Police agencies here lag in diversity and want to change that

Police departments are trying to diversify, but it won’t happen overnight. A Herald analysis shows how far they have to go.

EVERETT — With few exceptions, police departments in Snohomish County are disproportionately made up of white officers and support staff, even as the communities they cover continue to diversify, according to an analysis by The Daily Herald.

In Mountlake Terrace, for example, 35 of 38 police department employees reported they were white. The city is under 70% white, according to Census estimates. And in Everett, over 82% of the department was white, underrepresenting Black, Asian, Latinx and multiracial communities.

Law enforcement leaders say changing the demographics has been a focus of recent recruitment efforts.

The Herald compiled police demographics via public records requests of every agency based in the county, except for Bothell, which straddles King and Snohomish counties. Most of the statistics were current as of Jan. 1. Records include not just officers, but also civilian employees.

Only police in Marysville and Edmonds were roughly as diverse than those cities as a whole, if not more diverse.

‘It’s not just the face’

University of Washington sociology professor Alexes Harris, whose research focuses on racial inequality in the criminal justice system, reviewed the data and noted a “great deal of racial under-representation.” Combining the demographics of all the agencies, only about 2% of officers were Black. Even fewer were Native American.

“I do think nationally, and locally, we need to do a much better job at creating dialogues, respect and trust between historically marginalized communities and law enforcement,” Harris wrote. “Without creating better connections, we can’t expect people to want to work for the agencies.”

The data didn’t surprise Paul Benz, co-chair of the NAACP Snohomish County’s criminal justice committee. Across many systems, including criminal justice, staffing demographics lag behind communities becoming more diverse, he said.

“We want a law enforcement system that looks like the community they serve,” Benz said. “It’s not just the face. It goes deeper than that. But you have to at least start there.”

Not including the sheriff’s office, the largest agency in the county, there were just 15 Black employees at departments. The sheriff’s office reported 0.5% of its employees were Black, while 3.8% of the county’s residents are Black, according to the latest census estimates. The demographics of the sheriff’s office exact coverage area are unclear, however, since it only serves unincorporated Snohomish County and small cities without their own police forces.

The sheriff’s office also noted the race of over a quarter of its employees was unknown. The only other department to have more than one employee marked as unknown was the Lake Stevens Police Department, which reported all 38 of its employees were of an unknown racial background.

One agency, Arlington, identified as all white. Historically, Chief Jonathan Ventura said his department is “much more diverse” than the community, which is over 81% white. He credited recruiting from the military and colleges as well as in more diverse places.

He attributes the current disparity in the numbers to the recent departures of several officers from the department, including “an Asian American, Native American, Hispanic American, African American, and several employees that identified as LGBTQ.”

As it staffs up, Arlington recognizes the growing Latinx population in the city, and wants to reflect that, Ventura said. The department offers a $5,000 incentive for new officers proficient in Spanish or American Sign Language.

‘Let people know’

Police recruiters say they are well aware of the lack of representation and are working to better reach communities not reflected in their departments. And it’s not just a matter of optics. They hope it can build trust among groups historically subjected to disproportionate policing.

“Now there’s more to it than just that,” Everett police Chief Dan Templeman told The Daily Herald. “You still have to build relationships. You still have to make the investments in programs and relationships.”

Efforts to recruit people of color in Everett have increased the past few years, Templeman said. The department tasked an officer with focusing on recruitment full time. This has helped lead to a modicum of representation.

Of the 15 officers Everett has hired this year, nearly half are people of color, he said. But there is a ways to go, the police chief conceded. He said recruitment is tougher now than it has been in his three decades in the field.

“This is a process,” Templeman said. “You cannot change the demographics of a police department or of a company overnight. It takes time.”

To help, Everett has added half-a-dozen background investigators to more quickly assess an increasingly thin pool of applicants.

Everett also recently received a $60,000 grant from the state dedicated to recruiting and training women, as well as other candidates from underrepresented groups, Templeman said. That money will be used to produce a new recruitment video, offset entry-level testing costs that can be restrictive for low-income applicants and make visits to historically Black colleges and universities.

The grant follows a state law signed by the governor last year aiming to “encourage a broader diversity of candidates” to seek jobs in policing, according to a legislative report. The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously.

The Marysville Police Department has advertised on pop and talk radio, held recruiting forums and taken other measures to recruit, Cmdr. Adam Vermeulen said. The question is: “How can we advertise and get more people from different communities to apply and be a part of the process?”

The challenges are numerous. Vermeulen was recently on the phone with a Marysville School District employee. She explained to him the department needs to be clear about education requirements to get a more diverse hiring pool.

“Let people know that all we require is a high school diploma, so we can get more candidates in there,” Vermeulen said.

It’s all about reaching as many people as possible, a task many departments are working on locally. Marysville police, for example, have been trying to improve outreach to Latinx and Native American communities to increase representation, the commander said. Of 103 employees in Marysville, only one was Latinx and none identify as Native American. Meanwhile, about one in eight residents identify as Hispanic or Latinx.

‘Work in progress’

Lynnwood police Sgt. Joe Dickinson has helped hire over half-dozen new officers since June 2021. It’s a long process, he said.

A company called Public Safety Testing sends a list of candidates to the city’s Human Resources Department. HR then sends the top 20 test scores to Dickinson.

Those candidate profiles don’t give age, race or sex. Hiring staff only look at education, abilities and answers to a questionnaire. Dickinson said that “eliminates most possibilities of implicit bias.”

“We want everyone to have a fair and equal shot at this job,” he said.

Those who move on then get a polygraph test from a third party. Only after that do applicants get a face-to-face interview with command staff, including a member of the department’s race and equity committee. Only five to eight candidates make it to this stage each go around.

After that, they go through more testing and an interview with the police chief.

How to diversify the department is a big question for Dickinson. He wants people who want to be a “part of the change” in policing. And having a more representative department can build public trust, he feels.

Dickinson noted one recent instance when people involved in a car crash were having trouble communicating with police. Then an officer started speaking to them in Indonesian. The people were a bit surprised, but it helped the officer understand what happened. Over 38% of Lynnwood residents have reported speaking a language other than English at home, according to census data.

Dickinson knows the department can improve, and claims it already has, to get to this point.

“This is a work in progress,” Everett’s Templeman said. “It really takes commitment from your mayor, from our elected officials and from within the department to really institute the programs and put in the effort that it takes to diversify our workforce.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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