WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stephanie Robinson, 23, a rookie Black police officer on Detroit’s West Side, has been challenged by Black residents about her loyalty while on patrol since the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer.
“They’re saying, ‘Are you going to be Black or be a police?’ And I say, ‘I’m Black and a police officer. I’m going to do both and do it the right way,’” Robinson said.
Robinson says she is committed to the force, but is also openly critical of police training and methods.
“If we could have a better relationship with people, and not be going full force every time and treating people like criminals” it would help, she said.
Growing concern among young officers and cadets about racism and brutality in U.S. law enforcement after Floyd’s death is the latest complication for police recruiters already struggling to hire and retain new cops.
Drops in the number of recruits and increases in officers heading for retirement are so dramatic that the Police Education Research Foundation (PERF) dubbed here it a "workforce crisis."
Job applications have plummeted in many police departments over the past five years, falling 50% in Seattle, for example, and 70% in Jefferson County, Colorado, a 2019 study by PERF showed. About 16% of the U.S. police force hits retirement age in the next five years, the study found.
As local governments curb police powers, and Congress pushes reform bills, some of the police workforce of the future is also beginning to question how policing is done and their role in it.
This next generation wants better training; a more transparent, flexible and accountable police presence; and closer ties to the communities they serve.
“We are not waiting two, three, four years for change. We need to change now - right now,” said DeCarlos Hines, a forensic psychology major and president of the Black Student Union at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is one of the biggest feeders into U.S. law enforcement.
Hiring and keeping Black and other minority officers is one of many challenges facing police recruiters, the PERF report says.
Law enforcement agencies are also increasingly struggling to find recruits who are conversant with technology to fight cyber crimes, such as human trafficking online or internet stalking, and able to be more active in addressing an array of social ills like the opioid epidemic.
A patrol officer for just over six months, Robinson says she was not taught how to handle the most common issue she faces: people with mental illness.
“Honestly, 90% of the runs I go to every day are mental (health) runs,” she said.
LOT OF QUESTIONING
Whether young police can help reform U.S. law enforcement, where veterans say here discrimination and nepotism have been the norm for decades, remains to be seen.
Young cops are not an organized political force, nor do they have any control over police or university budgets. But police veterans and educators charged with filling jobs as the force ages say their views cannot be ignored.
“We all agree that they’re the future, and it’s just a matter of how to deal with them,” said Detective Sergeant Christopher Kriner of Old Lycoming Township Police Department in central Pennsylvania, who has been working with a local college to bring in recruits.
Some in the upcoming generation are reassessing the future of policing, said Debra Dreisbach, a former FBI agent who lectures on criminal justice and ethics at Pennsylvania State University, Berks and advises police departments on hiring.
“People who were set to go into policing - the diehards, if you will - are still pursuing that path, but there’s a lot of questioning going on right now,” she said.
At the John Jay College in New York, Hines and the student union are pushing for more minority instructors; mandatory anti-racism training for staff, faculty and students; inclusion of minority scholarship in every syllabus and course across the college; and a mandatory course on alternatives to policing, such as social work.
Karol Mason, who leads John Jay, said she is listening. “We need leadership from young voices to tell us how we can do this better,” said Mason. John Jay’s 15,000 student body is about 80% people of color, but about two-thirds of the faculty is white.
“I will consider it a personal failure if I don’t figure out how to change and give our students people who look like them,” she said. “You often hear ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’”
John Jay and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives will convene police, community members, researchers and young people starting in August for a series of public dialogues on how to redefine the role of police in creating safe communities, followed by a report in November.
Elias Oleaga, 19, joined the Boy Scout-founded Law Enforcement Exploring here program when he was 13 and met veteran cops with a strong commitment to serving his Dominican community in the Bronx.
Now a student at John Jay, Oleaga says the national debate about policing has not shaken his desire to become an officer. “Honestly, I’d be lying if I said it did. Passion doesn’t go extinct.”
But because of Floyd’s death, he said he now plans to focus his police career on community relations rather than his original choice, investigations. “I’ve seen what happens in the streets of the South Bronx. I’d like to be the support system that was given to me,” he said.
Thomas "Tre" Boone, 19, knows firsthand about the problems facing Black police officers - his father is one of a dozen officers suing here the Prince George's County, Maryland department for racial discrimination. Prince George's County denies the allegations in the 2018 lawsuit.
Boone says he is still planning to study criminal justice and become a cop. “It’s time for people to step up and reform the police,” he said. “I definitely feel that I’m part of that generation.”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington and Angela Moore in New York; Editing by Heather Timmons, Diane Craft and Alistair Bell
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