YAKIMA – For the past four months, Yakima police officer Hailie Meyers has been searching for people.
She’s gone to events in the city and driven her custom-decorated police vehicle to Oregon and Western Washington in her quest.
She’s not looking for fugitives who are on the lam. She’s looking for people who want to be cops.
Meyers is the department’s full-time recruitment officer, a position created in April to bolster the YPD’s ranks in a tight job market, as well as create a more diverse police department.
The department’s ranks of Hispanics are holding at 26 percent, but Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. said that Meyers’ efforts are part of a long-term effort to build up the department.
“We are committed to this over the long term, and I think it will pay dividends not just for YPD, but the profession across the Valley,” Rizzi said.
It’s an effort one Latino activist believes is a step toward getting the department to more closely resemble the community it serves.
Yakima’s police department is budgeted for 149 commissioned officers, from chief down to patrol officers. The department has 132 officers, leaving 17 vacancies.
Of the 132, 34 officers are Hispanic, with 86 non-Hispanic whites, four Native American, four African-American and four Asian-American officers. The breakdown was similar two years ago.
But the department is still not close to reflecting the city’s population, which is 45.8 percent Hispanic.
It’s a goal Rizzi is striving to meet, seeking not just more Hispanics, but officers from other groups and backgrounds.
“The more diverse police force we have, the more ideas we have, the more approaches we have,” Rizzi said. “If we all think alike, we are going to be stagnant. Every member on our department recognizes that.”
Finding people who want to be police officers is the first step. Not only is YPD competing with other agencies for officers, the department also has to go up against every other business in the Valley for a relatively small pool of potential employees.
“We are all competing for the same individual,” Rizzi said.
As of June 30, Yakima County’s unemployment rate was 5.2 percent, according to the state Employment Security Department. Which means it’s a tight market for all employers.
Meyers, the department’s recruiter, can recall when she graduated from University of Nevada, Reno with a criminal justice degree, that hundreds of applicants were competing for a few police jobs.
Today, she said it’s reversed, with fewer people out there for more jobs.
Looking for people
As part of an effort to find recruits locally and within the region, the department decided to dedicate one officer solely to recruiting.
Meyers, who had been a patrol officer and will still cover shifts on the road as needed, was selected in April to be the department’s recruiter, going out to job fairs and other community events to represent the department and present information on how to become an officer.
“I’m a people person, and I enjoy talking to people,” Meyers said with her ready smile, “and I like working in Yakima.”
While she’s had a lifetime interest in police work and serving others, Meyers became a YPD officer after she and her husband moved to the area for what they thought was a short-time stay.
“I liked the small-town appeal, and I got this job and we’re staying here,” Meyers said.
Along with going to community events in Yakima – she was among the officers participating in a police lip-sync challenge Friday – Meyers has gone on the road to public-safety testing events and job fairs in Kent, Spokane, the Tri-Cities and Shoreline, as well as events in Eugene and Salem, Ore.
While Rizzi said the department would prefer to hire locally, staffing shortages mean looking for recruits a bit farther afield, as well as in nontraditional places such as colleges, and not just criminal-justice majors.
“We’re looking at female sports teams. They’re competitive and have that edge,” Rizzi said. “Bringing that interest to law enforcement is good for us.”
The YPD force is 8.33 percent women. The national average was 13 percent in 2013, according to Community Oriented Policing Services, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Meyers has gone to job fairs where the emphasis was on hiring women and minorities.
In her pitch, she explains that Yakima’s department is small enough that you can know your colleagues while large enough to give you an opportunity for advancement or to specialize in a particular aspect of police work.
She touts the area’s relatively low cost of living, paired with YPD’s competitive starting salary – $65,415 – along with the virtues of living in a place with plenty of sunshine, especially when she’s at job fairs on the west side of the Cascades.
And even when she’s on the road, she’s promoting YPD. Her police SUV has wrap-around decals advertising the department, with a photo of Yakima’s skyline, with Mount Adams from the back.
She also plans to use social media to show people that officers are just like them.
While she’s had people interested in joining the department, Meyers said it is too early to tell how effective the recruiting has been since it takes about two months for an applicant to qualify.
A potential candidate has to be at least 21 years old, have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, be in good health and able to pass a background check.
A recently enacted state law has potentially enlarged the pool of candidates that YPD and other agencies can draw from. Police departments are now allowed to hire permanent legal residents in addition to U.S. citizens.
“This is another pool of individuals that we can spark interest in, and show that law enforcement is a rewarding career,” Rizzi said.
Rizzi is not expecting that or anything else to have people beating down the door to join the department right away. He said recruiting is a long-term process, and it involves pitching messages to some people who may not have had the best impression of police work in the past.
One local activist believes the recruiting effort should first answer an important question if department leaders want a diverse crew.
“Why aren’t Latinos applying for positions?” asked Gabriel Muqoz, a Latino Civic Alliance Board member. “That would be a good step in understanding why they are not applying for these positions and create a good strategy moving forward.”
Muqoz applauds the city’s efforts to actively recruit, as well as efforts by the department to reach out to the Hispanic community, such as with officers going on local Hispanic radio stations and Rizzi’s recent appointment as a member of the Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s board.
One way to reach more Hispanics is to have the police department go the high schools and Yakima Valley College to promote the department, Muqoz said. That would reach youths and show them that police work is a career worth considering.
If Hispanics can see more people like themselves in the department, it would bring them in, Muqoz said.
Meyers said one of her goals for her job is to do more work in the schools, as well as work with the department’s Explorer Post, an organization that introduces youths to law enforcement.
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