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A More Diverse Police Department Starts With Community Conversations, Koster Says

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer nearly two months ago once again shed light on the deep racial divisions that exist in the St. Louis region. Nowhere is that more apparent than in local police departments, which often don’t look like the communities they serve. 

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is convening two forums this month to search for ways to increase the ranks of minorities in policing. The first meeting was held Wednesday in St. Louis, where participants discussed how increasing diversity starts by getting the police and the community talking to each other again.  

About four months ago, state Sen. JamilahNasheed, D-St. Louis, picked up the phone and called St. Louis  Police Chief Sam Dotson with a suggestion.

"I said, let's just walk the neighborhoods," she said. Dotson agreed.

"And we walked the neighborhood together and I can tell you that they embraced him," Nasheed said. "They embraced him and they were happy to see that he was there."

Dotson remembered having those kinds of positive interactions with police when he was little. They inspired his career choice around the age of 6.

"If you’ve been to my office, there’s an Officer Friendly certificate on my desk from 1975," he said. "I don’t know where my high school diploma is, my college diplomas, but that made such a lasting impact."

State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, D-University City, saw similar community engagement programs having the same impact on young African-American men. When she was growing up in the University City schools, the district had a young cadets program.

"And many of those young cadets ended up being on the University City police force. And as the Post-Dispatch has reported, University City is one of the best representative police districts in all of St. Louis," she said.

A Pipeline Of Positive Interactions

Community engagement efforts, starting with programs like "Officer Friendly" to the drug education program DARE, are central to Koster's strategy to increase police diversity. He said wants to build a pipeline to allow children to have positive interactions with police from kindergarten through college.

"This means going back and looking at what was the best and successful part of DARE, and then integrating it with a mentorship program where we can start to talk to with young people about the job opportunities available in law enforcement," he said.  "Then it's working in community college assistance programs to draw young people into law enforcement."

Many in the meeting agreed with Koster. But for the pipeline to work, they said, African-Americans must have positive interactions with the police. And that’s not happening.

"There is no African-American male in this country -- regardless of who they are -- who has not had a negative interaction with police by the time they are 21," said St. Louis county executive Charlie Dooley. "I can't find anybody. If you have, you let me know."

No matter how young black men treat the police, Dooley said, the police disrespect them. 

What's more, one negative interaction can have major long-term consequences, said St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward.

"A kid may go through school and interact with the Officer Friendly program for years, and then has that one encounter that results in violence, or they become victimized, and it erases all of that," French said.

Improvements In Training

Dan Isom, the former chief of the St. Louis police and the new public safety director for the state of Missouri, acknowledged that state training programs teach future officers how to be good members of the police community.

"We train them on the laws and rules, how to shoot, defensive tactics, how to arrest, how to enforce crimes.," he said. "We don’t train them very well on how to be a part of the community."

Dotson was willing to admit his own failings as well.

"Implicit bias is real, and we're working to address it in law enforcement," he said.

But it's not enough to just get people of color interested in joining a police force, said Ruby Curry, the interim president of St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley. There has to be a place for them to go. And it's not just about having jobs available. People have to feel comfortable taking them, too.

"It’s just like pledging a fraternity or sorority," said Curry, who is a sorority sister. "If I don’t want you there, I can't put you out the door, but I can sure make it very difficult that you might not want to stay."   

If the region is serious about police diversity, she said, the culture of police departments will have to change, too.

Koster said his staff will draft a working document based on the conversation, and it will bring the parties back to the table to review the draft in about a month. A second group will meet in Kansas City on Oct. 14.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.