Lincoln University program might help recruit Black officers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Raise your hand if you know what Jim Crow laws were and who enforced them.

That’s one of the first things Police Chief Gary Hill will be asking recruits in training at the new police academy opening early next year at Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

“Learning about the history of policing in this country is important to understanding why some minorities feel the way that they do about law enforcement,” said Hill, who proposed the academy for Lincoln three years ago and was recently chosen as its director.

This will be Missouri’s 20th police academy, but the first ever at any historically Black college or university in the country.

Lincoln officials said the academy could have a far-reaching impact as it seeks to attract minority law enforcement recruits to the state and helps train other officers in improving police relations with minority communities, The Kansas City Star reports.

Across the country for years, Hill said, law enforcement agencies have been clamoring to hire more Black officers, but the pool of recruits is shallow. And with the current social climate after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people killed by police, the demand from the public and law enforcement agencies alike to increase the number of minority officers has intensified.

At the same time, Hill said, Black students have not been eager to seek careers in law enforcement.

“I have always found it hard to get people of color to come to (an) academy,” said Hill, who, in addition to leading the police department at Lincoln, has been training police recruits for years at other academies.

Understanding the reluctance is where Hill’s education about Jim Crow laws comes into play.

The laws, which existed for about 100 years until 1968, legalized racial segregation, denying Black Americans the right to vote, hold certain jobs, get a good education and more. Violating them landed Black people in jail and sometimes cost them their lives. The police enforced those laws.

So even today, Black Americans don’t easily trust law enforcement. According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, they believe the criminal justice system treats them less fairly than white Americans.

A project the Star launched this month on Missouri gun violence found that people in Black communities don’t call the police because they don’t trust them. That lack of trust in police drives gun violence. And this year, Kansas City set an all-time record for homicides, and Missouri has led the nation in the rate at which Black people are killed in shootings for most of the past decade, the Star report said.

It’s a national issue that law enforcement agencies are trying to fix. Lincoln and the Missouri Department of Public Safety seek to help.

The demand for minority offices, Hill said, is felt in small town and county departments as well as in big cities. Minorities are underrepresented in nearly every large law enforcement agency in America, according to a report by Governing, an online publication that provides research and data to state and local governments.

Of the roughly 1,363 officers in the Kansas City Police Department, 1,052 or more than 78% are white, roughly 12% are Black, nearly 5% are Hispanic and less than 1% are Asian, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Justice Department.

By comparison, the population of Kansas City is 55% white and a little more than 28% Black.

“We always are undertaking efforts to staff our department in a way that reflects our community, 100%,” said Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a Kansas City Police Department spokesman. He said the department has several youth and teen police programs that help attract recruits. But recruiting, he said, “regardless of race, but in general, is difficult because of the physical fitness requirements, the education requirements, the mental fitness requirement and that you have to have a clean record.”

A recent $5 million budget cut, due to COVID-19, led KCPD to stop an academy class this summer. “That’s unfortunate because that was going to be our most diverse class,” Becchina said.

He said that because Kansas City has the largest department in six surrounding states, it draws recruits from a wide area and therefore does better attracting minority officers than smaller departments, especially those in rural areas. “I bet there are smaller entities in mid-Missouri that struggle immensely to find candidates.”

Recruiting and hiring them is only part of the challenge.

“It is very hard to be a minority police officer,“ Maj. Brad Deichler of the Kansas City Police Department said Thursday during The Star’s panel discussion on “Gun Violence in Missouri: Seeking Solutions.” He said minority officers often take a lot of flak from people in their community who don’t trust law enforcement.

“They lose a lot of family and friends because of it.” It’s important, he said, that KCPD give its minority officers plenty of support to keep them on the force once they’ve been hired. “It’s not about getting them here, it is about retention.”

Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte said he was thrilled to learn about the academy at Lincoln. “It’s very significant,” Forte said. “I believe it is going to give law enforcement in this area a much broader pool of applicants, and I applaud whoever put this together. It is going to allow some minorities to pursue law enforcement who otherwise might not have. I hope that law enforcement leaders take advantage of it. I plan to recruit at Lincoln, I can tell you that.”

But Forte cautioned that just adding more minority officers “is not going to change systemic racism in law enforcement right away. And racism is real. Most of the leaders I know want to do something different. Giving law enforcement leaders a broader pool of people who might better understand the culture in some of the communities we police is good. When you have a diverse work force and you listen to that diverse work force, it makes it better for everyone.”

During a recent meeting with Missouri’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission — which sets the training rules and approves the curriculum for law enforcement officers across the state — Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said he’s eager to see the Lincoln academy up and running and turning out recruits.

“We’re down on applicants, but trying to get minority applicants has been even harder,” said Wheeler, whose county includes Jefferson City. “We have to fix this.” Wheeler said that when he came to the Cole County department in 2005 as deputy chief, there were no African American officers, and it took 10 years to get up to five.

There’s great competition to hire minority officers, Hill said.

He said law enforcement agencies from across the state often visit Lincoln’s campus looking to recruit students who are seeking degrees in criminal justice with the hopes of convincing them to attend a police academy and join their departments. But even those numbers are small.

“Out of all the (police) academies in the state of Missouri, we had 400 graduates last year and only 14 were African American,” said Joseph Steenbergen, a professor of criminal justice at Lincoln.

“There are only a couple of training academies tied to a university curriculum,” said Steenbergen, including the Central Missouri Police Academy in Warrensburg and a training facility on the Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City campus. “This academy presents the perfect storm for us at Lincoln. The need is there and the students are there.”

Hill said he expects Lincoln’s academy to open in January after passing a Missouri Department of Public Safety site review.

Recruits, most of whom are expected to come from the Midwest, will take 17 weeks of classes including situation training and firearms, at a 10-cabin camp owned by the university. The instructors will be officers from law enforcement agencies around the state.

“We want to increase the number of practical hours so that officers are learning how to deescalate and how they might react in a volatile situation rather than learning it on the street,” Hill said. “I truly believe that has a lot to do with use of force incidents that we are seeing.”

In addition, as part of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s promise to address the increase of violent crime in the state, the academy is set to take a lead role in improving police relations with the public, Hill said.

Training in deescalation techniques and recognizing implicit bias will be a big part of the education for recruits at Lincoln. And the state’s standards and training commission will require all officers in the state to receive renewed training in both those areas every year starting in 2021, said Sandy Karsten, Missouri’s director of public safety.

“These enhanced standards will help equip officers with relevant, up-to-date training to meet the challenges they face daily and facilitate better communication and interactions with the public,” Parson said in a statement on Tuesday.

Recruits at Lincoln’s academy also will be required to spend time at social service agencies, so they can learn how what they do on the streets can change lives. Even something as simple as a traffic ticket could put a person in a financial bind if they can’t pay or show up at court, said Steenbergen.

“It’s not all just about locking up bad guys,” Steenbergen said. It’s also about building trust in the community where you work, he said. “I use the Ferguson example all the time. Yes, the officer was found not guilty in the shooting of Michael Brown, but when federal investigators came in, they found that police department had racist policies and that created a mistrust. The shooting was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“We have to rebuild the trust. I don’t know any other academy that is going to focus on community policing as much as we are. We are not training SWAT officers. We want community police.”

The Lincoln program will be open to students as well as non-students. Students could get 15 college credit hours at the academy, Steenbergen said.

“They would walk out of school with a degree and probably a job.”