Economic Development

Act of duty: Police departments are struggling to rebuild their ranks

Police recruitment across the state is down.

Police recruitment across the state is down. Pennsylvania State Police

The Pennsylvania State Police welcomed 91 new cadets into their ranks last month, but one major question still looms large over the force: How can the police recruit more minorities?

Diversity has been an ongoing issue for the state police, as well as local police departments across the state. While officials say they’re working to improve outreach and target recruiting toward communities of color, there are few results to show for it. And since the murder of George Floyd more than a year ago, public distrust and anti-police rhetoric haven’t made it any easier. 

“We want to show people that we're human too, and we want to help protect,” said Lt. Richard Nesbitt, who leads recruitment services for the Pennsylvania State Police. “Our job is all about engendering public trust … We [must] go and make ourselves known in those areas through job fairs, through public contacts, and through state senators. And that's the only way that we can show people and tell people that we want you.”

Prior to the newest class, the state police force was nearly 93% white and nearly 87% male, according to agency statistics. Of the 91 cadets that graduated from the State Police Academy in early August, 75 of them are white men. The class, as a whole, included four Black cadets, four Hispanic cadets and just eight women.

Although it’s more proportional to the state population, the Philadelphia Police Department is no exception to the lack of diversity either. The city’s force is about 57% white, 31% Black, 10% Latino, and 2% Asian. Those numbers are still far from being representative of the community that’s more than half non-white. 

According to the newest U.S. Census data released in August, Pennsylvania’s population is becoming more diverse. The white population makes up about 73% of the commonwealth’s population in 2020, which is down 6% in the last decade. During that same time span, the state’s Black population remained nearly stable and the Hispanic population grew by nearly 46%. 

“The image of policing in America has changed in recent years,” state Rep. Donna Bullock, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, told City & State. “The public criticism has definitely increased, but I would say that where we are today is a result of past practices – not investing in our police department in the right way, not investing in the diversity of those departments, not investing in the communities in which they serve, and not engaging in more community policing has created an atmosphere in which there is a lot of tension between communities and police departments.”

Nesbitt said that the Pennsylvania State Police has a “very positive benefits package as well as 180 different things that you can do.” Their recruiting efforts stress those messages in neighboring states, colleges and universities and job fairs. He touts their starting salary of nearly $65,000 as another selling point. 

Nesbitt added that as they look to attract more diverse recruits, efforts will include targeted billboards and social media campaigns, as well as visits to historically Black universities and colleges with higher women and minority populations. 

“We want you to come on this job and help make a difference, because this is still a noble profession,” Nesbitt, who is Black, told City & State. “And if you want to change something, you need to change it from the inside … because if there's no one like you sitting at the table, there's not going to be any change. So, the only way for change to come is for those people in the underserved communities to actually join.”

The state police will soon be introducing new initiatives to improve its community engagement and better connect with teenagers and young adults. Next year, the Explorers program will expose high school students and college freshmen to what it’s like to join the force. Nesbitt said applicants can face a number of barriers in the process.

The State Police Academy requires cadets go through a 27-week training program in Hershey, which can be an obstacle for those who need to stay close to home. The seven-step process, Nesbitt said, includes a written and oral test, polygraph and background check, medical and psychological exams, and a physical readiness test. 

He added that the initial written and oral test is now available at 65 locations throughout the state, so interested applicants in every part of the commonwealth should have access. The agency is also offering swimming lessons, as being able to swim is part of the academy’s requirements. The current testing cycle opened Aug. 1 and is set to close in February. 

Bullock said that while recruitment strategies can help with attracting more applicants, the culture in law enforcement has to be more accommodating, as well. 

“I believe that they have made some strides with recruitment. But what happens after recruitment, when we talk about training, police culture and welcoming folks into law enforcement, I think that’s where we failed,” she said. 

That comes with not only coaching cadets through training, but having mentors in place that can relate to and support them. 

Bullock said the police need to be strategic about promoting “police officers of color and women so that [cadets] can see a path for making policing their profession.” According to agency statistics, of the more than 1,100 officers who’ve reached the rank of major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant or corporal, about 94% are white. 

Improving engagement with members of the public is one thing, but that’s just the first step. Nesbitt said recruitment goes beyond the individual, and must include the family and surrounding community. 

“When you recruit somebody, you don’t just recruit them, you have to recruit the whole family,” he said. “And once you recruit the whole family, you recruit the whole community because the community needs to buy in.”

He added that another barrier, a tattoo policy, has been adjusted to be more inclusive. In the past, applicants weren’t allowed to have tattoos. Now, tattoos are allowed as long as they’re not offensive and aren’t on the person’s face or hands. Nesbitt said he doesn’t want to preclude anybody from the force, but above all else, “character is what counts.” 

Kenneth Hutson, president of the Pennsylvania state chapter of the NAACP, agrees, saying that diversity cannot “just be a catchphrase.” He emphasized that recruitment has to be strategic and relationships must be formed with community leaders, adding that the state NAACP is working “very aggressively” to build a partnership with the state police. 

Hutson also commended Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration for developing a police oversight database, which requires local departments to review officers’ disciplinary actions, performance evaluations and attendance records as part of a background check. 

“We cannot allow those bad apples to go into another barrel, if you will, and poison the [next] police department as well,” he told City & State. “We have some great state policemen, but the reality of it is that there has to be a vehicle in place to ensure and assure that this does not happen.”

Most agree the oversight database is a step in the right direction, but police still have a long way to go when it comes to gaining public trust, particularly in communities of color. 

“You need to have a relationship with the people that you're serving before something bad happens,” Nesbitt said. “They need to know who you are, so that when something happens you tell them what's going on. You can be transparent with them, and they will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

With more tenured police officers retiring and a public seemingly less interested in law enforcement, recruitment will continue to be a challenge for police departments across the state. But police are hopeful that promises of more transparency and community engagement will begin to mend a bruised relationship and bring on more recruits. 

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