Amid protests against police brutality this summer, Black community leaders and Lincoln Police Department personnel, including Malone Center Executive Director John Goodwin (from left), Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister, former Husker offensive lineman Jerald Foster and Malone Center community activist Ishma Valenti, knelt in silence at the site of a memorial outside the Malone Center.
On days and nights this spring when protesters critical of police brutality gathered at the County-City Building, Lancaster County Sheriff’s deputies and Lincoln Police Department officers often organized on the steps.
Protesters raise their hands in front of the County-City Building on Saturday night.
The teenager was the devilish type — running around, staying out late, starting fights — and Albert Maxey was onto him.
Maxey, one of just a couple Black officers in Lincoln in the mid-1960s, had graduated to a patrol car after walking a beat for several years. And he’d been assigned the neighborhoods north of O Street, between 17th and 33rd — where most of the city’s Black residents lived.
It wasn’t a coincidence, he said.
He would take his share of abuse, folks eyeing him warily, talking behind his back, and asking him outright: Why would you want to be a cop?
But he would also see the good he could do.
“People are more relaxed and they feel they get more support if they see someone of the same color,” he said. “They feel comfortable; they feel more protected, and they feel they also could do the same job you’re doing. They see there’s an avenue.”
That last part was important to Maxey, and he became an unofficial — but effective — recruiter for the Lincoln Police Department, trying to get more people who looked like him into uniform.
Like the young troublemaker, one of Maxey’s success stories. “I chased him around as a little kid. And he grew up to be a police officer.”
But it’s not so simple anymore. Law enforcement agencies have struggled in recent years to recruit potential officers, and now — after an explosive, racially strained summer when they need them on the force more than ever — they’re fighting even harder to find candidates of color.
“We get maligned and kind of criticized for everything we do, especially in the media. Coast to coast, we get labeled as racist and painted with a broad brush and people see that. And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that,’” said Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol.
Bolduc’s response to that: “Come be part of the solution; don’t throw stones from the sidelines.”
And minority officers could be part of the solution, law enforcement leaders say. On at least two levels.
On the street, and in an era punctuated by protests, tear gas, distrust and demands to defund the police, officers of color can serve as a sort of middle ground between the two sides, helping build and foster relationships.
“The people of our community, when they call for the police, they want to see people who look like them and share some of the same history and some of the same cultural similarities,” said Jeri Roeder, captain of the Lincoln’s Police Department’s education and personnel unit. “When every time they call the police they see someone who looks different, it’s more difficult to build that trust.”
And inside a police station, officers with diverse backgrounds and outlooks can keep a department in check, preventing a groupthink mentality that can perpetuate procedures and actions and further divide a community.
“Having a more diverse force doesn’t protect you against anti-police sentiment,” said Tom Casady, who served as the city’s police chief and public safety director. “What it does protect you against is the kind of narrow-minded single-focus attitude that can lead you to bad policy.”
‘We need to do better’
Of the 355 Lincoln Police officers, six are Black, or 1.7% of the force — in a city with a population that is 4.4% Black. Fifteen, or 4.2%, are Hispanic; Lincoln’s population is 7.4% Hispanic. Six are Asian, and one is Native.
Other Lincoln-based law enforcement agencies face similar diversity challenges. The Nebraska State Patrol has 434 officers; six are Black, seven are Hispanic, three are Asian and one is Native. Of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s 82 officers, two are Black and one is Hispanic. UNL’s police force has 26 officers; two are Black and two are Hispanic.
A partial reflection of the community, but not a complete one.
“If I were to give ourselves a grade, we’re definitely not getting an A,” said Lincoln Police Capt. Jason Stille. “We need to do better. We have definite room to grow.”
But that’s even more difficult when the overall recruiting pool is drying.
Fifteen years ago, the department rented hotel conference rooms to accommodate the 300 candidates who would show up to take the department’s written test during one of its two annual hiring cycles, Roeder said.
Now the test-takers can’t even fill the department’s own 75-seat classroom. During the last recruitment cycle, about 65 candidates took the test, she said. And none of them was Black.
“People don’t want to be cops,” she said. “And if you look at the current climate in the world, it’s not a surprise.”
The department had improved its diversity in the past few decades, Casady said. He recalled blatant discrimination against women in the 1970s, with no female officers on the force.
The department did employ a few so-called policewomen, but they had separate job duties and descriptions, and dealt mostly with child abuse cases.
During his tenure as chief — in the 1990s and 2000s — women comprised up to 20% of officer ranks and command staff, he said.
And while he didn’t have access to past staff details, he believed the department nearly mirrored most of the city’s racial and ethnic demographics by the mid-2000s.
