Rising anger and distrust of police departments in wake of George Floyd’s death discouraging new recruits
Rising anger and distrust of police departments in wake of George Floyd’s death discouraging new recruits
Waterbury Police Lt. David Silverio says the number of job applicants for the department have dropped drastically in recent years.

Don Stacom
The Hartford Courant

With fewer people looking for law enforcement careers even before the Black Lives Matter protests, police forces now are facing rising public anger about brutality and racism.

And with that, there is growing concern among top brass that they are losing even more ground, especially in efforts to attract more Black, Hispanic, Asian and female candidates.

“Recruiting has become the number one topic in the circles of police administrators,” said Chief Christopher Chute of the New Britain Police Department.

Some police agencies are looking to new recruitment strategies — fresh social media campaigns, more partnerships with Black and Latino community groups and a focus on marketing the career to young people long before they reach college.

To some activists for police reform, though, the troubles run deeper than recruiting tactics.

“Diversifying the police force is important, but it’s not a panacea for the problems afflicting law enforcement. Recruiting Black and brown applicants won’t solve the underlying problems that law enforcement has,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut.

“Part of this is the way law enforcement is perceived — law enforcement is the driver of mass incarceration in Connecticut and across the country.

“There’s an utter lack of accountability when police hurt or kill Black or brown members of the community. Until there is systemic change and policing is reimagined, it’s going to be very difficult to bring on Black and brown officers.”

Issues beyond hiring

Many cities have spent decades trying to build diversity in a field that’s historically been the province of white men, and the pressure ramped up after the Ferguson protests of 2014.

But there’s research supporting McGuire’s point that more minority hiring alone won’t be enough. Sociologist Rashawn Ray of the University of Maryland, who studies policing and race, last month told NPR that bias isn’t limited to predominantly white police departments.

“We find that officers, regardless of their race or gender, have similar implicit biases, particularly about Black people,” Ray said.

Diversifying police agencies is important, but it is also critical to have officers live in the communities where they work. “When police are policing their own community, they have skin in the game. That’s different than if you drive 30 miles to work, clock in, clock out and drive 30 miles home, McGuire said.

Chute said his department works to recruit New Britain candidates.

“Increasing the number of residents is our number one goal. It’s the best way to reflect the population and demographics of the city,” he said. “We see the quality of officers is high when they’ve grown up in the community they’re policing.”

Melina Floyd of Bristol, who has helped organize several Black Lives Matter rallies in central Connecticut, said she’d like to see police departments do more to engage public school students.

“It comes down to how much the police are involved in the community. Having a resource officer in the schools is great, but get more officers to go into the schools. Show that you’re being trained in anti-racism,” she said. “Show that everyone is welcome to become a police officer.”

Morris “Rippy” Patton, vice president of Bristol’s NAACP, said police face a big job in attracting minority applicants.

“You can’t have a diversity initiative all of a sudden when for 30 years you’ve had a very specific type of person you were hiring,” he said. “The culture they’ve built isn’t conducive to a diverse workforce.”

Just a few decades ago, hiring police was relatively simple. Towns and cities could bank on a long line of applicants as soon as word went out about a new police exam. Even though pay was comparatively low then, applicants were lured by the solid benefits, a lucrative pension, job security and a career with a strong degree of prestige.

Over the past 25 years or so, that’s been changing. The days of hundreds of applicants jamming into a college auditorium to take written tests for a half-dozen jobs are largely over.

“We had 371 applications last time; it used to be 600 to 800, maybe 1,000,” Waterbury police Lt. David Silverio said.

Benefits have eroded a bit over the past 25 years, but police salaries fared well: A rookie officer in Waterbury starts at about $61,000 a year, while wealthier suburbs pay $67,000 or more. But younger generations still haven’t been drawn to the work.

A few large agencies still draw big recruit groups: The Connecticut State Police got 3,334 applicants last winter and plans to draw about 100 recruits for a training academy starting later this year. And here and there, a few towns come out well: Coventry, for instance, got 82 applicants in its last recruitment period and hopes to hire two from that pool.

COVID complications

Capt. Stephen Tavares, the highest-ranking Black officer ever in Bristol’s police force, has spent years working to draw more minority applicants. With coronavirus precautions ending most community events and high school career nights this year, police can’t make their pitch before large groups, Tavares said.

“Nothing replaces that one-on-one interaction. Capt. Tavares has held orientation nights here where people come in and talk with a representative from every single division — it’s a huge, huge benefit,” Bristol police Chief Brian Gould said. “But now COVID has kept us from doing that. The social distancing along with the negative images about policing have had an impact on recruiting.”

Naugatuck focused heavily on recruiting at job fairs and school events, “But now COVID has crippled that,” said Naugatuck police Deputy Chief C. Colin McAllister.

“We’re going to be doing more familiarization sessions, more outreach efforts to tell people what they can expect in the hiring process and make sure they’re prepared,” he said.

Tavares is considering some form of police open house meetings through Zoom, where potentially interested people could ask questions of detectives and patrol officers in a video conference.

In Waterbury, Silverio is already considering a bigger social media campaign and a stronger pitch to local social service groups and churches for the next round of recruitment.

“You can’t sit back and wait for them to come to you. We’re having to go to the people,” said Capt. Brian Wright of the New London Police Department. “Years ago with a test, you’d have thought they were giving something away. Now we have nowhere near a fraction of that. No longer can we say we’ll get all the recruits we need. This is a new generation — and not only is recruitment important and valuable, but now so is retention.”

Tavares said he’ll also keep pressing for more people of color to apply.

“We try very much to bring diversity into the department,” he said. “My responsibility is to bring my perspective on being a Black officer and explain it to the community. If you don’t bring your perspective, nobody is going to know.

“I tell people, if you think there’s an issue, then the best way to have influence is to be involved in the industry. When more Black and brown people bring their experience and their diversity, that’s one of the ways you develop change.”

———

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.