BLOOMINGTON — It’s been almost six years since a police shooting lit race riots in Ferguson, Mo., and sparked nationwide protests and discussions about the lack of minority representation among police.
In McLean County, more than 150 miles away, the specter of all-white departments plays a part in minority recruitment efforts by local police chiefs.
Hiring minority officers is a challenge for the county’s four largest departments, but two Hispanic men and one black woman have accepted offers from Bloomington and start with the department on Monday. Two black men and a white man are in the final stages of testing.
"Part of the equation is for people to expand their preconceived perspectives about who can, who should and who would be willing to be a police officer," said Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath.
Others are deterred because policing usually involves shift work and working odd hours, including holidays and weekends, added Aaron Woodruff, chief of the Illinois State University Police Department.
In 2015, the four departments undertook a major recruitment effort to draw more minorities and women after a community forum drew more than 100 people and at least 50 questions about community racism. Part of the discussion arose from a question about the number of local law enforcement officers considered minority.
In Normal, Police Chief Rick Bleichner made increased diversity a goal when he took over as chief nearly nine years ago. He didn’t feel the department reflected the community and worked to attract more minority applicants.
It remains a challenge.
“… our department looks a lot different today than it did nine years ago,” he said. “We need to have more women in law enforcement. We’ve made some strides in hiring African-Americans, hiring Hispanics, hiring Asians, but again, we’re not quite to where we’d like to be, but we’ve made progress along the way.”
Since becoming chief in August, Donath also has made a priority of increasing diversity in recruitment and hiring.
Bloomington has 119 of its 128 officer spots filled, with the remainder out for injury or permanent disability. Starting pay is about $67,000 annually, increasing to $88,000 by the third year of employment.
"We will be doing a lot of hiring this year and into the beginning of next year,” Donath said. “But we will only be hiring top-of-the-line candidates. When you have been in this business for 26 years, you realize once you take someone on, you have them for 20 to 30 years. We want the best candidates so they can provide the best service to the residents of Bloomington."
Bloomington added a second application period this year, but the June 1 deadline could be pushed back eight weeks to coincide with police academy training. Right now the training is limited because of state COVID-19 restrictions, Donath said.
The additional application period is "important because historically we did it just one time per year. We created a second cutoff in the year in order to be able to have people continuously test and become qualified on our hiring list," he said.
Bloomington Ward 3 Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who came to the Twin Cities to attend Illinois State University and gained his U.S. citizenship in 2008, is pleased to hear more minorities will be joining the force.
"This is something we've talked about for quite a long time," Mwilambwe said. "I think it's important for public safety or other city staff to reflect what the local population looks like."
City Manager Tim Gleason agreed. "The recruitment efforts are something that are near and dear to me," said Gleason, who worked for the Pekin Police Department for more than 20 years before retiring in 2010 as a lieutenant.
"Whether we talk about the organization as a whole, but especially in public safety, we want a department that is reflective of our community," he said. "It's important to the police department, and we are actually bearing fruit with some of the efforts that we've made to increase our (recruitment) outreach. So, there's more to come."
If law enforcement agencies are serious about increasing diversity, they need to create a good recruitment plan, have a face for the recruitment team and examine the department's reputation within the community, said Robert Moore, a retired U.S. marshal and police community relations consultant who chairs the Illinois NAACP criminal justice committee.
Among questions to ask are whether minority officers are promoted, and whether the city and police department follow through on promises to increase diversity.
"It's seriously important," Moore said. "The workforce is a reflection of the community. We think having a diverse work force is critical in moving forward and having a harmonious community."
Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said recruitment is a national issue.
"All over the country right now, it's harder for police departments to recruit anyone," he said. "The numbers of applicants are down in the United States, and that's been true since the Ferguson event in 2014. It's not just recruiting a diverse department, it's recruitment in general."
