By Hannah Gary
As increased attention is being focused on police-community relations in the wake of high-profile police shootings, many cities across the nation—including Brooklyn Park—are evaluating how their police force is structured and staffed. Although Brooklyn Park is one of the most diverse cities in Minnesota, this racial and ethnic diversity is not reflected in the police department. Brooklyn Park began trying to diversify their police department in 2005, but their efforts were not met with success in recruiting more African-American candidates. Of the 99 officers on the force, only 4% self-identify as African-American. In contrast, 24% of the population of Brooklyn Park is African-American, according to the most current census data.
This discrepancy in representation is cause for concern, and the police department is investigating strategies to encourage more officers of color—particularly African-American officers—to join the force and remain in Brooklyn Park. To assist the police department, a pair of master’s students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs took on this issue through this year’s RCP partnership, as part of a capstone project last fall. This spring, a team of Ph.D. students studying industrial and organizational psychology is continuing work on the project.
“If we have more diversity in our police department, it collectively makes us all better because we are aware and educated by each other’s diversity,” explained Deputy Chief and RCP project lead Mark Bruley, underscoring why this project was a high priority for Brooklyn Park.
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) establishes the minimum requirements to become a police officer in the state. Minnesota is one of only two states that requires at least an associate’s degree to be eligible to become a law enforcement officer. In addition, recruits must pass a POST licensing exam, completing training at a POST-accredited police academy, and pass a medical exam, physical agility exam, psychological evaluation, background check, and drug screening.
To help understand the nature of the issue in Brooklyn Park, master of public affairs candidates Mike Jiabia and Daniel D’Haem set to work analyzing data about who is enrolled in approved criminal justice or law enforcement degree programs in the state. As their work progressed, they discovered that this data is not readily available, which has been a barrier in many ways to bringing the issue of police force diversity into the spotlight.
“Minnesota has a system-wide problem when it comes to police officer diversity,” D’Haem commented. “And Minnesota, so far, has not done what it needs to do to even examine the problem.”
Due to the lack of available data, a large component of Jiabia and D’Haem’s mixed-methods research approach involved collecting data through focus groups, key informant interviews, and a survey.
The students held focus groups with African-American college students and African-American officers currently serving in Minnesota. The stories and lived experiences that they shared during these sessions offered insights that cannot be captured through quantitative data.
Dr. Greg Lindsey, a professor at the Humphrey School and faculty advisor on Jiabia and D’Haem’s capstone project, had the opportunity to observe one of the focus groups.
“I think what happens is that we understand the problems intellectually when we look at numbers,” Lindsey observed. “And so you have a situation in which you know intuitively, you know instinctively, you know intellectually, that’s a problem. But when you hear people tell stories about what it was like for them to become a cop and the challenges they face in being a black cop, it gives you a greater appreciation for what very humanly has to be done to get these problems to be solved.”
In addition to collecting qualitative data, Jiabia and D’Haem gathered as much quantitative data as they could about students sitting for the POST exam. Because complete data on the race or ethnicity of those taking the exam is not available, the students had to approximate the numbers of potential African American candidates. They found that there are relatively low numbers of African Americans enrolled in law enforcement or criminal justice programs—the most basic requirement to become an officer. Even fewer take the POST exam, with many more deciding to enter corrections as a career rather than training to become a police officer. In short, there are not enough African American candidates in the law enforcement training pipeline to address the problem.
“It was nice to actually have data to support what we’re talking about,” said Bruley.
One recruitment method that Brooklyn Park is already heavily investing in is their cadet training program. As part of the program, cadets in a POST-certified school are paired with a mentor currently serving as an officer, and are paid for their participation while they are in school.
Jiabia and D’Haem recommended that Brooklyn Park not only continue with the cadet program, but also expand the program’s outreach and add resources, a recommendation the City is already putting into action. Additional funds have been allocated for the program, and the Brooklyn Park Police Department is beginning to recruit students directly from local high schools to enter police training programs.
“Recruiting, specifically out of our high schools, kids who are African-American to come into our cadet program—we’ve never done that before, and that’s a byproduct of this research,” Bruley commented.
But the low numbers of African-American law enforcement candidates is only one piece of the problem. This spring, three Ph.D. students in Dr. Deniz Ones’ “Employee Selection and Staffing” course in the Department of Psychology are reviewing existing literature on police recruitment and retention, and conducting interviews with a variety of stakeholders, to develop additional recommendations.
“Given what we have experienced, both around the United States and in Minnesota, as well as in some of our local communities—though not necessarily Brooklyn Park—when there are discrepancies [between the demographic composition of the police department and the general population], problems emerge that actually tear communities apart,” Ones observed.
Focusing on what is known as community-oriented policing, Ones’ students will be digging deeper into how to help Brooklyn Park grow a police force that is more reflective of community demographics.
The students have developed a four-part plan that includes analyzing recruitment, improving the selection system, improving relations with the community, and reducing turnover in the police department. Informed by Jiabia and D’Haem’s foundational work in the fall, Ones’ team of students has decided to focus primarily on recruitment. Within their recruitment recommendations, they are developing short-, middle-, and long-term strategies. To better target recruitment efforts, the team is hoping to develop an interest profile survey to identify potential candidates who may be a good fit for the Brooklyn Park Police Department.
Sarah Tian, a first year Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Organizational Psychology program, discussed plans to build on the survey work Jiabia and D’Haem began in the fall. “We want to expand on that, and maybe survey the different aspects of job satisfaction. Like what exactly are they satisfied about their job. So we definitely want to build on that part.”
As they move forward with this work, there will be challenges. “I think the most difficult one is how to build better relations between the police department and the community. Because that is more of a wider, national problem that we may not be able to fully resolve,” noted Tian.
The final product from this work is something that may be useful to other communities, and is something that other police departments across the state are very interested in learning from. Deputy Chief Bruley will be presenting the findings from the fall semester to other police departments interested in changing their recruiting and hiring practices. Although the analysis Jiabia and D’Haem produced is specific to Brooklyn Park, their background research can also help other communities. Additionally, Ones noted that Brooklyn Park’s experience through this process may bring issues to the surface that other communities may not have otherwise considered, which is valuable in moving this work forward.
“[O]verall, I think maybe if this [is] a successful project, other police departments can learn from it, and not only Brooklyn Park can benefit,” said Tian.
Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.