Commentary about tragic encounters between police and the public, mainly black men, has been a mainstay in the news these days.
Whether it’s the low pay or the bad publicity, police departments say it’s been increasingly hard to recruit new officers.
The images and sounds of police officers in riot gear, marching through the streets of Baltimore are hard to erase.
Brandon Zuidema is the Chief of Police in Garner, which is just outside Raleigh. He says it’s hard to ignore the confrontations between police and protestors in communities like Baltimore, Oakland and Ferguson, Missouri.
“I would say that it would not happen here but again, this community is not dramatically different in terms of make-up as far as size and some other things with Ferguson so it’s difficult to say never," said Zuidema.
In a town of almost 27,000 residents, Zuidema has 63 police officers. He says the plan is to be proactive with integrity, professionalism and leadership high on the list.
“We’re already in the process now of developing some new ways to interact with the community to make sure that we not only have that trust but maintain it and grow it over time," said Zuidema.
One way Zuidema is developing his senior officers is with the help of the International Academy of Public Safety or IAPS. The Holly Springs-based organization builds customized online curriculum in leadership for law enforcement across the country.
Chris Hoina spent 20 years in the Cary Police Department and now works with IAPS. Over the past decade, Hoina says he has seen a lot of money and time being spent on tactical skills.
“And maybe not as much on the intellectual, verbal, emotional skills on what it takes to be a 21st century police officer," said Hoina.
Hoina says if police chiefs want the best recruits they should be asking these questions.
“Do I have a culture where our mission and our values are clear, not only to the public but to the people who work here. Do I have a culture where complaints of my officers are low? Do I have a culture where internal affairs investigations are low?" said Hoina.
Wayne Scott is the Chief of Police for the City of Greensboro and has been chief eight weeks.
New on the job, Scott is moving fast down his to-do list. He oversees a police force of 675 officers. And diversifying the next class of recruits is a top priority. Scott says he knows it won’t be easy.
“Part of it is a lot of people don’t know a lot about law enforcement. And sometimes all they get is what they see on television, and that’s not accurate," said Scott.
Scott says they usually get about 500 applications for a recruit class of 40. He wants an application pool of at least 1,000. So he recently made three officers full-time recruiters.
Detective Frances Banks is one of the new recruiters. She has a lot of what Scott is looking for – she was born and raised in Greensboro, she’s college educated and she’s African American – in a city that is 40% Black. Banks says she knows her job will be tough because the image of her colleagues in blue is not the best. And she can’t take that personally.
“One thing that I am constantly reminding myself is that I wear the uniform, the uniform does not wear me, meaning that I am still human but if I am targeted in any way it’s because of the profession I have chosen," said Banks, who has been with the Greensboro Police Department for 13 years.
Back in Garner, two new recruits completed their training and were given their shields this week.
“Do you Patrick James McGuire solemnly swear that you will be alert and vigilant to enforce the criminal laws of this state. That you will not be influenced in any manner of personal bias or prejudice," said Deputy Chief Eric Copeland, holding a Bible.
“And that you will faithfully and impartially discharge and execute the duties of your office as Police Officer according to the best of your skills, and abilities and judgements, so help you God," read Copeland.
The 21-year-old McGuire answered, "I do."
McGuire says he’s ready for his new career, his new life, which comes at a critical time when police departments are re-thinking what it means to be a police officer in the 21st century.