“In this career path, you have the opportunity to influence someone’s life for the better,” says Valeria Ramirez. “Whether it’s picking up a drunk driver off the street, where you’re perhaps preventing a car crash, or investigating a domestic violence situation, I have a passion for law enforcement.”
Ramirez, whose parents were born in Mexico, is a teenage member of the Salem Police Department’s Cadet program, which trains young people to work in law enforcement. The Cadet program is one of many ways the SPD is extending itself to encourage interest in a policing career and to develop recruits among underrepresented populations.
“When I became Chief almost 11 years ago,” says Salem Police Chief Gerald Moore, “one of my main goals was to make sure that the force reflects the diversity of the community.”
The 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white policeman in Ferguson Missouri, kicked off the most rigorous conversation about force diversity since the first hire of an African-American to a police department. Notably, at the time of Brown’s death, 50 of the 53 Ferguson commissioned officers were white in a city that was two-thirds black.
Proponents of a more diverse force say that when the make up of the police force mirrors the community’s population, police success is increased.
Mina Hanssen, Director of Human Resources for the City of Salem, describes some of the steps SPD takes to bring in diverse applicants, including advertising on nationally-viewed job sites viewed by African-Americans, veterans and women and maintaining contact with tribal, Latino and National Guard representatives. An announcement runs continuously on the City of Salem job page and staff attends career fairs and visit colleges. The department recently began a popular “Why I wear the Badge” series on YouTube.
“With Millennials,”Hanssen explains, “it’s all about what’s on the internet!”
Salem teenager Hannah Farrell found out about the Cadet program on City of Salem’s site. “I applied right away,” she says, “because I’ve always had an interest in law enforcement.”
Cadets are trained in law enforcement practices and the code of ethics, attend a summer academy and provide security at events such as World Beat, the Salem Art Fair and the Festival of Lights. They go on regular “ride-alongs” with officers to get a feel for the work.
Ride-alongs are what Farrell loves most. “It’s great to see what the officers do every day and how they do it. With some of the domestic abuse calls I’ve been on, it can really help just to have a uniform there before things escalate into something physical.”
Cadet-type programs, according to industry publication The Police Chief, help raise diversity. Though the process takes time, “once there is a visible number of minorities in the department, the agency tends to attract additional minorities who see that the department is not homogeneous.”
As potential female officers, both Ramirez and Ferrell qualify as “diverse”; females are only 1 in 8 police officers in the United States.
The directive to hire diverse officers comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. Additionally, the City of Salem published its Equal Opportunity Plan in 2013, a document that states the city’s commitment to diversity and provides a statistical way to measure representation goals.
Salem Police Department shows more diverse officer representation than much of Oregon. In 2015, 53 departments in the state had not a single minority officer, and in general, Oregon departments have about 9% nonwhite officers on their forces.
In Salem, 14 of 131 officers, or 11%, are nonwhite in a community that is about 21% nonwhite.
Two Nine of 131 133 are female in a community that is half female.
The department is always working. “We’re trying to get the word out,” Chief Moore says, “that if you’re a good person, you have good common sense, you treat people fairly – you could be a police officer. That’s really how simple it is.”
HR works to eliminate unconscious bias in the way it evaluates candidates, firstly, by blocking the names of applicants. Additionally, Hanssen says, “We look at all the testing we do that’s not standardized to ensure there is no negative impact on minority applicants and that we conduct testing in a way that ensures no unconscious bias.”
HR also attempts to recruit officers who are themselves unbiased. Hanssen explains, “For example, a common interview question is, ‘Why do you want this job?’ Well, will that question really get to the heart of what makes a good officer? A good question for a police candidate is, ‘What does integrity mean to you’? That’s something we want to understand.”
But industry observers say there are challenges to hiring a qualified police force in Salem, Oregon – or anywhere in the country – and additional barriers to hiring a diverse one.
In a June 2016 article on recruiting, The Police Chief publication noted, “Recruiting and staffing shortfalls that have long plagued law enforcement agencies across the United States persist today, even during a period of high unemployment.”
Hanssen says she and other Oregon municipal HR directors struggle to overcome this daily. “In Oregon it’s difficult to attract a minority work force, particularly in public safety, [police and fire departments] and we’re getting fewer and fewer applicants from that community.”
Chief Moore, who speaks regularly with local African-American pastors and the NAACP, believes, “There is a stigma on police officers because of Ferguson and some other things, and that doesn’t help us recruit young black men. We’ve never gotten many applicants from that community, and what we’re trying to do is change that. We’re trying to say it’s an honorable and noble profession.”
Another struggle is that applicants interested in the Pacific Northwest may prefer larger cities like Portland or Seattle. Bennie Yows, member of the Human Rights and Relations Advisory Commission with the City of Salem, says, “You know [non-white] candidates look at the whole community. They look at the neighborhoods; they want to see if there are any other children of color in the school system, they look at churches and available social activities. And Salem, Oregon has a history of discrimination. People know about this. They can look online at the history. Even having ethnic women’s hair products and hair salons are important. People research online, and don’t find that kind of culture here.”
For Ramirez, the call to serve overcomes all barriers. “I got started in law enforcement because I knew I wanted to help people,” she says. “The biggest thing I’ve learned since joining the Cadets is how much I love the career.” She plans to apply to be a Community Service Officer with the City of Salem in upcoming months.
With the Cadet program and daily outreach to all members of the community, Chief Moore is confident he will succeed in meeting his diversity goals. “It’s a neat thing when you can police your own community,” he says. “You really have roots here and your home is here and that’s a positive thing. We just have to reach the minority members of the community and get them feeling the same way.”