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Law enforcement experts and community leaders often say a police department should look like people in the neighborhoods they serve.
San Diego’s police force isn’t quite there yet.
Racial breakdowns going back to 2010 show the department has about 8 percent fewer Asian American officers and 9 percent fewer Hispanic officers than the percentages reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census for San Diego.
And while roughly half of San Diego residents are female, only about 15 percent of the city’s officers are women – a figure that closely mirrors national law enforcement trends. (The percentage of black officers working for the department does nearly match Census levels.)
Police demographics haven’t shifted much in recent years despite the department’s recent recruitment and retention woes. Police leaders say they hope new hiring pushes will help them bring more diversity to the force.
Seeking out diverse job candidates is now commonplace in almost every industry. It has gotten particular attention in law-enforcement circles.
Countless reports and seminars at police conventions have argued a police population that closely matches the diversity of its residents can translate into improved relations and trust. The recession upped the challenge for many agencies, including San Diego’s police force, amid cutbacks that slowed overall hiring and recruiting efforts. San Diego stopped hiring officers altogether for a time. Once it started again, the department had fewer open positions and little cash to proactively seek out candidates.
“We weren’t actively recruiting at all,” said Assistant Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who oversees the department’s human resources functions.
The hiring situation here has become particularly dire. The department is struggling to replace the officers who leave following a hiring freeze and years of smaller, less frequent police academies. At the same time, other departments have offered better pay and benefits that have lured at least some other officers and police recruits. In 2013, the department lost an average of 10 officers a month and dozens of prospective officers.
There’s also a larger crisis looming: About half of the police force will be eligible to retire within the next four years.
The department bolstered its efforts to recruit candidates in the past year when cash became available.
Since early 2013, Zimmerman said San Diego police have attended more than 120 recruitment events and cultural fairs in an effort to attract more female and minority officers, including the Chinese cultural fair in downtown San Diego and the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention in Los Angeles. They also hosted a job fair of their own last October.
That’s mostly thanks to the City Council’s approval of a recruitment and retention package that included $35,000 to promote the department to potential officers.
Since the August City Council vote, Zimmerman said the department has also used the new cash to purchase advertisements before movies at AMC Mission Valley and the Edwards theater in Mira Mesa.
All these investments will be essential to attract minority job candidates, said Penny Harrington, a former Portland, Ore., police chief who spent years advising police agencies on ways to diversify.
“It takes work to recruit minorities and women because minorities and women are suspicious about how they’re going to be treated when they join the police department,” she said.
Some minorities may recall negative encounters with police officers, or be unfamiliar with any officers that look like them, Harrington said. They may also worry that their differences will be taken as a sign that they’re less capable or not part of the team.
The issue exists in San Diego. Local Black Police Officers Association President Benjamin Kelso recently recalled fellow officers questioning his loyalty to the force after he attended local Trayvon Martin marches.
Harrington said departments must use different tactics to attract different demographic groups, such as visiting their community gathering places and enlisting local leaders and residents in their cause.
San Diego has tried both approaches.
Before the hiring push began early last year, Kelso met with Police Chief Bill Lansdowne to discuss his concerns about a lack of black recruits. Kelso said Lansdowne agreed to focus more on minority recruiting but also asked for help.
Since then, Kelso said his association has attended multiple community events with police recruiters and consistently encouraged minority residents and their families to apply for police jobs.
The efforts appear to be having an impact.
Kelso and Jeff Jordon, vice president of the city’s police union, both say they’ve noticed increased diversity at police academy orientations in the past year.
Zimmerman said the numbers support their observations.
Since the beginning of 2013, an average of half of the police recruits attending each of the department’s academies have been minorities or women.
Eighteen of the 36 cadets set to begin training later this month also are women or minorities. Eight speak at least two languages, Zimmerman said.
She’s confident the department’s efforts will continue to bring in more diverse candidates.
“With this continued outreach, I would expect that we would be able to attract people to work at the San Diego Police Department from all communities,” she said. “I think all of the demographics are going to change.”
Harrington cautions it will require a long-term commitment.
Other agencies have significantly increased their percentages of female officers, for example, only to abandon that recruiting focus and see the demographics shift back down, she said.
Maintaining a diverse police force requires consistent efforts to encourage applicants and ensure they receive equal treatment once they become officers, particularly when it comes to promotions, Harrington argued.
“You have to constantly watch it or it slips away from you,” she said.