Politics & Government

CHP struggles to recruit minority officers

California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow takes questions from the media outside the CHP offices after a meeting with a group of community activists demanding action in response to a cellphone video showing an officer repeatedly punching a woman, in Culver City, Calif., Tuesday, July 8, 2014.
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow takes questions from the media outside the CHP offices after a meeting with a group of community activists demanding action in response to a cellphone video showing an officer repeatedly punching a woman, in Culver City, Calif., Tuesday, July 8, 2014. AP

Glancing at the 458 candidates who recently showed up for the California Highway Patrol’s applicant screening on a recent blustery morning, one wouldn’t think the department has a diversity problem.

The group that had gathered in the gym at the CHP’s West Sacramento academy came from the Sacramento region and mirrored its multi-hued ethnic palette. Brown and black. Yellow and white. No color stood out.

Yet if the history holds true, the tiny fraction of hopefuls who pass that physical fitness testing, survive a background check and manage to graduate from the CHP’s academy a year or so from now will swear an oath to take a job that pays $6,225 to $7,720 per month to start. Most of the graduates will be white.

While the CHP is trying to make inroads, it remains far less diverse than the state it patrols. Nearly 7 in 10 officers are white, compared to 4 in 10 Californians.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow says the relative lack of diversity complicates policing for the 7,500 cops under his command, particularly in a grim new era of unrest.

The department came under intense scrutiny last summer for the beating of an African American woman by one of its white officers. Then events in Ferguson, Mo., New York and Ohio jolted communities nationwide and set law enforcement everywhere on edge. The recent ambush killing of two New York police officers by a man who reportedly sought revenge for Eric Garner’s death has ratcheted up tensions even more. (The shooter, who committed suicide, was black. The officers he killed were Asian and Latino.)

A 2012 Rand report noted research that found “the police may be seen as more legitimate and may be better able to partner with community organizations in fighting crime” if a department’s diversity mirrors that of the residents it serves.

“My goal is to have the Highway Patrol reflect the communities we serve statewide,” Farrow said. “The difficult part is making that happen.”

The lack of diversity in the CHP is not new, nor is the agency alone.

On the whole, the national law enforcement corps is more diverse than a generation ago, but whites still account for three-quarters of sworn officers, according to the latest federal data available from 2007, while just two-thirds of the U.S. population is white. In 1987, whites accounted for 85 percent of sworn officers nationwide.

By comparison, 39 percent of California’s residents are white while 69 percent of sworn CHP officers are. The percentage of whites rises to 75 percent for CHP officers ranking lieutenant and above.

The Sacramento Police Department was even less diverse than the CHP. Three-quarters of its cops are white, according to its latest annual report, more than double the percentage of the city’s white residents. With just 606 sworn officers last year, it is less than a tenth the size of the CHP and about one-sixteenth the size of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson this month asked Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. to explore ways to diversify the force, such as recruiting from city residents using financial incentives or setting up a charter school with an emphasis on careers in public safety.

Farrow said a component of the disparity is that competition for qualified cadets is fierce and that his statewide department has logistical disadvantages.

For example, the CHP conducts its 27-week “live-in” academy at its gated West Sacramento campus for cadets regardless of where they live. Other police academies run closer to their jurisdictions. Many allow cadets to go home in the evenings.

It means that potential applicants have to weigh “leaving their families for 27 weeks,” Farrow said. “That’s a tremendous hurdle for us.”

Although the 24-hour academy may turn away prospective recruits, CHP Assistant Chief Brent Newman said the department prefers the live-in schedule because cadets receive better training and tend to maintain discipline because they’re more focused. And, he noted, other big agencies that cover vast regions, such as the FBI, have centralized live-in training.

And when CHP cadets graduate, they can be assigned anywhere in California, from isolated Modoc County to Los Angeles. Graduates hired from local law enforcement academies know they’ll also work locally.

