Lt. Darla Gray remembers being the last person to enter the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's cadet program before it was dissolved in 1981. Now Gray is helping to lead its return. The program started back up in 2018 and now boasts 64 aspiring officers.
"I was actually looking at retirement, and they told me they were starting the program back up and asked if I would like to help develop it," Gray said. "And I postponed my retirement to do it, because I believe in this program that much."
On Thursday's St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with two of the young people currently participating in the cadet program as well as with Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards.
Edwards is an enthusiastic proponent of the program's comeback as a recruitment tool at a time when law enforcement staffing is down in many places around the U.S., including St. Louis.
"We are about 130 officers down on any given day," he said of the SLMPD. "We have not had a pipeline into the police department. Our academies are averaging about 25 potential officers every class, and we're trying to get officers [interested]."
He and other proponents and organizers see the cadet program as a way for those considering a career in law enforcement to learn some of the ins and outs before entering a formal police academy — and for the police department to diversify its force.
"This program has brought us exactly what we need in the city of St. Louis: a diverse group of potential police officers," Edwards said. "Over 50% of the cadets are African American. Over 50% are female. It represents exactly what we want on the St. Louis police department."
And among the current group of police cadets, Edwards said, 40 of them are college students.
The cadets joining the talk show conversation alongside Edwards included Cearra Flowers, who has discovered an aptitude for fingerprint examination, and Mary Mazzola, who takes mugshots and does victim interviews as part of her current role.
The discussion also included comments from fellow cadets Ty Brownlee Jenkins and Michael Henderson. Jenkins is an upperclassman at the University of Missouri-St. Louis whose professor encouraged her to check it out.
Henderson is a Harris-Stowe State University student with a particular interest in forensic science. He said he became interested in policing partly after growing up wanting to become a superhero and wanting to help people in a real-world way.
Fenske noted that despite those high hopes, things sometimes go very awry, such as this summer in St. Louis, where 13 children died as a result of gun violence. When she asked Edwards how he keeps young people interested in making a difference from despair in the midst of it, he said it's "important that our children do not engage in risky behaviors."
"I've been very careful not to talk a lot about the children this summer," the public safety director continued. "Many of the kids that unfortunately were violently killed were teenagers engaging in criminal behaviors themselves. And so out of the 13, about eight were engaged in criminal behaviors that resulted in their deaths. Our youngsters, our children that were killed this summer were placed in situations by adults that they should not have been placed in.
"And so when children are put in positive situations, we have positive results. When they engage in criminal behaviors, unfortunately we end up with 13 children dead. And so I don't want to be callous, I do want to make it very, very clear that many of the kids that died this summer were very sophisticated. And our officers are doing their best to make sure we address those, and we're still very empathetic with respect to their deaths."
The conversation also touched on gender dynamics in the SLMPD and how the police cadets navigate pursuing policing in an era of increased attention around police accountability and law enforcement reform.
Listen to the full discussion:
"St. Louis on the Air" brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, Alexis Moore and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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