‘It takes essentially a full year’
Bloomington’s current force of 119 includes 108 white men, five Hispanic/Latino men, one black woman and five white women. Of the six women and five Hispanic/Latino officers, nine were hired in the last eight years.
Normal’s 83 sworn officers include 67 white men, eight white women, four black men, two black women, one Hispanic-Latina woman and one man who identified as “other.”
ISU’s 29 officers include 19 white men, four white women, three black men, two Latino men, and a mixed-race man.
Of 54 sworn positions at the McLean County Sheriff's Office, 52 are white and only one of those is a woman.
"Recruiting is very difficult at this time so we are focusing on anyone, not one group in particular," said Sheriff Jon Sandage.
In Normal, Bleichner changed some requirements to make it easier to apply and to attract diverse candidates. One of those changes was offering multiple opportunities to take the written and physical tests and interview, rather than only a specific three-day period.
The department now also accepts certificates from out-of-town testing facilities.
"… the hiring process for policing is not as simple as filling out an application and going to an interview," said ISU’s Woodruff.
At a minimum, most departments require a written exam, physical agility test, oral board interview, background investigation, medical screening and psychological exam.
"Once hired, applicants still must successfully complete the police academy and on-the-job training," Woodruff said. "Each of those steps can really diminish the hiring pool."
In January, 102 candidates — 25 were minorities — applied with the Bloomington department, passed the written test and were invited to take the physical agility test. Forty-nine applicants passed the physical agility test, and about 15 advanced further after passing an oral exam. The top candidates included six minority applicants.
New officers then take 14 weeks of state-mandated training at the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center in Decatur. That’s costing municipalities more this year after a $5 million shortfall gap in the state's budget to cover police training.
After academy graduation, the new officers complete six months of field training.
"So it takes essentially a full year in order to make somebody a solo patrol officer assigned and on the street," Donath said. "There's competition among departments to get good candidates, but that's not the issue with minorities. The issue is they don't apply."
One reason is a preconceived idea about working on an all-white, all-male department, he said.
"I think, for a lot of minorities, they just don't even think about it as a career because that's not where historically minorities have worked," Donath said.
‘An all-out effort to diversify’
Moore, from the Illinois NAACP, was lead consultant in a 2016 case study of the Springfield Police Department as it focused on increased diversity. The department has since increased its number of black officers by nearly 150 percent.
That's going from eight black officers to 21 within a five-year span, he said.
Donath hopes to recruit more minority applicants by building trust and an open dialogue to improve police-community relations.
"Anytime you're trying to increase diversity in areas where there historically hasn't been much success for law enforcement, I think the first thing you have to do is you have to have some trust," he said. "By building relationships, I hope I can build some trust so people will recognize the value of a career in law enforcement."
The police department has partnered with the city's Public Safety and Community Relations Board to reach out to minority groups, he said.
"We've put a strong (social) media presence out there through our Facebook account to also help increase (recruitment)," Donath said. "We've met with Illinois State University and asked them for suggestions about how we can do that with their graduates and pending graduates. There are more things to be done."
Carla Campbell-Jackson, first vice president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP branch, hopes law enforcement agencies will consider non-traditional tactics such as recruiting at churches, through the Bloomington-Normal Boys & Girls Club and the NAACP.
"When we think about recruitment from the law enforcement perspective, it is critically important that the police force represents the community they serve," Campbell-Jackson said. "Citizens recognize when there's a desert of diversity, and they also recognize when police departments make an all-out effort to diversify.”
In Normal, Bleichner said, the department has targeted certain groups, such as military veterans.
"I believe the best sources of recruiting is still word of mouth and personal connections, but we also have social media to be a helpful tool in doing that," said ISU’s Woodruff. "However, we continue to personally reach out to local and regional organizations representing diverse races, cultures, ethnicities and religions anytime we are testing in the hopes of getting as diverse a pool of applicants as possible."
Photos: Area police reach out with online tools
Contact Maria Nagle at (309) 820-3244. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Nagle
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