When the Akron Police Department added new officers to its ranks last month, the lack of women and minorities was there for all to see.
Nine new officers. All white men. Photographed for the newspaper.
The image didn’t sit well with Police Chief Jim Nice. The new hires added to a racial imbalance within the department. He and others in City Hall took notice.
In an interview last week, the chief said he intends to add 35 officers to the department and he wants his force to mirror its residents.
Right now, he said, the department is lagging when it comes to black police officers.
The Akron Fire Department, which intends to hire this year or early next year, also has pledged to work harder recruiting minority and female candidates.
In a city that is composed of 30 percent black residents, the 418-member police force carries about 20 percent black officers. Ten percent of the force is women. Blacks make up about 16 percent of firefighters. Less than 1 percent are women.
Nice and Deputy Fire Chief Dale Evans said marketing their departments to minorities is one way to achieve a better balance. They plan to reach out to minority communities and encourage them to prepare and apply for jobs as safety workers.
“It’s very important to have a diverse police force,” Nice said. “And we know you have to market [the department] to get good candidates, any candidates. We want to recruit and have a broad mix of candidates. That’s fair. That’s the idea. I think that’s the way the community wants to be represented.”
Akron police have struggled in recent years in terms of recruiting any candidates. In 2008, the last time the police department began hiring a new class of officers, the department worked hard to encourage 1,000 candidates to apply. Years previous, the job was desirable and more than 3,000 applied.
Age restrictions shrink the field of police cadets. Mandatory background checks further whittle the applicants. But the physical agility tests, which require, in part, long-distance runs, push-ups and sit-ups, sometimes prove to be the most demanding of the requirements and the reason many fail to proceed through the hiring process.
The limitations, however, should not restrict the city from employing a diverse corps of safety workers, Evans said. He said the department is not satisfied with its current racial makeup and intends to work for a fix through an “intensive campaign” throughout the city.
The fire department has requested permission to offer a test for new candidates, either later this year or early next year. There are currently 326 firefighters in the city.
“Our goal is always to have a group employed by the fire department that’s representative of the community and obviously, the value, as you know, is something that is imperative for us in order to serve the needs of the community,” Evans said.
Fire Capt. Al Bragg, whose duties will include the recruiting campaign, said lowering the minimum age for new hires from 21 to 18 will help to expand the pool of eligible candidates. He said firefighters will visit local high schools to sell students on the career. They also will encourage potential candidates to begin the process of becoming licensed emergency medical technicians, which takes just several months of training.
Licensed EMTs and paramedics receive bonus points on the hiring test.
The department last offered a test in 2007, and about 1,700 took part.
“I think one of the most important things is to make minorities aware that this is a career in which they can achieve, particularly with women,” Bragg said. “You first have to be able to conceive it yourself before you can achieve it.
“So, that’s one of the more important things: to get the message out that this is a career you can do.”
Akron City Council President Marco Sommerville said having diversity in the safety forces makes the community safer and puts the public at ease. He also said employing a police force that reflects the community’s racial makeup builds trust.
Like many, he saw the most recent group of police hires and was troubled by the lack of any blacks or women. He said he recently met with the police and fire chiefs along with Mayor Don Plusquellic to address the disparity.
Sommerville said he does not believe blacks and women are intentionally being excluded from the hiring process. He just wants it fixed.
“Like I told them, I don’t blame them. I’m not blaming anybody. I just want to get this thing resolved,” he said.
One of the problems, Sommerville has been told, starts with the test. Simply put, a representative number of blacks are not even taking the exam. He believes a marketing campaign will help raise the number of minority applicants.
The campaign is expected to take place over the summer and will target local neighborhoods as well as area universities and police academies. In 2008, the department also used billboards, newspaper and radio ads, yard signs and posters to announce job openings.
Sommerville said he hopes diversity will come about quickly, for the sake and safety of the city.
“It’s important to have diversity and it’s even more important when we go out on a situation that we have law enforcement officers who understand all of our different people,” he said. “Then the entire department benefits from a diverse police force, and a lot of times what happens is they all learn from each other.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.