The Challenge of Adding Diversity to Our Local Police Departments
A SERIES ON THE ROLE OF POLICE IN OUR COMMUNITIES: PART 2
By Richard D. Smith | Posted March 17, 2023
Montgomery Township Mayor Devra Keenan starts with a vital point: “There are no quotas in police hiring. Quotas are illegal.”
Mayor Keenan was among elected and police officials in Montgomery and Franklin townships recently asked by The Montgomery News to speak about efforts to diversify police departments by race and gender, thus making them more reflective of the communities they serve.
During the pandemic, Montgomery Township officials hired a diverse class of new police officers. From left: Kyle Chin, Joelle Bridgewater, Carolyn LaRue, Craig Merkle, and Michael Contreras. (Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Township Police Department.)
Lieutenant Tom Frascella, Montgomery’s police press information officer, says, “We believe an obvious tangible benefit to a diverse police force is to help build more trust and legitimacy in relations between the community and the department. This is an absolute requirement for an effective and efficient police department.”
Police diversification statewide is being closely monitored by the Office of the NJ Attorney General.
NJ Attorney General’s Office 2021 statistics.
One major — and positive — takeaway from The Montgomery News interviews: Police officer diversity can be improved by departments marketing themselves to quality candidates and making the job application process more accessible.
As with any good investment, success builds on itself. Some police leaders say that “inclusive” better describes the goal to attract an increasingly varied candidate pool during the next hiring rounds. The dividends in community-wide trust of local police are considerable. And it comes without compromising department quality.
“Yes, the idea of lowering standards to hire a specific applicant so the agency can say they checked a certain box is a real concern, both spoken and unspoken,” Lt. Frascella acknowledges. “We will not put our members or our community in that position.”
“We will only make conditional offers of employment to very qualified candidates that we feel are capable, willing to do the job, and are a good fit for Montgomery.”
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Mayor Keenan has been actively involved in police hiring. Candidates are evaluated and recommended by the police leadership, but job offers must be formally approved by the township committee.
One major challenge for Montgomery is a cap of 35 total uniformed officers, a policy instituted years ago to keep the police department – the largest non-school item in the municipal budget – manageable and affordable. (Mayor Keenan adds that Montgomery administration is “looking at that number,” possibly to revise it upwards.)
From left: Montgomery Police Officer Carolyn LaRue chats with Kayla Blas and her mother Evelyn Blas. The Blases read in The Montgomery News that a female officer (Ms. Larue) had just been hired, and they came to the "Coffee with a Cop" event in February specifically to meet her. Photo by Richard D. Smith.
See Related Story >> Coffee with a Cop
Efforts to Diversify
How did the usual hiring process affect efforts to diversify? “We only hired when we had attrition, usually based on retirement,” Mayor Keenan explains.
As a new strategy, the township developed a policy of waiting until there were multiple vacancies, thus creating a cohort of two to four new hires. This better allows outstanding female and minority candidates to be among the new hires. Plus these newcomers don’t have to go through the police academy and subsequent local training alone.
Franklin Township director of public safety Quovella Maeweather and division commander Captain Sean Hebbon discuss patrols and policies with uniformed police officers. From left: Emily Gonzalez, Sgt Deyo Swartz, Dexter McKelvin, Kevin Frizziola, and Robert Meyer. Photo by Richard D. Smith.
Like other many municipalities, Montgomery strives to remove potential barriers to qualified applicants.
Starting with the last hiring round in 2021, application fees (which can run from $100 to $150) were waived. A college degree is no longer required; a high school diploma is sufficient. (However, more candidates are arriving with advanced educations: Two recent Montgomery hires, both women, have criminal justice college degrees, one undergraduate and one a master's).
The long-required written test was dropped in favor of application and resume evaluation. The physical agility test was adjusted to be more in line with the N.J. Police Training Commission standards.
“These changes increased our applicant pool for selection,” Lt. Frascella reports. He also points out that Montgomery Township has lots going for it as an excellent place to do police work. It’s a beautiful rural/suburban community, with its citizens appreciative and supportive of their local peacekeepers. “We are a busy agency covering a large area with a small-town feel,” he notes.
And Montgomery Township government – including the police department – is now housed in the brand new, work-friendly municipal facility at 100 Community Drive, Skillman.