The Highway Patrol is less diverse than departments in two of California’s largest cities. The LAPD, for example, is nearly 45 percent Latino and about 34 percent white. Whites make up about half of San Francisco’s cops, according to data the department provided at The Bee’s request, compared with about 40 percent of the city’s residents. But the department has a slightly greater percentage of Latinos than in the overall population.

About 1 in 10 cops in Los Angeles and San Francisco are African American, a higher percentage than in the general population of either city. They account for about 4 percent of Highway Patrol officers, compared with nearly 6 percent of residents statewide.

The CHP is not lacking for applicants, but very few pass muster.

The department briefly opens its Internet application process three times each year. It screens thousands of submissions and extends invitations to anyone who meets minimum standards. Less than half show up for the physical assessment test that starts the hiring process.

For the CHP’s recent screening, for example, the officials sent out 1,058 invitations. Sgt. Norman Vandermeyde, who supervises the CHP’s recruitment program, was encouraged by the 43 percent who showed up to perform timed push-ups, sit-ups, sprints and a 1 1/2-mile run.

“It’s a lot better than last time,” when about 30 percent of invitees showed, Vandermeyde said as he viewed the lines of applicants.

He wonders why so many people don’t come. The department doesn’t give its recruiters time to beat the bushes for prospective hires, he said, perform their other duties and contact no-shows. The CHP recently launched a pilot program to set aside time for a handful of officers to make call-backs.

The low turnout drains an already shallow pool, and many – across the board – appear unprepared. Many of last weekend’s hopefuls were overweight by CHP standards. Although the department strongly encourages candidates to work out, about 80 percent of all cadets are put on a strict weight-loss diet when they enter the academy. Meeting physical requirements presents a higher obstacle for some groups. The Rand study noted that obesity among schoolchildren in Los Angeles County runs 10 to 15 percentage points higher among black and Latino kids than their white counterparts, and nearly 25 percentage points higher for Pacific Islanders.

Some of the applicants arrived for last weekend’s CHP test wearing jeans and flannel shirts, as though they didn’t realize the physical assessment involved exercise, despite notices on the CHP’s website.

“We’ve had people show up in pajamas,” Vandermeyde said, and others have been drunk or smelled of marijuana.

Farrow said his department is considering what logistical and cultural hurdles it can tear down, while still adhering with state law that forbids preferences on the basis of race or gender. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles beating, he reached out to mental health advocates and ethnic-community leaders. He told them that he wants more training for law enforcement officers and recommitted to making the department more diverse.

The department also is expanding its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps-type youth training program, Newman said. Recruiters continually search for new opportunities to make presentations at ethnic-community events, he said, and strive to “build relationships with community leaders who can directly or tacitly endorse” a CHP career.

Diversifying the department “is a formidable challenge,” said Newman, who runs the CHP academy. “And there’s no one answer to improve it.”

The recruiting problem at CHP and other law enforcement agencies goes far deeper than competition among agencies or a lack of qualified candidates, however, critics say.

Sacramento State criminology professor Cecil Canton said the relative whiteness of the CHP’s ranks and America’s police forces in general stems from a lack of trust within communities of color. Young people in those communities grow up with a negative view of law enforcement, Canton said, “starting at a very young age. It tends to color their perspective.”

A Rand survey of police recruits found that blacks “were more than twice as likely as white recruits to indicate friends’ and family’s negative views toward law enforcement as reasons for not pursuing a law enforcement career.”

Warren Quann, executive director of the California State Conference of the NAACP, credited Farrow for speaking to the issue and promising change.

At the same time, Quann said, CHP and other law enforcement agencies must undergo a profound cultural shift before they will diversify. He dismissed the notion that a shallow pool of capable candidates exists.

“They’re in the armed forces, in the security industry, but there needs to be outreach at the highest levels and in the hiring corps” to bridge the moat of mistrust between police and people of color.

It’s not yet clear what mix of hopefuls from the CHP’s recent testing will make it to the academy.

Of the 458 that showed up the first day, 349 passed the physical assessment. Of those, 328 returned for a written test the next day. Recent statistics indicate six or seven from that group will get into the academy.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.

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