Janesville10.9°

As city diversifies, police department tries to follow

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Nico Savidge
September 7, 2013

JANESVILLE—The 2010 U.S. Census told many Janesville residents something they already knew: Their city was becoming more diverse.

Though white residents made about 89 percent of Janesville, the city's populations of Latino and black residents were growing—up to 5.4 and 2.6 percent of the city's population, respectively, and well over five times what they were two decades earlier.

A similar change wasn't reflected in the Janesville Police Department, however, where all but one of the department's sworn officers were white. One was Native American.

Since then, the department has hired two Latino officers: Benito Rocha joined the force in 2011, and Carmen Roche is in field training after being hired in February.

Roche, who grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to Milwaukee as a teenager, knew she would be just the second Hispanic officer in the department's history. But that made the job more attractive to her, she said.

“It feels good to be one of the few,” she said. “I can make a change in the community and be able to help with the translation, be able to help with everything else in the Spanish community.”

Police also have started outreach efforts to hear the concerns of Janesville's black and Latino residents with the goal of improving relations between cops and people of color—steps some organizers and Chief Dave Moore say are working.

Still, the department hasn't accomplished one of Moore's goals: Swearing in the city's first black officer.

Marc Perry, who helped form the city's African-American Advisory Committee in 2011, said it would be a symbolic step.

“You want your institution … to reflect the population,” Perry said. “You want to make sure that all populations that you serve are represented. That voice at the table, that different perspective, that different lens, is beneficial.”

RECRUITMENT NOT ALWAYS EASY

One of the biggest challenges to achieving that goal, Moore says, is that prospective black officers are highly sought after. Departments all over the country want to reflect their community's demographics, which means good candidates could choose to go elsewhere.

“An African-American officer that has the right educational prerequisites … can pretty much go wherever they wish,” Moore said, “and their first stop may not be the Janesville Police Department.”

Statistics on who applies for the department's jobs illustrate the issue—of the 293 people who applied to become Janesville police officers in 2010, 11 were African-American and 10 were Latino.

In 2012, there were nine African-American applicants, while the number of Latinos applying grew to 26, among 310 total applicants.

That's one reason the department is looking at a younger pool of potential applicants, Moore said, hoping to spark an interest in one day becoming an officer among students of color growing up in Janesville.

The department hopes to set up an Explorers program in the city's high schools this year, putting students on a path to a career in law enforcement through training and experiences with police officers, Moore said.

“We're putting our efforts into trying to contact those students that already are a part of our community and seeing if they would be interested in law enforcement,” he said. “Because their department of choice would probably be home.”

For the Madison Police Department, recruiting officers of color is seen as a process that starts even earlier, Sgt. Mike Koval said.

As one of the department's recruiters, Koval said he knows there's no “quick fix” to having a police department that's representative of the city it serves.

So the department's recruiting efforts involve trips to big cities in the region—from Minneapolis to Milwaukee to Detroit—along with outreach efforts to students as young as elementary school, Koval said.

Those programs can improve relations between police and students and possibly end with those students looking to join the department one day, he said.

“We believe in planting seeds at the earliest possible age,” Koval said. “We're in it for the long haul.”

Perhaps it's not a coincidence, then, that in Madison African-Americans represent a larger percentage of the police department (9.9 percent) than they do of the city's population (7.3 percent). Latino representation lags, but only slightly—5.5 percent of the department and 6.8 percent of the city.

Koval recognizes Madison enjoys a number of advantages Janesville doesn't: It's the second-largest city in the state, and it has a good recruitment base in UW-Madison.

Janesville, by comparison, is a smaller city with smaller black and Latino populations.

It's also a city for which race relations have at times proven a thorny issue, Moore admits.

“This whole issue is larger than just policework, and it's larger than just the Janesville Police Department,” Moore said. “It has to do with having persons of minority feel comfortable in this community.”

OUTREACH EFFORTS SUCCESSFUL

While having a black officer patrol Janesville's streets would be important and could help the department be more effective, Moore knows having a police department that's seen as being racially diverse goes beyond just one cop.

It's important to avoid “tokenism,” Perry said, in which a black officer is hired but little else is done.

The department as a whole must be committed to fair and unbiased policing—as Moore puts it, equal protection under law and equal application of the law.

“It goes much deeper than just having a person of color on the department,” he said.

With that in mind, Moore has overseen the creation of two committees designed to give Janesville's black and Latino residents a voice to their police department.

At meetings of the Latino Advisory Committee, for instance, Moore meets with school officials, community organizations, attorneys and church representatives to hear concerns brought to them by Latino residents.

“We realized that there was a need for some kind of structured outreach that we could do to … bridge that gap between the police department and the Latino community in Janesville,” committee co-chair Renae Bue said.

Asked if black or Latino residents brought up repeated issues with the police department's conduct—profiling or unfair treatment, for instance—Bue and Perry said they haven't heard them.

When someone complains to her about profiling, Bue said, she'll often talk with the person and realize it wasn't a matter of profiling, just someone who got pulled over for speeding or a broken tail light and wasn't happy about it.

The issues Perry hears about aren't so much with the police department, he said, but more reflect “quality of life” issues and lingering concerns about racism and discrimination in the community as a whole.

Moore said he has not heard about discrimination concerns or friction between the police and people of color in Janesville.

While police will keep up outreach efforts, Moore still is hopeful to have a department that better represents the city it serves.

Another chance is coming up—the department's next round of hiring starts later this year, with a new officer potentially coming on board in early 2014, he said.



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