GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s a growing dilemma for law enforcement: There’s a will to make police departments look more like the communities they serve. Finding the way to make that happen is complicated.
Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky is headed to the White House this week to pitch one idea. He would like to see a nationwide recruitment campaign, similar to those used by the military, to attract new officers. It would be another step in a number of efforts to recruit more minorities to the police force.
Thirty Kent County high school students are currently part of this summer’s Grand Rapids Police Youth Academy, with 30 more taking part later this summer. The program offers teens a chance to decide if law enforcement is right for them — especially those who at a young age didn’t have a positive exposure to law enforcement.
“Since I was a little girl, I used to be really scared of police officers. I didn’t want them anywhere near me,” Karen Barrose said.
That’s all changed. The Godwin Heights graduate, who is Hispanic, went through the Youth Academy last year and came back this year as a student mentor. She’s off to Ferris State University in the fall on a scholarship to study law enforcement and hopes to one day wear a badge for the Grand Rapids Police Department.
“I honestly just want to make my community better. And I want minorities like myself to not feel ashamed and be able to pursue their dreams in this career,” Barrose said.
But it hasn’t been easy, especially when many in her community hold negative views on law enforcement.
“I just try to keep it more real with them. I tell them that not everything that’s on social media or that comes out is really how officers are,” Barrose said.
Barrose has also had to set her mother’s mind at ease about her career choice when it comes to the inherent dangers of the job.
“She didn’t want me risking my life,” Barrose said, “but I can’t picture myself in any other career but this.”
“We need more Karens. We’d love to have 10 of them in every class,” GRPD Sgt. Cathy Williams said.
But it’s getting more and more difficult to attract the Karen Barroses of the world to law enforcement.
The numbers tell the story. Grand Rapids’ population is 35 percent minority. The police force is about 13 percent minority. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department’s minority representation, both corrections and road patrol, is about 16 percent. The numbers are somewhat improved in Ottawa County, where out of nearly 200 deputies in both corrections and road patrol, about 20 percent are minorities.
Kalamazoo has had much more success. Minorities make up 29 percent of the city’s public safety force.
Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley says one reason for his department’s success in overall recruitment is that Kalamazoo pays for recruits to go through the academy. The city is one of only a handful of departments that have that incentive. Hadley says it help attract a wider variety of people who couldn’t afford to do it on their own.
But money isn’t the only factor.
“It is hard because minorities feel usually that stereotype. Officers are usually white, men,” Barrose said.
Ask any police agency and it would list a number of programs to try and improve those numbers, like community outreach and mentoring programs in schools.
Incidents in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago have made it more difficult.
And the overall pool of applicants has shrunk.
“Ten, 20 years ago, we’d have 1,000 applicants come into the big convention center to take our civil service test,” Sgt. Williams said. “This year we had a little over 150. So those numbers are way down, all around.”
When it comes to minorities in law enforcement, Barrose is hoping to be part of a turnaround.
“They helped me grow, and I want to return that,” she said. “Not just because the favor that they gave me to learn from them and what they do on a daily basis — because I grew up here in Grand Rapids and there’s no other place that I’d rather go.”