Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Diversity, one recruit at a time

Police officers and others pray before a Sacramento community forum last August after the riots in Ferguson, Mo.
Police officers and others pray before a Sacramento community forum last August after the riots in Ferguson, Mo. Sacramento Bee file

Raul Perez could be one face of the new and improved Sacramento Police Department.

He was one of 18 potential recruits at a career workshop the other night – a group noticeably more diverse than the department is now.

Perez, 20, from Visalia, is a junior at Sacramento State majoring in criminal justice. He says he has wanted to be a cop for a long time, and isn’t fazed by the recent bad publicity or that not many Latinos go into law enforcement.

“Being a minority makes it a challenge, but a challenge worth rising above,” he told me.

Sacramento’s Police Department faces a huge challenge of its own to become more representative of the city it serves and protects. Whites are a minority in Sacramento, but last year, more than 75 percent of sworn officers were white. Only 10 percent were Hispanic, less than 8 percent Asian and less than 4 percent black.

Those numbers barely budged from 2013. The department says its demographics don’t yet reflect ramped-up recruiting. During the recession, it was set back by budget cuts that thinned the ranks of sworn officers from 804 in 2008 to 636 in 2012. That number is back up to 672, thanks to reinforcements funded by a sales tax hike approved by voters in November 2012.

But it takes longer to hire officers than to lay them off, especially when one objective is diversity. The screening process weeds out many applicants, and training is two years from applying to patrolling the streets as a full-fledged officer. With retirements and washouts, it will be July 2017 before the department reaches its authorized level of 723 sworn officers.

To be clear, we’re not talking racial quotas. But it only makes sense that having more police officers who look like the people they interact with every day will improve the community connections that are crucial to public safety.

While Sacramento last year recorded the fewest violent and property crimes in the past decade, the goal is to be the safest big city in California. It has a ways to go, with the third highest rate for violent crimes and fifth highest for property crimes among the 10 largest cities. A more diverse police force won’t guarantee improving those rankings, but it sure couldn’t hurt.

The lack of diversity resurfaced after the riots in Ferguson, Mo., a year ago. Sacramento was spared any real unrest, thanks in part to the quick and visible response by Mayor Kevin Johnson and Police Chief Sam Somers.

However, improving public trust has become a bigger priority after the seemingly endless string of racial incidents in other cities. Thankfully, Sacramento hasn’t had to face such an event recently. But how would the community react if it did?

City officials aren’t taking any chances, moving ahead on reforms to bring officers closer to residents through social media, neighborhood coffees and two-year patrol assignments. The mayor and City Council funded a test of body cameras and boosted officer training. They also set aside $1 million to expand criminal justice academies at four high schools and the police cadet program – paths to get more minorities into the hiring pipeline.

Tuesday night, the council is to vote on another significant step – replacing an 11-year-old panel that monitored racial profiling in traffic stops with a broader, more powerful Community Police Commission to recommend ways to strengthen community relations and to review training and diversity.

When the mayor appoints the 11 commissioners, they could learn a lot by observing a hiring workshop like the one last week.

It was not quite what I expected. There was much more detail about salary, benefits and pensions to show that while Sacramento’s base pay may be lower than some other big-city departments, its bottom line compensation is competitive.

The recruiters spent a lot of time on “career survivability” – hanging out with the right friends and relatives, communicating with spouses, handling stress with exercise instead of alcohol, and taking advantage of peer counseling after the trauma of seeing dead children and bloody crime scenes.

And the four officers talked openly about Ferguson and the ripple effects here. At the end, however, the recruiters still talked up policing as a great job.

As he headed out, Raul Perez said nothing he had heard made him doubt becoming a cop. “If anything, it made me want to be a part of this even more,” he said. In fact, Perez, who had been thinking about moving to the East Coast, said he’s now more interested in staying in Sacramento.

If he does, that could be one small victory on the long road to a more diverse police department.