Oct 31, 2022 - News

Shortage in police ranks threatens diversity effort

Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

Two years after George Floyd's murder renewed long-standing calls for reform including diversifying police departments, law enforcement agencies are still wrestling with ways to rebuild community trust.

  • And it's happening at a time when officers are leaving the profession in droves, crippling recruitment efforts.

Why it matters: Law enforcement experts say that building police forces that better reflect the communities they serve is one way to combat distrust and could even reduce police violence.

Zoom in: Denver's new police chief, Ron Thomas — the agency's second Black leader — tells Axios Denver that he's managing a recruiting challenge as officers face a daily reckoning over what their job represents.

  • Thomas says it's been hard to keep up with attrition. Some officers have left DPD for smaller agencies, where he said they may have lower expectations.
  • Denver officers interact with people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorders, which can be challenging and something less common for those in suburban agencies, he says.

Yes, but: Thomas is optimistic about the department's ability to recruit police officers, including officers of color.

  • Thomas said some recruits will be drawn to serve "historically disadvantaged and under-supported communities."
  • The department welcomed 58 new officers Friday, including 42 from a basic recruiting class and 16 officers hired from other departments.

What they're saying: "It's tougher to convince people to commit their lives to doing this job," Denver police division chief Joe Montoya tells Axios Denver, adding police scrutiny is making things challenging.

  • Montoya said he would like to see more officers recruited from within Denver; both Montoya and Thomas went to Denver high schools.
Denver police chief Ron Thomas during an event last week in downtown Denver. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

Context: As a Black chief, Thomas may face a lower tolerance for missteps, according to former Denver chief Robert White, who took office in 2011 as the city's first Black chief.

  • White is credited with changing Denver department policies including reorganizing its rank structure and changing the agency's time-off rules to ensure the city had cops on duty during peak crime hours, according to the Denver Post.

White said he believes he changed the culture for the better before he retired in 2018. But it came at a cost.

  • He found himself "fighting" the police union, which he characterized as resistant to change. Officers issued a vote of no confidence against the chief in October 2017, the first in the agency's history.
  • "The tolerance is probably a little lower…for chiefs of color than it would be if they were not of color, if they were white," White said, referring to mistakes made by chiefs.

The bottom line: White says most agencies need to be transformed.

  • "I've always had this philosophical belief that policing wasn't what it could be, and I just wanted to play a role in trying to get it closer to where I thought it needed to be," White tells Axios Denver.
  • White still works in law enforcement. He's a liaison in Chicago for ShotSpotter, the controversial system police use to pinpoint gunfire.

Go deeper … read Axios' Deep Dive on law enforcement


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