Force for Change
Are people of color and women the key to police reform?
Your average Seattle police officer is white, lives outside of Seattle city limits and is either fairly new to the job or close to retirement.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) wants to change that, and it’s got a prime opportunity to do so. Over the next five years, SPD could lose a fifth of its officers due to retirement.
One only need glance up, at the billboards recently scattered across the city, to see who the SPD wants to attract. A billboard featured a uniformed white woman with the words, “It’s your city. Keep it safe.”
Another featured a uniformed black man with the words “Your Community. Your Opportunity.”
Women, people of color, recent immigrants and Seattle residents are among those SPD is seeking to recruit. But if being a cop is a tough job, so is enticing non-traditional candidates to apply.
Historically women and minorities have avoided seeking a career in law enforcement, which many see as a white boys’ club prone to harass or hurt people of color.
Seattle is no different. Every city department has a racial equity toolkit to improve diversity in hiring, but it wasn’t until 2012, on the heels of a Department of Justice report that the SPD has a pattern and practice of excessive force, that Mayor Mike McGinn proposed a new recruiting effort focused on diversity.
Diversity recruiting is just one of 20 reforms McGinn has proposed to resolve issues raised by the DOJ, but police accountability experts believe changing the face of SPD officers will go a long way toward improving the strained relationship between Seattle police and the community.
“The more a police department reflects the communities that they serve, the less likely they are to have problems,” said LaDoris Cordell, a police auditor in San Jose and former judge.
SPD’s new recruitment effort has three key components: making it easy to apply to be a police officer, advertising and reaching out to communities underrepresented in the police force.
More testing, more money
All police officer candidates start off in the same place. Everyone interested in becoming an officer must take a written and physical exam, undergo interviews and psychological exams and go through months of training. The process can take at least nine months, but it often takes longer.
To lower the barrier, SPD has done away with a $25 fee it charges to take the initial exam.
The department has also increased the frequency of testing. Formerly held just once a year, tests will now occur quarterly. SPD is also doing a better job of promoting the tests by holding information sessions across the city to help people prepare for the exams, which typically weed out half of the applicants.
In fact, SPD is stepping up its recruitment of all candidates. The department recently trained all of its community police officers to be recruiters. They’ll head out this year to community centers, churches and clubs across the city to drum up interest in the job.
When it comes to increasing the pool of diverse applicants, SPD is putting money into the effort in the form of incentives. El Centro De La Raza, the Filipino Community Center and the Atlantic Street Center, a community center in South Seattle, have agreed to partner with SPD to help.
The organizations will refer men and women to the police department. If anyone they refer passes the exam, SPD will make a donation to the referring organization. For anyone who becomes a police officer, another donation will be made. The amounts of the donations have yet to be determined.
These recruiting efforts will coincide with an aggressive advertising campaign. Later this year, when the department has ended its $25 application fee, the department will put advertisements in community newspapers. The billboards that went up earlier this year were donated by Clear Channel.
Whites and the blue line
Sitting on the eighth floor of the Seattle Police Headquarters and sporting a Tabasco tie adorned with the Statue of Liberty, Assistant Chief Mike Sanford looked casual and confident — the underlying issues of class, race and the police are anything but.
Sanford acknowledged that the police department’s representation in communities of color is lacking. But whatever problems the police had before are being addressed with reforms now, he said, adding that there’s no reason to hide the fact that the department needs improvement.
“I don’t think we are or should be shy about our reform efforts,” Sanford said. “We’re proud of them.”
But, he said, SPD can’t put off recruiting a diverse police force until reform is farther along. The need for greater diversity is a national issue.
“This isn’t unique to Seattle,” he said. “Policing in the country is going through a dynamic change right now.”
Across the nation, sworn police officers are predominantly white according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Seattle is already one of the whitest large cities in the country. According to SPD, the department is whiter: almost 76 percent of officers are white. Looking at those ranked lieutenant and above, the number approaches 80 percent.
SPD also carries a history of violence against minorities. As recruiters head out to communities of color, they are burdened with the 2010 fatal police shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams and the recent shooting of Native American Jack Keewatinawin.
“If you’re not willing to deal with the elephant in the room, it’s not going to change anything,” said KL Shannon, who investigates police brutality for the local NAACP. “And there’s a lot of elephants in the room when you start talking about the police department.”
Reforming police reform
Law enforcement experts and local reform advocates agree that to make police departments more diverse, police leaders have to look inward as well as outward.
SPD will have little success, said NAACP Executive Director James Bible, until it works with existing officers and leadership on how it treats disenfranchised communities.
“The SPD has very limited understanding of race dynamics, equity and equality,” Bible said.
A study from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government recommended that police departments embed themselves in the community long-term, going to sporting events, picnics and community gatherings frequently and not just to recruit.
“Mingle with the community,” said Chris Stearns, chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “Get out of the car. Walk the streets. That trust will build up better recruitment.”
Such efforts will help much more than any TV spot, newspaper advertisement or billboard, said Sam Walker, a police accountability expert at the University of Nebraska.
“I think those are worthless,” he said of ad campaigns. “You really have to get out in the community with an officer.”
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