Seacoast police struggle to find minority officers

By NIK BEIMLER, The Portsmouth Herald
DOVER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire is one of the least diverse states in the country and conflict between minority populations and police departments has not been as much of a problem in the Granite State as in other parts of the nation.
But police chiefs across the Seacoast agree a proactive approach to the issue is best, and one of the most important things that can be done is to attract, recruit and retain officers from minority groups to local departments.
“I think it’s important that not just the police department, but all government departments should reflect the face of the community,” said Portsmouth Police Chief David Mara. “If you have a minority population in your city, your police department should reflect that. … It’s not about affirmative action, it’s about being a community police department.”
Mara said having a diverse police department is good not just for public relations and perception, it is important for the future as well.
“It shows the next generation that being a police officer is a noble profession,” he said. “It’s tough for a kid to aspire to be something if they don’t see their face reflected in that profession. Everybody has a chance to be a police officer. It’s important that those examples are there.”
But Mara echoed what other Seacoast police chiefs said — it is difficult to find qualified recruits and finding a qualified minority candidate who wants to come to a New Hampshire department is especially rare.
“There are a lot of challenges,” he said. “If you take the last few years, what you see in the media is kind of minority populations against police departments. That’s turning not just minorities, but everyone away from the profession.”
“I don’t know why anybody would want to be a police officer nowadays,” added Dover Chief Anthony Colarusso.
Colarusso, who works with the New Hampshire NAACP, Dover Listens and other organizations to facilitate discussions between police and the Dover community, cited demographics of people who took a test to start the police process at Great Bay Community College in recent years. In 2014, of 478 who took the test, just 33 identified with races other than white, he said. In 2015, of 411 test takers, just nine were black.
Colarusso noted these numbers are partly a result of small minority populations in the state, and agreed with Mara that public perception could turn people away from law enforcement. But he also noted the hours and relatively low pay for the job as things that could make people look elsewhere.
Andrew Smith, Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator, says recruiting and retaining minority officers is a matter of extreme importance, even in a state as homogeneous as New Hampshire.
“Many departments want to advance and demonstrate the changing demographics of the communities they serve,” Smith said. “The goal is to be proactive. … If you have an officer who is black, Hispanic or part of another minority group, that officer may be able to go into certain parts of a community easier and with less cultural barrier than other officers would normally be able to.”
Smith says the most crucial, and often the most difficult, aspect of having a police department that reflects the community is retaining minority officers once they are hired.
“The first minority in a department is going to have quite a different experience,” he said. “The chief must make it clear within the department that anybody who comes in is qualified and is not just there because of his or her race or gender.”
Smith recently contacted Colarusso with the suggestion of setting up contacts with historically black colleges to hopefully find potential recruits in the future. Colarusso said he is on board with the plan.
University of New Hampshire Police Chief Paul Dean said it is even more important to recruit and retain minority officers for campus police departments.
“We’re such a diverse community here,” Dean said. “There’s a considerable amount of international students here. The challenge is finding minority officers interested in working in New Hampshire and interested in working in a college town atmosphere.”
The UNH Police Department currently employs one black officer, who Dean said “has a love for working in campus safety” and helps the department integrate with the 1.5 percent of UNH students who are black. Having one black officer on a force of 19 full-time officers meets the bar of reflecting the community, “but it’s not enough,” Dean said.
Somersworth, home to one of the largest Indonesian populations in New England, also employs one of the most diverse police departments in the Seacoast with one American Filipino officer and two black officers, according to Chief Dave Kretschmar. Kretschmar emphasized that recruitment must be done based on qualifications first, with an eye toward having minority populations represented only after each candidate is properly screened.
“We look for quality people first and foremost,” he said. “That being said, it is important to have minority populations reflected because they have a different set of experiences, a different view of life at times.”
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Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com