Wanted: More Hispanic, minority police officers

Officer John Forred, a member of the Wichita bomb squad, explains to Josiah Lemay how to use the controls for a robot detonator during a community cookout at Edgemoor Park. The cookout was hosted by Patrol East as a method to recruit more Hispanics and minorities. (Aug. 20, 2016)
Officer John Forred, a member of the Wichita bomb squad, explains to Josiah Lemay how to use the controls for a robot detonator during a community cookout at Edgemoor Park. The cookout was hosted by Patrol East as a method to recruit more Hispanics and minorities. (Aug. 20, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said he plans to overhaul the department’s recruiting efforts to try to attract more Hispanics and other minorities to law enforcement.

“We’re going to totally revamp the way we’ve recruited the last dozen years or so,” Ramsay said. “We simply have to do better.”

The changes will include hiring officers who do nothing but recruit. Budget cuts in recent years turned recruiting into a part-time effort conducted by officers plucked from one area or another to go to colleges or career fairs, Ramsay said.

Following up with people who expressed interest in joining the force was often lacking.

“It becomes self-fulfilling when you can’t sustain the effort,” Ramsay said. “I really want to look at finding some dedicated recruiters, recruiters who are passionate about it and will follow up with candidates.”

A shuffling of duties after Labor Day will see Capt. Brian White assume command of the training section, which includes recruiting. The changes come at a time when, for the first time in years, the department is fully staffed.

Long-term shortages have been eliminated in part because of fewer retirements and departures than expected this year, Ramsay said. But the department remains under-represented when it comes to minorities, particularly Hispanics.

According to the 2010 Census, Hispanics make up more than 15 percent of Wichita’s population. But Wichita’s police force doesn’t come close to reflecting that.

The police force currently has 46 Hispanic officers, said Capt. Brent Allred, head of the training section. That amounts to slightly more than 7 percent of the force.

In other words, Wichita has about half the number of Hispanic officers it needs to accurately reflect the city’s demographics.

Efforts to recruit more Hispanic officers have been only marginally successful. In 2014, 18 Hispanics completed the initial contact questionnaire, Allred said. Last year, that number was 23.

Through mid-August this year, the total was 16 – about on pace with 2015, Allred said.

“We’d like those numbers to double,” he said.

The department’s efforts to connect with Hispanics include starting a daily media briefing in Spanish at City Hall, which was scheduled to begin this week. Plans call for eventually setting up a Spanish-language Facebook page and Twitter account.

The current academy class of 26 cadets has just three Hispanic men, one black man and one Asian man, along with four women. The cadets are already considered part of the department, helping to fill current openings.

Engaging the community

Recruiters have cast a wider net for potential officers, Allred said. Along with having a presence at job fairs, career fairs and colleges, recruiters are going to neighborhood and community events.

The police presence at neighborhood activities is key, Angela Martinez said.

“If police officers come out and relate to the kids and get to know their communities, that goes a long way,” said Martinez, who is heavily involved in the Aztec Athletic Youth Club and other activities in north Wichita.

“They become role models,” she said of police officers. “They become a less scary figure.

“Somewhere along the way, a kid goes ‘Hey, I want to be a police officer.’ ”

Law enforcement officials don’t have to do anything fancy, Martinez said.

“More than anything, it’s going to take a lot of going out and engaging the community and getting to know who they are,” she said. “It’s letting them know you’re there, you care about the community, you’re not just there to bust somebody. You’re more approachable.”

A neighborhood cleanup, car show and cookout in mid-August at Evergreen Recreation Center was just the kind of event where bonds can be built, Martinez said. Officers played basketball, joined in line dances and chatted with children and adults alike.

“I was really impressed” by how many officers and sheriff’s deputies took part in the event, Martinez said. “I think that’s exactly what Wichita needs more of in terms of creating relationships between the community and police.”

Such efforts won’t just eventually attract more Hispanic recruits, she said, they will fuel more interest across the demographic spectrum.

“The biggest thing is to get them to see the police in a different light,” Martinez said. “What kids are seeing, what young people are seeing so much of across the country these days – they’re seeing police as bad guys. They’re really not.

“The best way to learn that is by hanging out with them and getting to know them.”

Spanish speakers

Ramsay and others have noted how often officers on a call are using the police radio to request a Spanish-speaking officer. The calls demonstrate the need for more Hispanic officers who also speak Spanish.

Around the country, businesses offer bonuses to bilingual candidates in particular languages. Ramsay said he would like to see Wichita do that for officers.

“Right now, our pay structure for Spanish speakers is cumbersome and convoluted,” he said. “Some Spanish speakers don’t sign up for it because of the headaches associated with it.”

The officers have to fill out paperwork each time they use Spanish during a call. Once the paperwork is processed, the officers are paid.

The current protocol is part of the union contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, which expires next year. Ramsay said he will ask for a more streamlined bonus system for bilingual officers in the next contract.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger