As the president/CEO of Public Sector Search & Consulting, my work takes me all over the country to meet with city leaders to determine what their community is looking for in their next police chief. In the course of gathering information for one recent search, I learned the organization had a difficult time recruiting minority applicants, particularly African-Americans. In this mid-sized organization, 90% of the employees were white, while the community was nearly 30% African-American.
After a day of meetings, I was waiting in line for my car at the hotel and struck up a conversation with one of the valets, “James,” a 23-year-old African-American male, who was born and raised in the city. I told James about my work and why I was in his city and he told me that he had wanted to be a police officer. Not knowing his story, I told him the local department was trying to hire several new officers and they were trying to improve the diversity of the department. James smiled, and said, “The department doesn’t really want police officers of color; they want to say they do.”
James told me he had been an applicant for the local police department and had been disqualified because he had too many police contacts. He had been legitimately stopped and cited for rolling through a stop sign, had been stopped walking home from his girlfriend’s house, and was contacted while playing basketball at the park. James was a college graduate who had never been arrested. He also shared that his cousin had been disqualified for the same reasons, but eventually got a job in a nearby county as a deputy sheriff.
Standards for disqualification vary by state and by police department. Police are the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, while background investigators serve a similar role in the hiring process. Aside from clear disqualifiers, many applications turn on how questionable conduct is viewed by the background investigator and characterized in his/her report.
In many agencies, full-time police officers or sergeants conduct background investigations on a full- or part-time basis. Other departments, like the one James applied to, save money by employing retired police officers to conduct backgrounds. Many of these former officers have years of experience, work hard, and I’m sure they want to conduct a thorough investigation. But how do these individuals view what type of officer would be best for their department? What criteria is really pertinent in making hiring decisions for police officers in the 21st Century? I am not suggesting that this practice should be eliminated, but I do believe this can be a blind spot for police leadership and should be reviewed and continuously scrutinized.
My question for police executives is relatively simple: Does your department have systems or practices in place that prevent applicants like “James” from being disqualified? If leaders truly want their departments to reflect the diversity of their community, this needs to change. Incidentally, I shared James’s story with the new police chief we placed in that jurisdiction, and about six months later, the chief informed me that James had been hired and was starting the academy.