By Judi Villa, The Arizona Republic
Phoenix, Ariz. -- Valley police agencies are amplifying efforts to recruit hundreds of new officers, touting tuition-reimbursement programs, extra pay for speaking a second language and even a $1,500 hiring bonus.
The underlying push, Phoenix police Sgt. Tony Lopez said, is to attract more women and minorities, who continue to be underrepresented at just about every law enforcement agency in Maricopa County.
"The police are policing all of the community, and they are going to have more legitimacy and respect and personal relationships if they're reflecting the diversity of the community," said Lorie Fridell, research director for the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.
"The key would be in how the public receives police department intervention. The key is that the community will have confidence in them to place the calls and to share information about crimes."
Valley agencies have long struggled to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, and the glut of openings could finally change that. Cities such as Phoenix are pouring more time and money than ever into trying to right demographic imbalances in their police departments, particularly among Hispanics.
"We usually can fill our academy classes," said Lopez, who is in charge of recruiting for the Phoenix Police Department. "The challenge for us is to fill them with diversity rather than the status quo."
Yet competition for qualified applicants, particularly minorities, is fierce as law enforcement agencies struggle to keep up with explosive growth and an anticipated surge in retirements in some cities. Phoenix alone needs to hire 600 officers in the next three years but is dealing with a drop in applicants since two officers were killed in a shootout in August.
As many as 300 applicants need to take the police test just to fill an academy class of 20.
Phoenix's recruiting budget increased more than 15 percent this year, and an extra $25,000 is earmarked for next year. The Police Department has spent more than $900,000 on recruiting since 2001. Much of the increase has been to target women and minorities. Because police are constantly scrutinized and rely on citizen cooperation to solve crimes, diversity becomes even more crucial, Lopez said.
"The community has the expectation that the police force will look like them," he said. "If 50 percent of the community is purple, then we should be trying to make sure 50 percent of the police force is purple."
None of the 17 Valley agencies surveyed by The Arizona Republic even comes close to reflecting the gender makeup of the communities they serve. And even though Hispanics make up the largest minority group in Arizona, only two agencies, Paradise Valley and Goodyear, fully represent the percentage of Hispanics in their communities.
Experts say if a department is out of sync with the community it serves, it can create the appearance that it is discriminatory and fuel distrust. Minority residents may be far less willing to help solve crimes. And racial tensions can flare, particularly when officers use force against a minority resident.
It's an issue not only of color but of language and of understanding cultural differences that affect how people react and perceive things.
"It's always a more comfortable feeling to know that you're dealing with someone who's similar," said Phoenix police Officer Chris Abril, who serves as a liaison between his police precinct and the predominantly Hispanic Garfield neighborhood. "Oftentimes people of Hispanic descent look at me and perhaps feel a closeness. They're able to relate. . . . They realize we are people who have experienced much of the things they're experiencing now. . . . I think they appreciate that."
Julian Claudio Nabozny, a south Phoenix businessman and co-chairman of the Phoenix police's Hispanic Advisory Board, said the intention is to build trust "so our community would share information with police as it relates to crime."
"The PD needs the cooperation of the Hispanic citizens in our community," Nabozny said. "Unless they build trust, that won't happen."
As a result, agencies such as Phoenix have tried to recruit minorities more aggressively. Phoenix's recruiters have, for the first time, begun recruiting at Hispanic community events. They advertise in Spanish-language newspapers and will soon air their first ad on a Spanish radio station.
Recruiters target colleges and military bases and regularly travel to places like Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso to try to lure applicants to Phoenix. The city recently relaxed its lateral transfer policy to make it easier for out-of-state officers to relocate to Phoenix. The city boasts an extra $10 an hour for knowing a second language and offers tuition reimbursement and elevated pay for those who get college degrees and stay on the force longer than six years.
Lopez said he'd like to sweeten the pot even more by offering a hiring bonus to candidates who are fluent in a second language. And he wants to add two more recruiters.
"There are ideas you can get from a diverse workforce that you can't get from all one race or all one member," Lopez said. "It's the right thing to do."
Other incentives offered across the Valley also could help woo minority recruits. Mesa recently boosted its police starting salary 12 percent, to $41,527, and began offering evening written tests. Gilbert is offering a $1,500 bonus for recruits. And Glendale, like Phoenix, is offering physical agility clinics to those concerned about meeting the physical qualifications.
Just about every Wednesday morning, Phoenix police Officer Leah Kasper meets potential recruits at the academy to teach them how to get over a 6-foot wall, part of the physical agility test. This year, nearly 13 percent of applicants have failed the written test, and about 60 percent fail the physical agility test on the first try.
Evita Holmes, 35, a probation officer who recently tried to scale the wall just to see if she could, said that women and minorities offer a different perspective and that seeing them on the streets could change how minority communities perceive law officers.
"We can only help when we can communicate with the families and the communities and they can let us into their lives," Holmes said.
Phoenix, which has the Valley's largest law enforcement unit, remains nearly 81 percent Anglo and ranks last among the nation's 10 largest cities for the ratio of minority officers to residents, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study, released in 2002. For the ratio of Hispanic officers to residents, only Las Vegas was lower than Phoenix.
"People look at that if they're a minority themselves," Officer Johnny Chavez said.
"Even the basic understanding or knowledge of ethnicity is a plus. Then again, to have grown up Black, Hispanic or Asian, it's rooted within you, so you may have a better understanding of some things."
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator who now hosts a daily Latino issues show on Radio Campesina, said the rapid changes in the Hispanic and immigrant populations have made it nearly impossible for police agencies to keep up. Still, he said, police agencies must continue to make it a priority to have Spanish-speaking officers on every shift and to educate about cultural differences.
"It's not merely translating language. It's translating culture as well," Gutierrez said. "It's important that the entire force be aware of all those differences, all those cultural sensitivities, or insensitivities, that can create so many problems when none should exist."
For potential recruits like Nina Almeida, the push to attract women and minorities means that in exchange for wearing a badge and gun, Phoenix would pay for the graduate degree she wants.
"I'm thinking about it," said Almeida, a senior at Arizona State University. "We need to have more women on the force. We need a more diverse Police Department, especially in areas like Phoenix. . . . I could see myself in a uniform. Definitely."