KCFV Radio, January 9, 2015.
Lacey Turner, 35, said that when he found out about the number of black police officers compared to white officers in Ferguson, he thought it was “crazy.” He said if a community has a large minority population, then the number of police should reflect that diversity.
“I feel if you don’t have that balance… the community feels like (the authorities) can’t relate to what they are going through,” Turner said. “I do think that causes tension in itself because even if you’re not trying to be – I guess racial – it puts in people’s minds you’re trying to racially have power over this community.”
Turner, a Florissant Valley alum and current Webster University senior, grew up in the Ferguson and Berkley areas. The local hip hop rap artist and retired battle-rapper attended several of the protests after the police shooting of Michael Brown.
Brown was a black teen killed by a white Ferguson police officer last August. The incident has sparked controversy, national media coverage and protests. The topic of diversifying police departments has brought the issue of the lack of minority police applicants and lack of minority interest in law enforcement as a career into focus.
Statistics published in a St. LouisPost-Dispatch article last summer show Ferguson’s population as 67 percent black and the city’s police force is 7 percent black. The article also shows the disproportionate numbers are not isolated to Ferguson. The black population of Normandy is listed as 71 percent and Riverview at 70 percent, but both locations have zero percent for black officers.
The closest balance listed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article was University City with a 41 percent black population and the police force is 42 percent black. The article includes quotes from a few area police chiefs that say one of the challenges in diversifying their departments is a lack of minority interest and applicants.
Turner remembers a time in his youth when he heard many African-Americans say they wanted to be a police officer. He said when he was a kid the police would give out Cardinals’ baseball cards and Halloween candy in the community, which he said he “vividly” recalls as positive experiences. But today, he says the atmosphere has changed and all he hears from the black youth is “I hate the police.”
“They don’t see anything that is a role model about what (the police) are doing,” Turner said. “They look at them as crooked. They just basically don’t trust them. They don’t want to be that type of person.”
Police Lt. Matt O’Neill, is a 25-year veteran police officer and the current director of St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy. He said there is simply not a singular issue alone that points to why many minorities do not choose law enforcement as a career.
“This isn’t one of those stories that is going to be clear-cut. There are so many factors involved with why you have numbers the way you have them. They’re talking about Ferguson not being represented well by African-American police officers,” O’Neill said. “When you have a shortage of African-American recruitment and African-American officers that are qualified they can kind of pick and choose where they want to go.”
O’Neill said many times for minority officers it simply can be an economic decision to choose work in larger departments or specialty units. The salaries are normally higher in larger departments compared to smaller ones. Specialty areas like drug and intelligence units can offer other opportunities, such as recruitment with Federal agencies. He said many times qualified African-American officers and recruits will be lost to Federal agencies that pay “astronomically” more than local agencies in the St. Louis area.
Kevin Minor has been a police officer for 24 years and recently became the recruitment officer for the St. Louis County police. He said, for the most part, recruitment is done at college job fairs, especially those with large criminal justice programs. He said currently, it is simply not “cool” to become a police officer from a cultural standpoint.
Minor said talking to groups of young people on the street is not always a realistic outlet. There is cultural peer pressure and resistance to police officers that can be a deterrent to recruitment efforts. He said even if a person is interested in becoming an officer, they might be afraid to move forward out of fear of ridicule or possible physical harm.
Having an increased presence in a controlled environment, like visiting high schools and job fairs may allow for better understanding, according to Minor. It could offer the opportunity for young people to see officers differently.
“Getting out to the high schools and letting them see us and talking to them,” Minor said. “And showing them that we are people before we put this uniform on.”
Minor said he has noticed an increase in calls and inquiries coming into his recruitment office. This increase he thinks is good and a positive result coming out of the Ferguson situation that could help future enrollment numbers to the police academies.
Minor said he attended a job fair at Florissant Valley Community College after the Ferguson protests in August. A few people approached him and expressed interest in joining the police force because of the Ferguson situation. He said he tries to be realistic with potential recruits and does not want anyone to have a “knee-jerk” reaction out of anger.
“This is a job where you can lose your life. I don’t talk anyone into this,” Minor said. “This is something that you got to know why you’re doing it. You have to want to do it.”
In addition, he said making the decision to become a police officer means making lifestyle changes and that takes discipline. He also asks young adults about what research they have done. And he points out that research does not include simply watching police shows on television. It means doing things like, a ride-along with officers, working on getting an education and thinking about what type of law enforcement positions they might be interested in.
