LIMA — Only a few African-Americans, if any at all, attended tutorial sessions held by Lima police officers to help people with the the Civil Service exam.
It was disappointing for Police Chief Kevin Martin. He and others hoped the sessions would help the department diversify. As is, Lima has just one black among its 84 officers, that being recently hired Brandon Stephenson.
Former Police Officer Chris Jackson, who today is a Lima Fire Inspector, said the lack of trust blacks have for the agency is why the police department has struggled to hire and keep officers over the years. Jackson is black.
“People in the community question the dedication by the department to hire minorities,” Jackson said.
Kim Parks, a black woman who is the owner of a local day-care center, said she hears people talk about the lack of trust for police and the reasons why members of the black community do not want to become part of the agency.
“Nobody around here wants to apply because they don’t feel they could do their job efficiently,” Parks said. “They would feel like they have to follow in the old boy’s network and they don’t want to do that.”
Lack of trust
No one has to tell the chief his agency has a community relations problem with the black community. He is well aware of that and said he is committed to doing everything possible to change that. Martin wants more black officers to better represent the city, which has a population that is 26.4 percent black, according to 2014 U.S Census estimates.
“We do have a trust gap in this community. There is no denying that,” Martin said.
“Trust has to be earned. That really has to be done through building relationships. When people get to know us they will be able to trust us,” Martin said.
But that is easier said than done.
Jackson who volunteers as youth leader in the black community when he is not working, said trust is far and away the No. 1 divider between the black community and police.
Parks, a 59-year-old grandmother who lives on Union Street, agrees.
“From listening to people in the streets, yes, there is a big mistrust,” she said.
The lack of blacks on the department is a big reason for that. The lack of black men at the police department like Jackson, who Parks described as an ambassador for the city in the black community, doesn’t help.
Martin believes recruiting would be helped if he had more black officers on staff to sell the profession. “It would come across more believable” than if I told them police work was a noble career, he explained.
The chief said there is no overnight solution, rather one that likely will takes years. He has instructed leaders in the department to concentrate on efforts such as the “Red to Blue” program inside Lima schools started by school resource officer Nate Garlock.
The “Red to Blue” program refers to school colors for the Lima System and blue as the color associated with police. By placing school resource officers in the city schools, it not only serves as a safety measure, but it allows students to see police officers on a daily basis in settings away from the streets or crime scene.
Martin hopes that plants a seed for the future.
“It allows the students at Lima Senior to become familiar with what a career in policing is all about,” he said.
“If we can get that trust, maybe the kids would say this is not a bad job. This is something I want to do,” Jackson said.
Martin also leads a program, teaching wilderness survival at the Mizpah Community Center on the south end, where one of the Civil Service tutorials was held. It gives children a chance to meet police in an informal fun setting.
“We are constantly engaging with young people to encourage them and tell them policing is a good career,” Martin said.
Jackson credits police for making a strong effort to recruit blacks from job fairs to visiting various schools. He even helped with the efforts, but like Martin, he was disappointed with the lack of results.
“One of the problems we see talking to minorities in the community, a lot of them have that fear of being from here and having to do that job among your family and peers,” Jackson said. “You may have to arrest someone you know.”
The number of blacks incarcerated in Ohio is significantly higher than whites. While the state’s population is 12 percent black, blacks account for 45 percent of the 50,000 prison population, according to state records.
Jackson felt welcomed and one of the guys when he worked at the police department in the 1980s. He believes a black person working there today would be just as welcomed.
“Personally, my time there, I was well received. I was one of them. I had no real adversity,” he said.
Jackson did, however, catch flak from some blacks, such as a few he had to arrest, but he said he went about doing his job fairly and tried to explain the law cannot be broken.
Fixing the problem
The trust problem would quickly fade if Lima could find a way to dramatically increase the number of black officers, Jackson believes.
“We have to get that trust with the community and the police department,” Jackson said. “To do that, law enforcement has to get out of the cruisers. They have to get out and be part of the community.”
Jackson said that could be as simple as an officer stopping by to shoot basketball with kids when he is not on a call.
To the credit of police, some do that.
Jackson also said police need to reconsider some hiring requirements. Some young black men made mistakes as children, nothing major or violent in nature, but enough to disqualify them from seeking a job as a police officer as an adult.
“We are passing up on a lot of good people,” he said.
The department has blacks in other positions, such as the chief’s secretary, two correctional officers and one dispatcher.
The solution to the problem is not just the burden of police, Jackson and Parks said.
The black community also has to make an effort, Jackson said, noting that it cannot be a one-way street with police making all the effort.
She said part of the effort means not opposing police. She has witnessed people making the job harder for officers who, for example, are trying to sort out a difficult situation involving numerous people. She said the last thing an officer needs is someone giving flak and distracting the officer from doing his job.
Two decades ago, community policing was the rage. While it was similar to the old concept of an officer walking a beat, talking to citizens, it went a step further with police opening offices in neighborhoods and assigning a full-time officer to each office. Citizens got to know the officers and more importantly had someone they could trust to solve problems, such as reporting a drug dealer without fear of reprisal.
It worked, but funding cuts meant tough decisions for police administrators and the offices were closed as officers were moved back onto patrol to handle shortages.
The trust that was built evaporated like the lack of funding for the officers.
“What happened is we lost sight of continuing our relationship and our partnership in the community,” Martin said.
Police knew very well they had a trust problem and made strong efforts to reach out to the community.
Citizens demanded a return to having community police officers with satellite offices similar to 20 years ago. The chief scrambled to adjust funding and has opened two offices with plans to open at least one more, all in high-crime neighborhoods.
“The only way we are going to make change is to get in there, back into the neighborhoods,” Jackson said.
Parks said the officers who work in the community offices have to be sincere and believe in their hearts they can make a difference.
“If not, it will show,” she said.
Martin realizes that.
“I would ask that people give us a chance and try to get involved with us,” Martin said.
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.