Despite New Recruiting Efforts, Cleveland Police Force Remains Mostly White

a recruitment flyer for the Cleveland Division of Police
Cleveland police have been on a recruitment blitz since the 2016 passage of an city income tax increase. [Cleveland Department of Public Safety]
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Cleveland’s Division of Police (CDP) continues to struggle to overcome a lack of diversity in its ranks.

It’s not a new problem.

In 1972, the Black officers’ association, Black Shield, successfully sued the city, claiming its hiring practices discriminated against minority applicants. The 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice requires that the city come up with a five-year recruiting plan focused on attracting more officers from minority groups.

Black city councilmembers, including Basheer Jones and Joe Jones, have pressed the department to make more progress in diversity recruitment efforts.

“I’ve been here for four years,” Basheer Jones said during the most recent hearings on the public safety department’s budget. “And we are still getting the same answers back that we have gotten in the first year. It’s the same.”

During a recent virtual town hall meeting on police reforms, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams defended the department’s recruitment efforts against those criticisms.

“Our academy classes probably over the last two-and-half to three years have probably been the most diverse classes that we’ve had in the last 20 years,” Williams said.

The city still has a way to go. In response to a public information request, the city provided demographic data from the last 17 recruit classes, going back to 2014. Of the 819 recruits who entered the academy during that time period, about 54 percent were white males and just 24 percent were Black.  

Based on department demographics provided by the city, Cleveland’s police force changed very little between 2016 and 2020 – it’s remained about two-thirds white and more than 80 percent male during those years, in a city that is 60 percent minority.

CDP is developing new ways to recruit diverse officers, like starting recruitment efforts with high school students and planning to establish a presence on TikTok.

But there are deeper challenges police recruiters face, including misperceptions about what policing is all about.

“When you give the message that we run and gun and you get to have dominion over others, these are the folks we attract,” said former Cleveland Police Sgt. Charmin Leon, who was in charge of recruiting for the city until September of last year.

According to Leon, maturity and emotional intelligence are the first things she looks for in a recruit. That’s why she recommends raising the minimum age for new hires to above 21.

“You can't get the right behavior from the wrong people,” Leon said. “Although sociopaths only make up 8 percent of the general population, you know what percentage they make up of policing? Forty percent.”

Leon attributed that national statistic to a psychological screening provider.

And on the flip side of attracting the wrong people in the recruiting process, Leon has also had to overcome Black Clevelanders’ deeply ingrained distrust of police, pointing to high-profile wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA evidence or videos of police shootings from recent years.

“Well, the thing is, as police officers, as law enforcement we brought that on ourselves. People feel that way because of how police have behaved in these communities. Let’s start there, ok? People aren’t saying that out of nothing,” Leon said.

But Leon tells recruits they’ll have allies in the department who agree that policing needs to change.

“People, when they see someone on the street in a uniform, they should be very confident that that person is an exceptional person for that position,” Leon said.

During her time leading the recruiting department, Leon increased the department’s presence in the community, courting candidates at places like barber shops and community centers. The non-white male proportion of recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020 crept up to around 50 percent.

As the head of Black Shield, the department’s association of Black officers, Sgt. Vincent Montague, argues getting to a number that’s more reflective of the city’s population would lead to a more empathetic department. And it would make it easier for potential applicants to see themselves as part of the force.

“Like when you go to a police event, you always hear the bag pipes,” Montague said. “That’s not African-American culture but that became a police culture. So maybe it would be something else that would identify more with the community.”

Part of his work with Black Shield is recruiting potential Black officers. But Montague bumps up against one cultural roadblock after another, like rules about hair length and beards.

“They’ll mess with Blackness, they’ll mess with Black women about our hair styles because they don’t understand our culture,” Montague said. “You have to shave your beard. That affects recruitment. Who has issues with razor bumps? It’s majority African-American men.”

Cleveland, like many police departments around the country, is also falling short in recruiting women. Only about 16 percent of the department is female.

“One of the most horrendous things in policing is most agencies are under 10 percent female and that is an atrocity,” said Chris Burbank, the former chief of police in Salt Lake City who’s now vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity.

According to Burbank, with all of the public interest in police reform and discussion about changing how policing is done, now is the time to rethink every part of policing.

“There is nothing that dictates you can't have part-time police officers, that you can’t have daycare in the station,” Burbank said. “There’s lots of avenues to make the job more inviting to career-level people.”

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