wolf. The city is roughly 71 percent white and 26 percent black, recent Census data show.

Wolf said he'd like to see the department reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community, but that the department isn't doing well at meeting that goal. Hazelwood Police recruit at various colleges and often have a booth at the Missouri Black Expo, Wolf said.

But he said in an e-mail that it's still a struggle to find black officers. "There are a limited number of [minority] candidates and numerous other organizations which are vying for the same groups," he said, adding that the department often loses potential hires to the city or other area police agencies.  

At the University City Police Department, of the nearly 70 officers on staff, more than 4 in 10 are black, according to an estimate from Capt. Carol Jackson, who's in charge of community relations for the department. (Among the black employees is Police Chief Charles Adams.)

Jackson said the goal is for the police department to mirror the community, which is also about 40 percent black, according to Census data.

"We have million-dollar homes and Section 8 homes, so we're dealing with all different kinds of people in different situations," Jackson said. "We have to be diverse in our dealings with the community."

In nearby Richmond Heights, seven of the 41 police officers are minorities (four black and three Asian), according to Capt. Craig Mueller, a police spokesman. That's about 17 percent non-white, which corresponds roughly to the non-white population of the city.

Mueller said the department hasn't hired an officer in several years and thus isn't actively recruiting.

"Common sense tells you you want to look like the community you serve," Mueller said. "We strive to have a diverse department so that residents here can identify with us. But you can't just simply say we're going to hire so many of such and such. At the end of the day it's about hiring the most qualified candidates."

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.