Race and the Badge - Part 1: Tackling diversity

Despite officer-involved shootings in the past year, the nation – including police departments –are talking about diversity in law enforcement. In December, the Obama Administration commissioned the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The interim report from March addresses diversity at least 20 times. One recommendation reads: “Law enforcement agencies should strive to create a workforce that contains a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities.”

NewsCenter 16 interviewed a handful of police chiefs, recruiting coordinators, and a retired officer, many of whom say trying to field a diverse police force has been a longtime issue.

“I’ve been on the department for 33 years, and when I came on the department, it was an issue – having a department that reflects their community,” said Capt. Mattie Taylor, the officer training and recruiting coordinator at the South Bend Police Department. “Will we ever get there? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”

Likewise, Lynn Coleman, a retired division chief from South Bend Police remembers the diversity dilemma.

“This is not new. This is an issue we faced in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s,” said Coleman, who also served as the assistant to former South Bend Mayor Steve Luecke.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity spawned the Minority Police Officers Association, he says.

“Readers Digest version – we worked with other community groups to identify quality black police officers to help to provide them with information and tutorial information to take [the hiring] tests,” Coleman added.

Coleman argues more persons of color should be represented on police departments.

“It’s important for us to know, we can’t camouflage the importance of hiring. We need to be specific, let’s be specific: we need to hire African American men and women to be a part of local departments across the country,” said Coleman.

He, like South Bend Police Chief Ron Teachman, suggest ‘diversity’ is broad term, extending beyond skin color.

“It’s also ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and education,” said Teachman.

Chief Ken Witkowski, Mishawaka Police Department, adds diversity applies to age and where people grew up.

“Everybody brings a little something special to the table, no matter who you hire. No matter culture, minorities – everyone has something to bring to the table,” Witkowski said.

The recruiting struggles don’t necessarily lie in diversity, some suggest.

“We are having a recruitment problem in terms of getting the highest qualified applicant.,” said Teachman. “We get more bodies, but if we are having any standards at all, then it drops down the numbers rapidly.”

Recently, SBPD hired six applicants from a pool of more than 80 people. Sgt. Chris Snyder, Elkhart Police Department, says diversity is important, though EPD first looks for the qualified officer.

“We owe that to the citizens of Elkhart to give them the best police officers we can provide,” Snyder said.

The qualities of a top recruit lie outside education or military service, says Sgt. Jason Stefaniak, with the Mishawaka Police Department’s Training Division.

“We’re looking people who have lived, experienced life, who have problem solving skills, who have been on their own and solve everyday problems for themselves – let alone the community,” Stefaniak said.

Acting Director Daniel McGinnis, Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety, also looks for flexibility, considering he needs folks who are professional police officers and firefighters. Benton Harbor consolidated departments in 2010 as a way to cut costs.

“I look for, do they have people skills? Can they adjust?” said McGinnis.

In a city that is more than 90 percent African American, people often question McGinnis as to why the department – which is 84 percent white – has fewer officers of color.

“I get that really consistently, and that’s really a slap in the face to white officers—male and female,” said McGinnis.

In Michigan, McGinnis said between 6 and 8 percent of people entering police academies are African American—90 percent are Caucasian.

“Those are statistics. That’s how it is,” McGinnis said. “Quite frankly, I don’t care if somebody is black brown, green, or purple. We all wear blue, all doing the same job. I would rather have someone I can count and rely on regardless color he or she is -- or the gender,” he said.

McGinnis adds the department has “fantastic female officers I would go crowd fight in a second with.”

Bobbie Woods, with Mamas Against Violence, said police departments should represent all colors because it signals something to children.

“Someday, they may decide they want to be a police officer, be a part of the police force, but if they never see anyone who looks like themselves, then they are less likely to believe that is something they can accomplish in life,” said Woods.

Coleman, the retired officer, points to a different direction in the diverse department debate.

“When you talk about diversity. How much diversity does this count for? Somebody that’s got a good heart? We can teach you how to do a police report. Okay? We can teach you how to collect evidence. We can’t teach you how to care about somebody. That’s what you come in the door with,” Coleman said. “I’m not saying we’re not recognizing that. We have to recognize that, too.”

Coming up in ‘Race and the Badge: Part Two,” we take a look at some of challenges departments face in the recruiting process.