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Lack of trust in police one reason why recruiting new officers has become difficult

Former Spokane NAACP president Phil Tyler, seen July 2016, faces scrutiny for domestic-violence allegations that stretch back more than three decades. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Spokane NAACP president Phil Tyler, seen July 2016, faces scrutiny for domestic-violence allegations that stretch back more than three decades. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Trust in law enforcement hit a historic low in June 2015 when a Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans trusted police. In 2013, that number was 57 percent.

Gallup attributed the drop to, among other things, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was charged with shooting black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2014 in Florida.

In its latest poll released in early July, Gallup found the public’s trust in police is back at 57 percent – with the highest trust levels reported among whites, older people and conservatives.

As he continues to search for good candidates, the upswing in public trust is a huge positive for Spokane County Sheriff Knezovich.

“It’s good to see that we are back up,” Knezovich said.

The same Gallup poll found that just 12 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in Congress, 27 percent trust newspapers and 32 percent trust banks – the military was the big winner with 72 percent.

But the rebound in trust in law enforcement doesn’t hold true for everyone: The Gallup poll found that Hispanics, blacks, liberals and people younger than 35 continue to lose trust in law enforcement with liberals coming in at 39 percent, blacks at 30 percent and Hispanics at 45 percent.

A lack of trust is one reason why agencies have a difficult time recruiting minorities.

“I know we have a disparity issue,” Knezovich said, “but we reach out to every aspect of humanity we can think of when we recruit.”

Rex D. Caldwell, a retired police chief and the deputy director of training delivery for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said he’s recently visited seven states examining training and recruitment programs.

Caldwell said he has done a lot of outreach to minority communities – African American, LGBTQ and Hispanic – and found that they are especially reluctant recruits.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with agencies who are having a hard time to get people from minority communities to even apply for a job,” Caldwell said by phone from his office in Burien, Washington.

Spokane Police Department’s chief, Craig Meidl, said he’s especially committed to reaching out to minority communities.

“We struggle tremendously with diversity,” Meidl said. “We struggle with getting people of color and women to apply.”

Meidl said his department is reaching out to organizations such as colleges and military bases that already do a better job with diversity, hoping to learn and to reach a broader spectrum of candidates.

“The biggest part of hiring diversity really is to go to community events and talk to people,” Meidl said, adding that intense media scrutiny dehumanizes officers.

“We have to rehumanize ourselves,” Meidl said. “We have to try to show that we are people too, we have senses of humor and we are human.”

That’s especially important in communities of color, Meidl said, because law enforcement there is sometimes perceived as the enemy.

“In communities of color, we ask people to be part of the change we are seeking. It’s a big step for some,” Meidl said. “We also need community leaders of color to help encourage minorities to apply for law enforcement jobs.”

Former NAACP president Philip Tyler, who was a sheriff’s jail deputy and now works as a campus security officer at Gonzaga University, said law enforcement is doing a good job of reaching out, especially by visiting community events.

“Don’t set up a job fair and expect everyone to come there,” Tyler said. “That will work for some, but not for everyone. Go to where people are.”

Tyler said one-on-one outreach at an event is a better way to create a relationship and establish that “pipeline” of good candidates coming to the agencies.

He added that interest in starting a law enforcement career is declining in some minority communities.

“They come out of college and universities looking for a lucrative job – they look for income versus impact,” Tyler said. “Public service is never going to make you rich, except in the impact you have on your community.”

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