Kianna Gardner, Lysandra Marquez and Nkiruka Omeryone

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017

Arizona police departments try to repair rifts with communities

PHOENIX – When Jeri Williams took over as Phoenix police chief last year, she made it a point to address the tension between law enforcement and the community.

She noted the “conflicting relationship between some people of color and some members of law enforcement” and the high-profile incidents that had resulted in unrest and violence across the country.

Arizona had seen its share of backlash, including a series of street demonstrations and city council protests – although less violent compared to other parts of the country.

“The community and the police should be one cohesive group of people who want peace and safety,” Williams wrote in a column .

Like many departments across the state, Phoenix has made efforts to repair those rifts in a variety of ways, including trying to hire more diverse officers, reaching out to youth, establishing task forces, hosting community outreach events and providing more police training.

(Video by Nkiruka Omeroyne/Cronkite News)

Arizona departments have grappled with hiring enough officers to fulfill the needs of their depleted forces . Many have emphasized the need to add more people of color and women to their ranks as they’ve tried to fill hundreds of vacant positions statewide.

While 44 percent of Arizonans are non-white, non-whites are underrepresented among officers in nearly every Arizona police department represented in a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, according to a Cronkite News analysis of the data, the latest available.

But departments face an ongoing battle trying to overcome the “negativity around law enforcement,” Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said at a news conference in April .

“Now that we need people, everybody hates us,” Phoenix Officer Lisa Fisher said at a recent recruiting event. “And nobody wants to do a job where you’re, you know, going to be spit at and kicked and hit and potentially stalked at your house and things like that. But that’s all the more reason we need good people to come out and do this.”

Repairing relationships will take time and effort, officials said.

“Law enforcement agencies across the country have truly significant problems in their communities,” said Kevin Robinson, a retired assistant chief with the Phoenix department. “I think if you dig deep, you’ll find out they didn’t bother to establish a relationship with those communities. And a lack of doing that will spell nothing but problems for you when something bad happens.”

Police departments statewide have hundreds of job vacancies, and police officials hope career fairs will spark interest from younger and more diverse generations. (Photo by Kianna Gardner/Cronkite News)

Recruitment and hiring

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, who voters elected in November to replace former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, said he wants to repair the broken trust between his office and the Hispanic community.

Community leaders have long accused Arpaio of targeting immigrants and promoting discriminatory policing practices.

Penzone said part of changing the department’s image involves hiring more diverse employees.

“It’s not just deputies or detention officers,” he said. “There’s a career for everyone … whether you want to work as a dispatcher or whether you want to work in some form of administration, there’s plenty of opportunity. But this organization has to reflect the community we serve.”

“We have dedicated a team solely to outreach,” he added. “And it’s not just the Latino community, it’s to all communities that are, you know, minorities or unique in some capacity.”

He said his office recently hired a human resources director who develops “everyday” methods to recruit in different areas, including at community colleges where recruiters can reach more diverse communities. Minority students in Arizona schools became the majority more than a decade ago, and those numbers continue to grow, according to research by the Arizona Minority Student Progress Report .

In the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office alone, there were more than 300 job openings in October, Milstead said then . The Sheriff’s Office has more than 700 sworn officers, a force that is about 77 percent white, 18 percent Latino, 3 percent black and less than 2 percent Native American and Asian combined, according to data provided to Cronkite News.

Recruiters for Phoenix police also have held numerous career fairs – some of them in predominantly minority areas – to attract diverse candidates.

For example, the department held an information session at a Baptist church in South Phoenix, according to an article on azcentral.com . That ZIP code has a population that’s about 71 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 13 percent white, according to U.S. Census information.

At a recent career fair at the Phoenix Convention Center, Isiah Brown, an African-American man, said recruitment officers had encouraged him to consider a law enforcement career.

“If you have the right type of people behind the badge with the right type of personalities, showing people the right type of respect and then also upholding the law, I think that’s really important,” he said.

The department also has put up recruitment billboards in minority neighborhoods, advertised for jobs in Spanish-language publications and spread the word on social media channels with diverse audiences.

Phoenix has nearly 3,000 sworn positions, and it’s trying to fill 400 by the end of the year. Native American, black, Latino and Asian officers account for about 26 percent of Phoenix’s sworn police force, according to data provided to Cronkite News.

Some departments even travel out-of-state to find more minority recruits. A Department of Public Safety recruiter said he had planned to travel to areas in South Carolina that have higher populations of African-Americans to seek potential recruits.

Other departments also employ more subtle ways to attract minorities. For example, the city of Maricopa made it part of its strategic recruiting plan to feature photos of women and minorities on its jobs page. The plan also includes conducting an annual review of its recruiting efforts and how it compares to the city’s demographics.

However, some experts say increasing diversity is only the first step.

“Just bringing in new people who are a different gender, different race, different ethnicity, can have some effects on how policing is done, but it isn’t going to wholesale change the nature of the business,” said Michael S. Scott, who runs the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing based out of Arizona State University.

Scott has worked at police departments in Wisconsin, Florida and New York.

“Diversity is the answer to one question. It’s not the answer to all questions,” Scott said. “What contribution does diversity have to fairer, more effective policing, to reductions in crime, reductions in disorders? It’s probably helpful, but it isn’t sufficient in and of itself.”

Recruiters also said that sometimes the quality of an applicant is more important: They hire based on the strength of the applicant, regardless of ethnic or cultural background.