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WANTED: Police for Hire, Minorities Encouraged

Qualified -- and willing -- applicants have become increasingly hard for police departments to find.

Twenty years ago, the Indianapolis police department didn’t worry much about filling jobs.  

“We didn’t recruit. We hired,” said Police Lt. Brian Mahone, who joined the force two decades ago and took over the job of recruiting last year. "If we want the best and the brightest, we can't just say [here's] the test, come pick up an application. That doesn't get you what you need anymore." 

For Indianapolis and many other large cities, qualified -- and willing -- police applicants have become increasingly hard to find. The problem makes the growing goal of increasing diversity in the ranks much harder to achieve.

There are many reasons being a cop is less appealing than it once was. But the biggest are clear: Community-police tensions have heightened in many places, while pay levels -- though reasonable in the public sector -- have essentially stagnated and often aren’t competitive with the private sector.

In San Jose, Calif., vacancies in the police department jumped from 40 in 2013 to 181 in 2015. In California as a whole, job openings for officers have increased more than 600 percent since 2010. Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia -- some of the largest police forces in the country -- are also seeing fewer and fewer applicants.

The situation has gotten so dire that cities from coast to coast are competing with one another for cops. In Indianapolis, for example, when citizens are bundling up in scarves and gloves during the winter, departments from warmer climates put on their poaching hats, come to the city and try to lure away candidates.

To get more applicants, cities are making significant changes.

New Orleans, for instance, dropped its requirement for 60 hours of college credit and stopped automatically disqualifying candidates who reported prior use of recreational drugs. In 2014, the police department also embarked on an aggressive national recruiting campaign that elicited applications from 44 states.

As a result of these efforts, the department has doubled the average number of applications it receives each month.

The nationwide calls for police departments to diversify ramped up in 2014, after police fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. At the time, two-thirds of the community was black, but 95 percent of the region’s police officers were white. 

Nationwide, minorities represented 27 percent of police officers in 2013 and 37 percent of Americans -- a gap that’s widened since 1990, according to a Governing analysis. The research is mixed, but some studies show that white officers are more likely to be involved in shootings, and black officers are more likely to offer supportive services, such as advice, to residents in predominantly black neighborhoods. 

So conventional thinking goes: Police departments need not just more candidates but more minority recruits so that their officers more closely reflect the demographics of the people they're protecting.

Over the last 18 years, New Orleans has had considerable success in changing the racial mix of its police force. It's about 35 percent white today compared to 50 percent white in the late 1990s. Recent efforts have been focused on increasing Hispanic and Asian representation.

The department advertises for police jobs on Hispanic radio stations and in Vietnamese newspapers. It provides special pay incentives for bilingual officers. And it's created a series of short videos highlighting the stories of new minority recruits. One focuses on a young Vietnamese man who says he was motivated to join the force because of his grandmother.

"Lately, there have been a lot of house burglaries," said Kevin Nguyen. "I just wanted to join NOPD specifically because my grandmother lives here and I just want to protect her." 

Hispanic and Asian recruits now make up 8 percent of new hires, double their representation on the force as a whole.

On the other hand, the percentage of new black officers has gone down. Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, a black man and a New Orleans native, said he isn't concerned about the drop but will continue to push for more black officers by recruiting at black colleges, churches and job fairs.

The Pittsburgh Police Department, which settled a lawsuit last year over discriminatory hiring practices, is also seeing some positive changes.

Between 2001 and 2012, only 4 percent of the city’s new police hires were black. In the last few years, though, the city has updated job requirements to include "integrity, dependability and cultural competence" as factors that can weigh into the scoring of applicants, and it has also offered training in the black community to help applicants prepare for the written and oral tests.

Last summer and this spring, a respective 28 percent and 18 percent of Pittsburgh's police academy classes were minorities.

There’s also a strong drive to improve the quality of work life for new recruits. 

“If you have a workplace environment that is not welcoming and inclusive, this generation’s workforce simply won’t stay,” said Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McClay.

His agency is currently developing an employee survey to measure the climate and culture of the organization. Meanwhile, like many other departments, Pittsburgh recruits more aggressively these days -- at high schools, colleges and cultural events. 

“Every community meeting, every contact is a recruitment opportunity,” said McClay. “The message is ‘We want you.’”  

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