But the margins are tight, and it didn’t take much to succeed — or stumble.
“If you’re able, by chance, to recruit and hire five additional African American officers, suddenly you’re right on the population demographics,” he said. “But you have two people retire, and you’ve suddenly taken a big step backward.”
Some of the earlier success came in the form of personal referrals, with role models like Maxey leading others into the department, and Black and Hispanic leaders recommending young women and men, Casady said.
“A police department can do all of the advertising it wants, but what really is going to turn the tide and recruit a diverse workforce is when the community is behind you, too. When they’re encouraging sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters to think about a career in policing. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s happening enough.”
It’s a different atmosphere now. Law enforcement can be seen as a hard, undesired, and lately, unpopular profession.
But most of the criticism is unfair, he said, at least to most departments.
He elaborated: The president can have sexual relations with an intern in the Oval Office, but it doesn’t reflect on the presidency as an institution. Teachers and clergy and coaches can commit all manner of misconduct, but it doesn’t reflect on their professions as institutions.
“Suddenly, you’re being vilified and castigated in Lincoln, Nebraska, for something that some nincompoop did in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are not many occupations where that happens.”
Ishma Valenti would argue against the presence of widespread anti-police sentiment, at least in Lincoln. It’s more nuanced than that, the community activist and teen program manager at the Malone Community Center said.
“Everyone I talk to, nobody is anti-police. They’re anti-police brutality. There is a big, big difference,” he said. “We don’t hate a cop for being a cop; we hate cops that are beating people over the head for no reason.”
Valenti helped develop the city’s Hold Cops Accountable initiative, created during the May and June protests of police brutality. Officers, community members and the Mayor’s Multicultural Advisory Committee now meet at the Malone Center to discuss issues and complaints, and subcommittees gather twice a month to examine possible policy changes and seek solutions.
Problems plaguing police departments reach far deeper than the killing of George Floyd earlier this summer, or the Ferguson protests after the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri six years ago, Valenti said.
They’re rooted in structural racism, he said. “I think the reluctance of being a police officer is the systemic white supremacy that has been prevalent in the police. And that’s not limited to Lincoln. It’s more of what the police department has stood for when it comes to systemic racism, rather than: ‘You’re a sellout.’”
Valenti credits the Lincoln Police Department and Chief Jeff Bliemeister for being transparent and responsive, acknowledging and condemning racism.
“They’re trying really hard. We do see the efforts, and I know the chief is very sincere in wanting more diversity,” Valenti said. “That being said, I think the major barrier is point-blank not understanding some of the cultural differences.”
He has a personal example: After he participated in the department’s Citizen Academy, he was recruited to join the force. But he’s grown out his hair and beard for years, and he’d have to cut it.
“I couldn’t be an officer unless I cut my hair, but that would take away my spiritual identity.”
Brand-building and geofencing
Hiring cops used to be easier.
“When I got into law enforcement 30 years ago, you put an ad in the paper, and you had hundreds and hundreds of applications for every vacancy,” said Bolduc, the State Patrol superintendent. “That’s changed in the last dozen years.”
Law enforcement agencies have had to get creative and learn a new vocabulary — tailoring their social media messages, polishing their brands, geofencing their advertising campaigns, hiring marketing and human resources consultants.
Because the stakes are high, and the challenges are increasing.
“Every law enforcement agency in the state, practically, is hiring, and more and more agencies are seeing the importance of having a more diverse workforce,” Bolduc said.
Three years ago, the patrol had nine Twitter accounts, mostly intended to let people know about immediate problems on the highways.
Now it has 27 accounts, with messages devoted to safety, service and outreach, most managed by troopers given license to show their personalities, and some written by Black or Hispanic troopers, like a trooper who lives in south Omaha and tweets about his work in Spanish.
That’s intentional, Bolduc said. The patrol is trying to build its image. “We are heavily engaged in social media and in targeting more diverse audiences so they can have more exposure to our agency, and begin to develop an impression of who we are and what we’re about. People will identify more readily with people who look like them, and have similar experiences as them.”
And its use of geofencing allows it to direct its digital advertising at potential targets — a younger and more diverse audience — rather than a scattershot approach.
State Patrol recruiting messages now appear on Pandora and other streaming services.
“With our limited ad dollars, we don’t want to reach a 55-year-old,” said patrol spokesman Cody Thomas. “We want to reach a 25-year-old.”
It appears to be working, Bolduc said: In its last two camps, eight of 42 recruits — 19% — were considered members of a racial minority. That’s up slightly from 2016, when 15 of 106 — 14% — were minorities.