“You have to be honest with them too. Some of the friends you use to hang with you can’t hang with them anymore. Things change when you have this job and that’s one thing they don’t want to give up – they are going to miss something on the streets,” Minor said. “You have to give up those things to live this lifestyle.”
Becoming a Police Officer and Local Police Academy Statics
Low numbers of minorities attending police academies also slows diversification efforts. Some police academies train police recruits newly hired by local police departments. And local departments can also recruit students attending certain academies that have not been hired yet.
The requirements for obtaining a job as a St. Louis area police officer can sometimes vary between different police departments with items, such as education levels and residency.
However, all police officer candidates must meet the state’s requirements to obtain a Missouri peace officers license. In order to be eligible to obtain the license, applicants must be 21 years old, have a high school diploma or equivalent, be a U.S. citizen, meet criminal history requirements, pass the state peace officer license exam, and graduate from a basic law enforcement training center.
A law enforcement training center is a facility licensed by The Missouri Department of Public Safety (MDPS.) To work as a commissioned police officer in the state of Missouri, all candidates must receive training at one of the state’s 19 facilities. Veteran officers from out-of-state who wish to work in Missouri may not need training in this state, but they must pass the state’s exam through the MDPS. A commissioned officer is one who has been sworn into work at a police agency, according to Ron Neubauer, the 14-year director of the Eastern Missouri Law Enforcement Training Academy and a 42-year veteran police officer.
There are three state-licensed police training centers in the St. Louis metro area:
Eastern Missouri Law Enforcement Training Academy, St. Peters. Academy is a private organization. Information according to Director Neubauer.
- Six-month program.
- 80 to 100 graduates per year
- Minority participation is low, Neubauer said. Statistics not available.
- Police departments can hire students directly from the academy.
- Police departments can sponsor students through the academy.
St. Louis Police Academy, St. Louis, information from its website.
- 28-week program.
- Academy trains City of St. Louis officers only.
- Requires officers to live in the City of St. Louis.
- Requires 30 or more college hours.
- Request for academy statistics were not received at the time of this article.
St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, Wellston, information according to director O’Neill. The St. Louis County Academy has a partnership program with Lindenwood and Maryville Universities, according to O’Neill. Criminal justice students can spend their last semester at the academy and graduate with a college degree and also a class A peace officers license.
- 25-week program.
- Can graduate 90 officers per year in three classes of 30.
- Graduates over a 10-year period include 81 African-Americans, 529 whites and 26 labeled as other.
- Police departments can hire students directly from the academy.
- Police departments can send their recruits to the academy for training.
Communication and Trust
Turner said his interactions with both white and black police officers have built distrust over time. Incidents vary, but he said some of the interactions can be hurtful and seem like constant harassment by police in the community at times.
“I don’t think every cop is bad, but the majority of experiences I’ve had have been bad,” Turner said. “I would never discredit everybody who is a police officer, but I do think there is a lot more corrupt than good.”
O’Neill said that over time communication has changed between police and the community. He notices generational differences in younger recruits. He said they have some difficulties in communication because they are growing up in a society that heavily utilizes text messaging and email instead of personal contact.
In addition, O’Neill said police vehicles now have computers and officers have cell phones. He said 25-years ago officers had more personal contact with the community. One example is officers used the phones at local businesses, such as convenience stores to call-in reports.
O’Neill said he recalls handing out the Cardinals’ baseball cards to the community in the past. The same memories Turner described as a positive experience from his childhood.
“We use to love those. One of the best things (officers) ever got to do,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said he thinks it is “sad” that public relations programs like the Cardinals’ baseball cards were taken away because those types of programs got the officers out of their cars and talking with the kids.
The baseball card and Halloween candy program was discontinued due to a complaint and liability concerns. Someone was worried about the possibility of children being injured while running out to an officer’s car to receive the cards, according to O’Neill.
“I know there were a lot of us policemen that were disappointed when the baseball card thing went away because it was fun for us,” O’Neill said. “You got to talk to the kids and the parents would come out and we’d have good conversations.”
Turner said he does not think scholarships and recruitment of minorities will help at this point because the issues run deeper than that. The African-American youth simply do not want to become police officers. Interaction between police and the community is key to start rebuilding a relationship and trust. He said it has to start there to change attitudes about the police.
“I think it’s up to the police to really go out there into the communities and try to get through to the people, and I think the community has to be willing to open their minds and understand and just not shut the police out also,” Turner said. “Even though they are angry about (the Ferguson) situation, I think it takes two; so, both parties need to try to come to some medium for it to get better.”
Published: KCFV Radio Website, January 9, 2015.