The diversity dilemma: Do Southern Illinois police forces look like their communities?

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Stan Diggs is the chief of the John A. Logan College Campus Police Department and a former investigator with the Illinois State Police. Diggs said if children don’t see police officers that look like them, they may never even consider policing as a career option. He said police departments need to work to recruit diverse candidates for police jobs.




Byron Hetzler



CARBONDALE — As scrutiny has again been put on the way police interact with minority communities, a look at regional police racial demographic data shows many Southern Illinois law enforcement agencies have a long way to go to reflect the communities they serve.

In the months since the killing of George Floyd unleashed a nationwide reckoning over policing and systemic racism, communities have been having hard conversations about the vast differences in the experiences citizens of different races have with their police. There is even a push to rethink policing on a grand scale — this conversation has run the gamut from body cameras to sensitivity training to defunding the police. And, there’s another conversation that’s gaining traction nationwide: Do police department personnel reflect the racial diversity of the communities they serve? How would a more diverse police force impact community relations? And, what are police chiefs and city leaders doing to increase diversity among officers?

Over the past month, The Southern, alongside its sister Midwest newspapers, has looked at data provided by police departments throughout Southern Illinois to analyze racial diversity in police forces in comparison to the demographics of their communities. Though some came closer than others, no department was an even reflection of their communities. The reasons why aren’t always immediately clear.

A closer look

In Carbondale, a college town of roughly 25,000, discussions about the size of the police force and its budget and officers’ treatment of minority groups have been ongoing for years. In 2018, community action group The Carbondale Spring presented data to the City Council that they believed showed that the Carbondale police budget was double what it should have been based on data pulled from other cities of a similar size.

Of the city’s 60 sworn officers, 56, or 93%, are white. This stands in contrast to the 58.4% whites make up in the overall city population. The total minority population of the force is 7%, but minorities make up 42% of the city’s population.

In the wake of Floyd’s killing, the discussion of race and policing even made its way to the former sundown town of Anna, where Blacks were not allowed in the city after dark, especially during the Jim Crow era of legal segregation.

The city’s reputation as a haven of racism and violence toward Blacks is well-known, both locally and nationally. Though mostly urban legend, the unofficial acronym of “Ain’t No N—— Allowed” has stuck to the city for decades. As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country this summer, about 200 demonstrators brought the first racial justice protest to Anna on June 4. They were met with some vocal resistance, but ultimately, the march was peaceful. Police officers helped separate the two opposing groups and worked with demonstrators to secure a safe, but public, march route.

Demographic data shows that Anna’s police department is 100% white, while the community is 86% white. Anna Police Department has never hired a Black officer.

In Murphysboro, the department of 18 officers is 100% white, which is about 20% higher than the town’s white population. In West Frankfort, of the city’s 12 officers, 91.7% are white, roughly 3% higher than the city’s estimated white population. Benton’s police department had a similar breakdown — of its 12 officers, 100% are white, about 6.9% more white than the city’s population.

Reflecting the community

Is it important to have a department that is reflective of the community it serves? Is it enough to have a highly qualified, though largely homogeneous, police force? Is there value to having an officer report to a scene that looks like those involved?

“It is very important … you couldn’t change my mind on that if you tried,” said Nancy Maxwell, a former police officer and current criminal justice chair for Carbondale Branch NAACP.

“You can relate to somebody who looks like you,” she said. Maxwell has been on the scene as a citizen multiple times interacting with police in her neighborhood after she or others have called in a crime. She said she doesn’t have to explain her entire history as a Black person in America if the officer responding is also Black. There’s an unspoken understanding, she said.

Stan Diggs, a former Illinois State Police trooper and the current John A. Logan College police chief, said if children don’t see police officers that look like them, they may never even consider policing as a career option.

“You don’t think that’s a job for you,” he said. But, this ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If young people of color don’t see themselves in the uniform, they never get to put it on, further creating the cycle of young people not seeing themselves in the police in their community.

Recruitment and retention

Most, if not all, of the department heads and city leaders interviewed for this story sang a common refrain when discussing the lack of diversity in their police departments: They can’t hire someone who doesn’t apply.

Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams and Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said diversity is something the city takes very seriously, but also said taking a snapshot of the police force on one particular day is not the best metric for measuring diversity overall. Grubbs and others said Black officers are highly sought-after. Williams and Grubbs said Black officers that come to Carbondale typically are poached by higher-paying departments. Grubbs said of the sworn officers hired between 1991 and 2020, 22% were minorities.