In 2014, the Lancaster Sheriff’s Office received 230 applications for deputy positions. This year, it received just about half of that, said John Vik, captain of the office’s professional standards division.
He blames a strong economy for part of that drop. “With low unemployment, there are other opportunities for people that don’t involve working nights and weekends and not putting their lives in danger.”
But he knows there’s a deeper concern. With the recent unrest and public sentiment, potential applicants are asking themselves: Is that something I want to sign up for right now?
“Even our current deputies are taking a long, hard look and saying, ‘Is this something I still want to do?’”
His office has lost several deputies recently. And while he can’t say anti-officer sentiment was the deciding factor, it likely played a role in their decisions to leave.
The sheriff’s office wants its workforce to match the county’s demographics, he said. But as the overall pool of candidates shrinks, so does the number of potential minority applicants.
It asked for help earlier this year, signing a contract with a human resources consulting firm to examine its recruiting and hiring practices, and suggest changes.
“We’re cops. We know some stuff about recruiting and marketing, but most of us didn’t go to school to be marketing or HR specialists,” Vik said.
His office is prepared for hard questions about its process, and it won’t settle for easy answers, he said. Is it reaching out to the right segments of people? Can it better direct its recruiting efforts? Are there elements of the hiring process that put minority applicants at a disadvantage?
“There are a lot of things we can’t control in this world, but there are things we can,” he said.
The Lincoln Police Department also altered its approach, and has also asked for help.
A couple of years ago, Doane University tried to determine why only a third of applicants who expressed interest in a Lincoln police position show up for the first step in the hiring process.
The no-shows gave several answers. They had better offers, or took other jobs. They changed their mind, or friends changed it for them. The process took too long.
Eighteen months can pass between the written and physical tests, the one-on-one interview, the hiring team’s selection and the chief’s conditional job offers, the psychological, medical and polygraph exams and social media scrub, and finally academy and field training, before an applicant is a full-fledged officer.
The department used Doane’s findings to trim weeks from the process. It’s also working with Swanson Russell to build a website dedicated to recruiting and hiring, with details about the process and testimonials by officers of minority groups.
The message should be clear, said Capt. Stille, who has worked for three chiefs, and who has watched each work to diversify the force.
“The police department is not just a bunch of white males; it’s not an 1890s police department. We currently have some diversity and we want you to be a part of that. This is not because we’re feeling heat from the community; this is something we’ve been trying to do for years and years, and we haven’t found what sticks.”
Role model recruitment
At 47, Andrew Martinez was one of the oldest to graduate from the State Patrol’s training camp. But the California native had experience.
After eight years in the U.S. Army — a five-year stint first, then three more after 9/11 — and enough of California, Martinez and his wife moved, blindly, to central Nebraska.
He worked in sales at first, but it seemed so far removed from the military.
“I kind of missed the brotherhood and the ability to serve people. My wife said, ‘Why not be a cop?’”
And it suddenly made sense to him. He’d grown up around cops; his mother had been a deputy in Los Angeles County. He joined the Lexington Police Department, wore a badge for nearly five years, and then returned to sales and what he hoped was a more stable schedule and home life.
But he missed being a cop, so he reapplied to Lexington and contacted the patrol. The patrol bit first. In June, Martinez was one of three Hispanics in a graduating class of 15, which also included a Native.
He covers a large swath of Nebraska but lives in Dawson County, considered 33% Hispanic or Latino by the U.S. Census Bureau.
He likes to help, likes to serve and has learned to defuse stressful situations with a smile. His background and life experience and skin color also help; he understands cultural differences, he said, and knows others might be more trusting of him.
It can work the other way. “Sometimes you’ll hear people say, ‘You’re betraying us.’ Most minority officers I know hear it.”
His response? “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. You’re committing a crime; deal with it.’”
But he feels like he’s making the most significant difference when he wins over a young person, who might have been raised to distrust police officers.
“If someone young comes from a culture where they’re scared of law enforcement, they think the cops in the United States are the same. But then they see that maybe we’re not so bad.”
And maybe they become officers, too.
UNL Police Chief Hassan Ramzah, who supervises more than two dozen officers, was drawn to police work after seeing other officers of color while growing up in Michigan.
He tries to be a role model, too. But more than that, he wants to add more role models to his department, to make the cycle self-perpetuating.
“You hope that as we move forward, as we see men and women of color in a diverse department, it does help recruiting,” he said. “It signals to potential candidates that, ‘Yes, I can enter that line of work.’”
Photos, videos: Violent and peaceful protests in Lincoln over George Floyd’s death