The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP announced a new legislative agenda last week, following the release of a U.S. Department of Justice report chronicling a system of discrimination in the Baltimore Police Department. Changing police recruitment practices was on the list.
“We will mandate and oversee the recruitment of officers by the Baltimore Police Department and require Baltimore residents, particularly African Americans and women, to be recruited and hired to fill the more than 3,000 officer positions comprising the agency,” state Del. Jill Carter, a Democrat who represents northwest Baltimore, said at the Black Caucus’ press conference.
But even before the report’s release, the Baltimore Police had begun building efforts to recruit from communities that haven’t historically attracted many applicants.
“We’ve always advertised in the city of Baltimore, but what we’re doing now is we’re taking it to a more grassroots level,” said Maj. James Handley, director of the Baltimore Police Recruitment Unit. “We’re actually going out into the communities to recruit.”
At the heart of this new effort is a partnership with the Baltimore-based nonprofit Center for Urban Families. Founder and President Joe Jones said the idea grew out of a desire to improve police-community relations, and to help the police force look more like the people it serves.
“They have a need to recruit, and we think that we have inroads to the community and can help them identify people in the community who actually might be interested in becoming law enforcement officers,” Jones said.
The organization offers workforce development and other programs aimed at improving economic stability for residents of low-income neighborhoods. Handley and Jones both said it seemed a natural fit.
Some details are still being ironed out. But Jones said his organization has already begun scanning its database of the 27,000 Baltimore residents they’ve worked with in the last 17 years and talking to people who might be interested.
“We’ve got a lot of credibility in the community, so some people trust us a little more,” he said.
When there’s enough interest, the Center plans to hold an information session where police officers will talk about the job and the application process.
But Jones warned that convincing the Center’s clients — most of whom are black and more than half of whom have criminal records — will take time and work.
“People in their communities are really questioning a lot about whether or not law enforcement is a career for them,” he said. “The same time, there are people saying, if we really want to change the culture and accountability of police officers, it has to be more reflective of people who live in the community.”
That’s the sentiment Handley said he hopes to see.
“What I’m hoping is people in the city and all over the place, what I’m hoping is they want to get in and be part of the change they want to see in the police department,” Handley said.
One of the ideas driving this effort is a belief that people from these low-income, inner-city communities will be better equipped to understand the cultures of the neighborhoods they police as officers.
Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association in west Baltimore and a longtime civil rights leader, said officers who come from elsewhere to police many Baltimore neighborhoods are afraid because they don’t understand the communities’ culture.
“We need people who will respect this culture,” he said. “And this police force right now does not respect the culture that they are policing.”
But this belief is based largely in myth, according to Jacinta Gau, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida who has studied police-community relations around the country.
“Just because they come from one community, doesn’t mean they know that community inside out,” she said. “I think it’s an assumption that somehow being black makes you have magical powers to understand the behavior of other black people.”
She said research shows little difference in the behavior of black officers compared with the behavior of white officers, or for that matter, in the behavior of man and woman officers.
Most urban police departments that have tried similar recruiting efforts have been less successful than people have hoped, she said.
And that goes back to the tense relationships police have with black communities — the very thing driving the new recruitment effort.
“Why would they want to join the police force, become an officer, when they view it as a very systematically problematic institution — an institution that even brutalizes their neighborhoods?” she asked.
For his part, Jones, of the Center for Urban Families, said he knows it’s not going to be an overnight fix, but it’s a start.