Williams said the city’s overall employee demographics show 19% of staff, including the police department, identify as nonwhite. That is still below what Williams said the city is aiming for — and doesn’t reflect the diversity of the city’s populace — but he said it shows a truer reflection of the city’s intentions when it comes to minority hiring. Williams added that it’s the city’s goal for its staff to reflect the city’s diverse population.

“There is a sentiment that government might work best when public agencies, the demographics of public agencies, match the demographics of the community,” Williams said. “We try to hire through that lens.”

Bryan Watkins, Anna’s police chief, said in an email that, to him, it’s not a question of race, but whether an applicant has the willingness to deal with everything an officer goes through in a given day.

“Being a police officer is harder today than it has ever been, and people don’t want to deal with what police officers have to deal with on an everyday basis,” Watkins said. “I will never dismiss a minority applicant as long as they meet the requirements of the job posting.”

When asked whether it was a goal of his department or of the city to have a force that is reflective of the demographics in the community, Watkins answered this way: “My main goal is to have applicants to choose from who are qualified to do the job, so the Anna Police Department can be an exemplary police department. I would like to have 50 applicants to choose from every time we take applications, but unfortunately we do not have that option.”

Diggs spent the early parts of his career as a trailblazer, though not intentionally. In the mid-1980s, when he was hired as a member of the Illinois State Police’s District 19 force, he was the first Black trooper the district had ever employed. Since then, he’s led investigations for the ISP and last year became the chief of police at John A. Logan College — he’s the first Black chief the school has had.

Diggs has spent a good deal of time thinking about the issue of departments finding qualified Black candidates to join their ranks. To answer the question of what cities can do when they want to improve demographics, but can’t bring in the right applicants, Diggs said it starts internally.

“You have to go out and pursue them,” Diggs said. Restaffing an entire department wholesale at once is not something that may be preferable or even possible for police and city leaders in Southern Illinois. Diggs said it’s not an overnight kind of change, which can make it hard to achieve.

“It’s a long game, but at least if you have a plan — I would say the first step is to get a plan,” he said.

The plan

Marion Police Chief David Fitts has been in his position for about a year. In that time, he said, his team has sought officer applicants through visiting schools, job fairs, and posting job opportunities in newspapers and on social media sites like LinkedIn. But, he said, one of the last times they took applications, only two minorities applied, and of them, only one passed the entrance test.

“I’m not sure, maybe there is something more that we could do,” Fitts said.

Murphysboro is in a similar boat. Mayor Will Stephens said after at least a dozen meetings, the city has started giving job postings to leaders in the Black community to try and get the word out — this is on top of the more traditional recruitment methods the city uses.

“For whatever reason, we are not reaching all parts of our community,” Stephens said. “I’m not sure what else we could do to recruit minority applicants.”

Tara Brown is the human resources manager for the City of Carbondale. She grew up in Carbondale, the Black daughter of a Southern Illinois University police officer. In recent years, Brown and her department, which is entirely staffed by Black employees, have traveled to historically Black colleges and to the City College of Chicago’s criminal justice department to find candidates. And, like Stephens in Murphysboro, Carbondale’s HR team has reached out to Black community leaders to help spread the word.

But the problem needs more than just posting jobs in key locations. There’s internal work, too. Brown said part of that is talking with city leaders, which is what she did when she was brought on in 2017.

“We have to discuss the elephant in the room,” Brown said, referring to race in one of her first meetings with Chief Grubbs.

Though making swift, immediate change isn’t always possible, working with the officers a department has to project a culture that is welcoming of minorities is a start.

Chief Fitts said officer conduct is tantamount to community building.

“For starters, treat people with respect. Period,” he said. His time at the ISP taught him to be courteous to the inadvertent offender. Be understanding, have empathy. Fitts said interacting with kids is also a way he tries to show the department’s stripes.

Maxwell, Brown and Diggs all said it’s important to make sure barriers to employment for minority candidates are taken down. Keep testing fees low, offer incentives, set up relationships with banks, landlords and realtors for people looking to relocate. Make the process as easy as it can be. Those things will help overall application numbers, but Diggs said it can also help minority candidates know how serious the police department is about bringing them in and making them part of the community.

Ultimately, Diggs said, dedication to diversity can go a long way — this goes back to his idea of making a plan that puts diversity at the top. He said departments should “promote themselves and promote the idea that they want to be a multicultural agency.”

“Sing your song,” Diggs said. He added that it’s not easy work, but it’s important work if a department truly has community representation as a core goal.

isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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August 1, 2020 at 09:28AM

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