“The old facilities were dumpy,” Mayor Keenan frankly admits. “It was just not an attractive facility for police to work at,” thus a true liability in attracting the best candidates. The hiring process, she observes is “quite complicated. It’s not as cut and dry as people may think.”
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Indeed, in attracting candidates, minority or otherwise, there are pros and cons to Montgomery’s rural/suburban milieu.
Some candidates might not want to work in urban settings with the established gangs and drug dealing that are often associated with cities. Others, though, welcome urban policing, whichsometimes offers great opportunities for career development and promotion.
When Montgomery lost two women officers to other police departments, their reasons were sought during exit interviews. Fortunately, these didn’t include any harassments.
Indeed, Mayor Keenan, reports, the women “felt incredibly sad at leaving their fellow officers. They felt very much part of the team and very much supported.” But they decided in favor of career advancement, which is not typically offered by small town departments.
Montgomery strives to recognize any special but legitimate priorities of employees. Says Lt. Frascella: “Montgomery has adopted a policy establishing the procedures for pregnancy and maternity leave for female employees. This ensures that female officers are provided the most direct and complete understanding of their rights and privileges as employees, should they decide to bear a child.”
Ironically, Montgomery’s lowering of barriers to applications by women and minorities plus its maintenance of high standards have caused a new problem.
“Montgomery is targeted [for hiring away] by other departments,” Mayor Keenan says. “We attract excellent recruits, and do an excellent job training them.”
Lt. Frascella acknowledges that law enforcement recruitment and hiring is competitive among agencies competing for the best applicants from a continuingly shrinking applicant pool.
The Montgomery Police Department has several challenges when competing directly with other municipalities, county and state agencies in the areas of pay, benefits, specialized units, and job advancements.”
Still, Lt. Frascella emphasizes: “We are committed to hiring excellent candidates.”
Money Magazine selected Franklin Township as the 5th Best Place to Live in the USA in 2008. Located next to Montgomery Township, Franklin has about 68,400 residents while Montgomery has about 23,400 residents according to the US Census.
Police Diversity in Franklin Township
There’s an identical attitude in neighboring Franklin Township.
Franklin Public Safety Director Quovella Maeweather – a woman and Black – says a commitment to excellence and a synergy between administration and police candidates both advance the causes of diversification and representation.
From the NJ Attorney General's Office, the statistics above are from 2021.
Three of Franklin’s four captain-rank officers are Black. There are additional persons of color plus women among the uniformed officers. Some Franklin citizens might think their police department specifically recruited them, Director Maeweather acknowledges. But in fact, these hires sought out Franklin on their own. “I think we represented to the candidates something that was different,” she says. And as leadership became more representative of the community, women and minorities “were more likely to apply.”
“I don’t think it was us fishing, it was us being more of a magnet,” she says. “We don’t go out and say, ‘We want X number of Black people or Asian people.’ When the candidates see that the Director is a Black woman, they’re more comfortable coming in.”
She adds: “When we have diversity in the room, we can begin to really have a conversation about how things can change to make law enforcement what it should be.”
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Maeweather’s career path traces evolutions in New Jersey law enforcement hiring, while also providing evidence that meritocracies do in fact exist. She earned a degree in environmental engineering at N.J. Institute of Technology. A friend in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office suggested she apply there to work on environmental crimes. But when the staffing needs of the Office changed, she came aboard to work on general crimes such as homicide, narcotics trafficking and child abuse.
She spent 20 years with the Essex Prosecutor, starting as a detective and, by the time of her 2018 retirement from the prosecutors’ office, serving as its Chief of Detectives – the first Black woman to hold such a rank in New Jersey.
Upon learning that Franklin Township would be hiring a new Director of Public Safety, she recalls shying away from applying. But after repeated urgings by law enforcement friends and colleagues, she submitted her resume. She was soon called in for an interview – and then called back for another. Now she’s in her third year in the Franklin Township police department’s top spot.
She hopes her experience and accomplishments will inspire others: “I did a lot of hard work, I said yes to new assignments, and I was recognized and rose through the ranks.”
Director Maeweather emphasizes that college and advanced degrees are not required to launch a criminal justice career at the local policing level. But she adds: “What we’re looking for now is more people who have experience in counseling, social work, or mental health professions.”
Why? Because, she says, more than half — and as much as 70 or 80 percent — of Franklin’s use-of-force incidents involve individuals with mental health issues or are otherwise in crisis, not-unusual statistics.
