City Beat

Sacramento police chief seeks cameras, more training, diverse recruiting

A Sacramento police officer works the scene of an incident in Del Paso Heights.
A Sacramento police officer works the scene of an incident in Del Paso Heights. Sacramento

The Sacramento Police Department is exploring the use of body cameras on all of its officers, increasing cultural sensitivity training and recruiting new officers from diverse backgrounds, police Chief Sam Somers told the City Council on Tuesday.

In front of a diverse mix of residents and nearly 20 of his officers, Somers said the wish list of programs he seeks to launch would come with a price tag. Body cameras for all patrol officers would cost more than $600,000 a year, and bias and use-of-force training would cost more than $300,000.

Mayor Kevin Johnson asked Somers last month to update the City Council on the Police Department’s diversity efforts and community engagement programs. The mayor also endorsed the use of body cameras on police officers.

Johnson has been an outspoken presence in the national debate over police relations after deadly police incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland.

“There’s still a gulf of mistrust around the country between communities and law enforcement,” the mayor said. “What we’re trying to do is be proactive in Sacramento and create avenues where public trust goes up and crime goes down.”

Johnson said the City Council would prioritize where it wants Somers to focus later and that Tuesday’s hearing was “the beginning of that discussion.”

“Don’t go away thinking you need to do it all,” the mayor told Somers.

Several residents testified following Somers’ presentation, with most criticizing the department’s efforts.

“I do not want more cops around my kids,” said Claire White, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, who criticized the chief for not addressing police use of force. “Sacramento doesn’t need more cops. There should be less cops in Sacramento.”

Somers said, “Trust is the commodity that we hope we can maintain and grow in our community.”

He said he wants to conduct bias training and a use-of-force simulator program for all officers.

To diversify the department, the chief said the department should focus recruiting efforts on a “pipeline hiring plan” that starts with high school and junior college students. “We’ll have the ability to grow our own officers within this community,” he said.

Police Department statistics show that the force has struggled to become more diverse over the past decade. Those numbers show that 73.4 percent of the department was white in 2003; in 2013, 75.6 percent of city officers were white.

City police union president Dustin Smith hasn’t seen much change in the department’s demographics in the 15 years he’s been on the force – but, he said, it’s not for a lack of trying.

“Our goal has always been to properly reflect the community,” Smith said. “But we fall short with the number of women in all races, we fall short with African American officers, Latino officers, short in pretty much all categories.”

It’s a common problem among law enforcement agencies, University of California, Berkeley, law professor Justin McCrary said. Like institutions of higher education and government, he said, police agencies often struggle to reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.

There are several possible explanations, he said, but chief among them is how police agencies are perceived by minority populations and how departments go about hiring new recruits.

Standardized aptitude tests, which are used by a majority of law enforcement agencies in the country, including the Sacramento Police Department, can limit the applicant pool and place constraints on departments that seek to prioritize diversity but have few practical ways of doing so, McCrary said.

Popular culture also plays a role. When distrust of police percolates due to events like the violence in Ferguson, Mo., it can be a challenge for departments to overcome, he added.

“If a department has a reputation in the community for a specific attitude or culture, then it might be extra challenging because individuals of diverse backgrounds might not want to serve on a police force with that kind of reputation,” McCrary said.

In Sacramento, Smith said, the department needs to employ more creative recruiting techniques and offer incentives to make the department more competitive in the job market.

“If you can make the same money with none of the pressure and none of the danger, why would you be a police officer?” Smith said. “We need to be competitive enough to compete not just locally with other law enforcement agencies, but with other career opportunities.”

To apply for a job on the Sacramento Police Department, applicants must pass a standardized test and complete 60 college credits. They are subjected to intensive background checks, polygraph tests and physical exams. Then, they have to get through the Police Academy.

The entire process takes about six months.

The first step toward a more diverse police force in Sacramento is to create a more diverse applicant pool, Smith and McCrary said.

“Law enforcement agencies have to appeal to people’s sense of duty and civic participation by getting out into the community and insisting that the goals of the Police Department are to represent the city and serve the city – and that includes every aspect of the city,” McCrary said. “Every neighborhood, every block, every citizen.”

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

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