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Hiring a diverse police force: It’s easier said than done

Particularly in their cultivation of younger people from within urban communities, St. Paul’s and Minneapolis’ approaches offer some examples of the creativity that will be required.

“Why work for the MPD?” — a video by the Minneapolis Police Department

When St. Paul announced the hiring of Todd Axtell, its new chief of police, one of the first things he mentioned was the need to diversify the city’s police force. Currently in St. Paul, only 19 percent of the city’s 600 sworn officers are people of color, a far cry from the citywide demographic rate of 45 percent. (In neighboring Minneapolis the rate is 21 percent officers of color.)

In today’s polarized policing climate, having a police force that reflects its city should be a starting point for any kind of structural reform. Yet given the heated debates over race and police violence, achieving diversity goals is likely growing even harder for police departments in the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis’ persistent challenges

One recent study by the data website fivethirtyeight showed that Minneapolis had some of the lowest rates of in-city residency by white officers in the country, a fact that surely does not help with police-community relations. (See Molly Priesmeyer’s MinnPost article on why this might matter, and how it relates to in-city residency.)

Rectifying that discrepancy by hiring more diverse officers has long been a goal of the Minneapolis Police Department. Yet the recent track record has not shown a lot of progress. It’s a problem that officers seem acutely aware of.

“Most of the time, [having a diverse force] does bridge the gap, the racial gap,” Gerald Moore, the MPD’s recruitment and administrative division commander, told me. “And it also helps as far as gathering information, which law enforcement needs. Without info from the public, we’d be stuck. We have to get the information from the general public about what’s going on out there. Who are committing the crimes? Where are people staying? Crimes get solved because of police work, because good people are willing to step forward.”

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A lot of the hopes for diversifying the force hinges on the city’s Community Service Officer (CSO) program, where interested city residents become part-time “non-sworn” police. The department helps these candidates, always more diverse than the sworn officers, work toward acquiring law-enforcement credentials. (St. Paul has a similar program in place.)

“They do work for the police department,” Moore explained. “They do a number of tasks, but in a non-enforceable role. Also, as long as it’s law-enforcement-related, we pay for schooling. We’re the only department in five states that does that for these young people.”

Apart from programs like the CSOs, according to Moore, Minneapolis’ outside recruitment strategy relies on drawing people from around the region and the country. The department employs a full-time recruiting officer who visits schools and job fairs in neighboring states, and draws “laterals” from states like California, Arizona, and Texas. Moore says the department has made progress, though there remains a long way to go.

“I’ve been on the force for over 33 years, and it’s a slow process,” Moore said. “I’m an African-American male and it’s been hard at times, when you’re out there beating the drum, trying to get people to listen to you. One of the biggest hurdles is getting women. I’m still having a hard time figuring out how come it’s so hard for females, particularly females of color, to sign up, whether it be as a CSO, a police cadet, or a police recruit.”

St. Paul’s focus on the pipeline

With its new chief in place, St. Paul’s department faces similar challenges, though its rate of in-city residency is far ahead of Minneapolis’.

“We have over the years been able to increase diversity of our officers,” Steve Linders, the department’s public information officer, explained. “But it has taken a lot of work, and we haven’t gone as far as we want to get.”

St. Paul’s focus seems to be on creating a so-called “pipeline” from people in the community to working in the department, often from a very young age, by using outreach tools like fishing trips, athletic leagues, and police “explorer” programs.

“One thing we realized is that we have to reach out to people when they’re younger,” Linders told me. “We’re going into the middle schools and junior high schools and starting to build relationships with kids so that they can see what a career in law enforcement might look like.”

The programs use statewide competitions around activities like crime scene searching or hostage negotiations to entice younger people. To me, it seems like a very slow way to recruit candidates, but Linders offered some success stories.

“We have one officer who grew up in Frogtown,” Linders said. “He could have gone one direction or another direction, but chose to get involved in Explorers. That’s the type of pipeline we want to create.”

Chicken and egg with police reform

The officers I talked with made sure to point out that their departments were not going to lower their standards to increase diversity. Yet because of the way requirements mesh with our region’s educational inequality, the competing needs point to a tension that seems difficult to resolve.

“Our goal is to be reflective of the community we serve by hiring the best possible candidates,” Linders said. “We need that array of backgrounds because the people we serve come from an array of backgrounds. We want to be as reflective of our community as possible, and we want to hire the best candidates for the job.”

While critics of the current policing practices, particularly police violence, see department diversification as a good thing, most insist that it will not solve the larger problems around policing.

“Diversity in police forces is a good thing because it increases cultural and language competence of police departments,” Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) told me. “It also provides good-paying jobs for more people of color, women, and others who have traditionally been left out of these opportunities. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments reflect historical hiring practices, which have long been biased toward hiring white, male officers.”

Given the persistent track record of police violence and the perceived and actual lack of accountability, diversity alone offers little hope to people like Gross, who have been working to solve police brutality issues for decades.

“We find little difference in rates of police brutality and misconduct between white officers and officers of color,” Gross said. “In the end, officers are ‘blue’ regardless of race. Nationally, some studies suggest that officers of color may be more likely to actually be disciplined for misconduct. We haven’t found that to be the case in Minneapolis or St. Paul; both departments have abysmal records of disciplining misconduct no matter who commits it.”

With the political climate and continued high-profile incidents of police violence leading to increased opposition between cops and the public – what Gross refers to as “a sharp distrust of police in communities of color” – the current situation makes police diversification a kind of “catch-22.” Without officers who mirror their communities, it’s very difficult to reform policing practices. But without reforming policing practices, it’s very difficult to recruit officers of color.

Particularly in their cultivation of younger people from within urban communities, St. Paul’s and Minneapolis’ approaches offer some examples of the creativity that will be required by police officials. Given the persistent problems around policing and race in the Twin Cities, it should be no surprise if progress toward police-officer diversification remains a slow and arduous slog.