Making the grade at the police academy – no easy task. Fielding applicants has a few challenges as well. Some Michiana departments and community members suggest they have to break through the public perception of police.
“Let’s face it: we’re not very popular right now. With everything that’s been happening – and I hate to say it, sensationalism of the media, that doesn’t help either,” said Capt. Mattie Taylor, the officer training and recruiting coordinator at the South Bend Police Department.
South Bend Police Chief Ron Teachman raised the question: When do you encounter a police officer, outside your profession?
“It’s when something really bad has happened to you, or we think you’ve done something bad. For most people, that’s the only time they encounter a police officer in their entire life,” said Teachman.
Refining the image of law enforcement, some folks suggest, can start early.
“That’s one thing Chief Teachman preaches: establish a relationship with our kids, with our youth, not just walking through the schools but sitting down and having lunch, talking with the kids, getting out playing with them, reading—all of this kind of stuff,” Taylor said.
The Elkhart Police Department engages in similar activities, like Fish with a Cop – and Shop with a Cop at Christmastime. Sgt. Chris Snyder cited other instances where officers have stopped their squad cars in the neighborhood to play with kids.
“I talked to another officer who saw some girls playing jump rope on the sidewalk and decided to stop and actually took his radio off and played jump rope with them for a few minutes,” Snyder recounted.
The impromptu visits, he said, help bridge the police and public.
“A lot of things like that, we are not doing intentionally to recruit people in the future but to build those relationships so they understand there is more to police work than arresting bad guys,” said Snyder.
Retaining homegrown talent, pulling from the pool
The Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety is deploying a long-term community relations plan, part of which includes working with elementary school students. One hope? To have more “homegrown” officers on the department.
“Really, the impact of that won’t be right now. It’ll be five, ten years down the road, when this 5-year-old now becomes 15,” McGinnis said.
Capt. Taylor in South Bend added it can be a challenge to forge a police force comprised of homegrown officers.
“In order for someone to come to our department, they have to have some type of deep family tie, usually,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the money. So it’s hard. Everybody’s pulling from the same pool. It’s very difficult.”
Sgt. Jason Stefaniak works in the Training Division at the Mishawaka Police Department. He agrees recruiting qualified officers is a competitive process among area departments.
“But if someone in South Bend is qualified and is going to go work over there, chances are, I’m going to go work with them, anyways, at some point,” he said. “I’d rather have them get them than not be picked up at all.”
Trying to recruit diverse segments of the population sometimes boils down to the “pool.”
“I remember going to a recruitment school in Georgia,” Capt. Taylor recalled. “It was DeKalb County. One of the recruiters said, ‘Here’s my problem with recruitment: I can’t find enough male or female whites. I live in DeKalb County with is predominantly black.’ She said, ‘I have the reverse effect.'”
Taylor said she understands the recruiter’s situation. Plus, she adds diversifying police departments is a nationwide effort, for the most part.
“We’re all pulling from the same pool. So, to put it in the perspective, if I (an African American female) am the quote, unquote ‘minority, gender,’ whatever—I can pretty much write my own ticket to anywhere I want to go. Everybody wants me! I’m a hot commodity. So it’s very difficult.”
As far as convincing any homegrown recruit to consider South Bend—Taylor, a South Bend native, said she can only encourage them.
“The officers around here are really good at telling you the real story. We don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m playing with somebody’s life,” she said.
Police departments also are trying to widen the applicant pool. Mishawaka posts positions to a few national websites. Like the Elkhart force, they visit career fairs—and high schools, too—to tout the benefits of wearing the blue.
“The main thing is, how do you get that interest? How do we get a more diversified department? How we get our name out there? We like, as any department, we feel like we’re the best in the area, but maybe our name isn’t out there thoroughly through the community, state, Midwest—wherever anyone comes from,” said Chief Ken Witkowski, Mishawaka Police Department.
One suggestion from Lynn Coleman, a retired division chief, is for departments to capitalize on mass media.
“The military—they do these campaigns all the time. ‘[We] do more by 8 o’clock in the morning than most people do all day,’” Coleman quoted. “When [the military] is looking for [people], they go out and intentionally look for people. And I’m not saying we don’t because I don’t know everything that they’re doing in the recruitment and training department now.”
Speaking generally, Coleman adds when departments recruit, they should make recruits feel comfortable and wanted for the unique qualities they could offer.
“Make you feel like you are a value to the organization, okay? I don’t know if we are getting that,” he said.
A culture of respect
Bobbie Woods, a member of the advocacy group Mamas Against Violence, said when officers show respect toward their communities, their behavior can incentivize the call to serve.
“It’s not just a matter of being a police officer to do your job, but it’s a matter of showing that you care. You know, that you’re human, you have feelings and care about these people that are in your community, and you’re there, as it says, to ‘serve and protect,’” Woods said.
Respect—a common refrain in Capt. Mattie Taylor’s recruiting pitch.
When asking Capt. Mattie Taylor if she thought of ways the police force can better bridge the reality of having diversity and a top-notch recruiting class, she said: “When we’re out here trying to get people and ask them if they want to do this job, [we tell them to] respect others, serve and protect, you know, treat people like you want to be treated,” said Taylor.
“It’s the best thing I ever did in my life”: Officers explain their career passions
Mishawaka Police Chief Ken Witkowski was 33-years-old when he joined the department.
“I always liked helping people. I liked being a part of a strong community and like I said, I knew it was a career once I started. I knew I’d finish it.”
Cognizant of the everyday risks inherent in his profession, Witkowski said he never regrets going into law enforcement. “I don’t know too many jobs where put a bulletproof vest on. But an officer is—no matter who they are—is a certain type of person who handles that,” he said.
For Benton Harbor’s Acting Director Daniel McGinnis, an opportunity opened up. A former college track runner, he enjoyed the rigor of training.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Though McGinnis suggests the love for serving the community is another reason why he enjoys the job.
“I remember, a couple nights ago, I saw a woman walking with three kids,” he recalled. “One [child] looked 1-years-old. It looked like [the woman] was walking with bags. I pulled over, gave her a ride home. Cops just can’t take that in their heart.”
Sgt. Jason Stefaniak, with Mishawaka Police Department, agrees, saying service is the bedrock of being a police officer.
“Everybody always says the greatest joy is serving our community-- and it is—helping our citizens, and like our cars say, we have pride in our community,” he said.
Likewise, Lynn Coleman’s greatest joy was spending time with the community. The passion for the police, he said, still remains.
“You know, I loved the job. From the day I walked through and put the uniform on, I felt a special connection to this community,” he said. “To this very day, I see a young man or woman in uniform—spit-shine—on a corner or in the store, I feel a certain level of pride.”
Coming up in “Race and the Badge Part 3,” we look at the hiring process for area law enforcement. One department needs police officers who can fight fires, as well.