“We don’t want our officers engaged in use-of-force with citizens,” she emphasizes. “We believe de-escalation and communication can deal with much of that. But it’s hard to find a social worker at four in the morning!”
“Franklin itself is a very diverse community with many different languages spoken here, different cultures and houses of worship,” says Captain Sean Hebbon, Officer in Charge and Investigations Division Commander. “To have the diversity in the community reflected in the police force is a necessary balance.”
He specifically notes that “when some community groups have public events, to be able to send officers who reflect those communities opens their arms to us. Someone they can relate to is telling them, ‘You’re okay and we’re here to help you.’ So, they’ll feel more comfortable calling us if they need to. We need that trust, to serve them and solve crimes.”
It’s particularly important, Capt. Hebbon adds, to gain the trust of younger members of the community, to counteract the peer pressure that says, Don’t be friends with the police or you’re a snitch. “So we need to build that relationship with children at a young age,” he says. “Having officers that look like them obviously helps.” Franklin also has police youth programs which, in at least two cases, have led young residents to take criminal justice courses in college.
By coincidence, research and interviews for this Montgomery News article came in the wake of the January 7th beating, and subsequent death in a hospital, of a Black driver in Memphis, Tennessee. Five officers from a special city anti-crime squad are now under indictment for various felonies including second-degree murder. And all are Black as well.
This tragedy has given rise to speculations that if these particular Black officers are indeed guilty as charged, the takeaway will be that increased police diversity doesn’t prevent unwarranted brutality against minorities – a huge setback for the hopeful trend in inclusiveness hiring.
“If the investigation shows that certain regulations were ignored and laws broken, the officers will face those consequences,” Capt. Hebbon says. “But I wouldn’t take this case and say, Diversity doesn’t help.
“Even where it seemed diversity didn’t help, I’m sure if they have diverse groups of officers it’s helping in other areas, such as making connections with the community. Diversity covers a whole range of issues, not just bad car stops.”
Capt. Hebbon knows firsthand that trust and respect-informed connections between police and the communities they serve is vitally important. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens, then moved to the New Jersey suburbs at age 19. “My family was one of the only Black families in our neighborhood. I had“ – he smiles – “an interesting and complicated relationship with the police. I wasn’t doing anything bad, but they weren’t necessarily comfortable with me, and so I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with them because they weren’t!”
Now he lives again in that suburb and sees the progress local police have made in diversity and good community relations.
Like Montgomery, Franklin has eliminated police recruit application and testing fees, and joined other municipalities in offering tuition reimbursement for job-related education and training, as well as providing a uniform stipend.
And — also like Montgomery and also independently — Franklin has contracted with PoliceApp, a popular job listing and hiring information website, to best announce its openings and requirements ( www.policeapp.com ).
Good communications are crucial to good community relations as well as effective hiring, says Lieutenant Vincent Wilson, Executive Officer, Division of Professional Services.
“What we wanted the community to know about is what we truly are: a community policing department,” says Lt. Wilson. “We want an officer with a diverse skill set, who’s also a person with good morals and ethics.”
Applicants who believe they fit the bill are many indeed. During the last Franklin hiring round, 597 applications were submitted. Of these, 26 percent identified as Black/African American in the application form’s voluntary race checkoff, 48 percent as white, and 5 percent as Asian (with the remainder opting not to select a category). Three Black recruits and one white were ultimately hired as patrol officers.
“Keep in mind, we’re going for the best candidates, the best persons for the job,” Capt. Hebbon emphasizes.
Captain Lloyd Fredericks, Patrol Division Commander, notes that this prioritization of excellence has become part of the Franklin Township police culture.
“We want to attract highly qualified applicants and we want to promote diversity,” says Capt. Fredericks. ‘These two goals can coexist.” But he confirms that Franklin will not compromise on officer quality simply for the sake of demographics: It’s well known that Director Maeweather “doesn’t care what you look like if you can’t do the job at a high level.”
Franklin now has three Black captains. Being one of them, Capt. Fredericks personally attests that these promotions were “based on merit. [The captains] worked very hard for it.” The promotions, he adds with solid optimism, “present new opportunities and a new future.”
Says Montgomery Township Mayor Keenan: “This is a journey we’re on. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a journey, and I think we’re on the right path.” ■