LANSING — The Michigan State Police has made it a goal this year to recruit more women and people of color.
“We are trying to recruit diversity and that’s a challenge right now,” said Director Joseph Gasper. “We have to have positive engagement with communities to combat perceptions.”
And the department also is grappling with fewer applicants across the board — not just among minorities.
Of this year’s 73 recruits now training at the State Police Academy, 64 are white and nine are people of color. Only five are women. As of early January, 581 of its 1,825 enlisted members were white men, and only 198 self-identify as minorities.
“Law enforcement is more effective when it reflects its community,” said Billy Wallace, who is the director of criminal justice training at Grand Valley State University. “When you look at policing in America and the state of Michigan, it’s a white male-dominated profession. History tends to hurt us.”
“We’ve been working more with our local high school programs in Grand Rapids,” Wallace said. “We work very closely with the tech centers in our area and their criminal justice programs.”
Zoann Snyder began work in law enforcement in Arizona’s corrections department during her doctoral program in the 1980s. She now is director of criminal justice studies at Western Michigan University.
“When I looked at leadership, it was always white men,” Snyder said. “It was a different time. Now I am delighted to say that the criminal justice program here (at Western) has one of most diverse populations.
“You are starting to see more women and people of color in leadership positions across the state,” she said.
Snyder often places students in internships during their time at Western Michigan.
She said that when she helps students get experience, law enforcement agencies “want me to be aware that they are not looking for people like them, but are actively recruiting people of all kinds.”
The numbers highlight a common problem among police forces, not just in Michigan but across the nation. Full-time sworn employees nationally are 76% white, according to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C.
One major problem in recruiting a diverse police force in the past several years is a general struggle to interest young Americans in law enforcement careers.
Data from YourLocalSecurity.com says American police officers average $64,490 per year in annual salary. The same data shows Michigan’s law enforcement officers average $59,786 over the course of a year, almost $5,000 below the national average.
Joseph Ferrandino, who is director of Ferris State University’s School of Criminal Justice, said the decline in interest partly reflects a thriving economy.
Ferrandino said when the economy is struggling, more people are likely to enter the public service sector for jobs.
According to the PERF survey, 63% of respondents said applications for full-time positions at their agency had decreased compared to just five years earlier.
Ferrandino said a lot can be done to keep student interest in university criminal justice programs. Ferris students, for example, enter a four-year program that includes the final year in the training academy.
“The challenge is, with a program like ours, the way we are structured for a bachelor’s degree, things can happen between freshman and senior years,” Ferrandino said.
“The value in that (bachelor’s degree program) is we produce great officers.”
The PERF study says agencies commonly reported “special challenges recruiting minority, female and bilingual officers.”
Inspector Lisa Rish, who has been with the State Police for 25 years, said the department is widening recruiting efforts in ways it hasn’t previously done.
“We’re getting out to less traditional recruiting venues,” said Rish, who is head of the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “Cultural events, people of color or female-specific events instead of just traditional career fairs.”
Police agencies across the board are trying to recruit a more diverse set of applicants, but also are working against a negative national perception of law enforcement in general.
“Especially some of the friction with the minority population,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police Chiefs, who spent 37 years as an officer in Livonia. “It doesn’t make someone from that population want to join law enforcement.”
“They’re (State Police) doing everything they can,” Stevenson said.
But the problem, in Stevenson’s eyes, isn’t about the State Police’s efforts or lack thereof. The problem, he said, is funding and cutbacks.
“Because of cutbacks, very few police agencies can afford to send people to the academy,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said it’s hard to expect young adults to quit their jobs, enter the academy and then pay $5,000 to $6,000 to graduate and hope they get hired right away.
“One of the things our association would like to see is that the state would fund the training of law enforcement,” Stevenson said.