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The Albany Police Department gets serious about recruiting minority officers

by Jason Chura on April 6, 2011 · 6 comments

Photos by Alicia Solsman

In years past, the racial diversity of the Albany Police Department, or lack thereof, has been raised as a priority issue just before the police exam. Like a fragile, degenerating antique, they poke it, lament its condition, and then put it away to be forgotten by police leadership, often before those taking the test have set their No. 2 pencils down.

The department spoke of hiring more minority officers in community meetings, but had no substantial action plan to do so. The slapdash fliers and offensive and sickly word of mouth campaigns that followed had predictable, dismal results.

A fundamental disconnect occurred between the Police Department and many of the communities it serves, especially minority communities; a rift formed of promises given little but lip service by the department in neighborhoods disillusioned by the organization. As communities’ trust in the department waned, so did the willingness of their residents to serve in a department that seemingly ignored them.

Today, the damage is tangible. If you peer into any police cruiser with “Albany Police Department” on the side of it, there is a 92-percent chance that there is a white face looking back at you.

Following a year of great strides in community relations under the direction of Chief Steven Krokoff, the APD is working very hard to ensure that this year the city sees a different outcome; one that brings an appreciable change to the racial makeup of the department. Chief Krokoff has openly committed to raising the number of officers of color in the Albany Police Department to better reflect the city’s roughly 30-percent-minority population, based on 2010 census data.

“To him it’s not just a good idea,” says activist and community policing advocate Vera Michelson. “By listening to him talk, you understand that he thinks this will make a more effective police department, a more effective force. It’s beyond a good idea; it’s how you have to conduct business.”

Building on the strength of a popular and successful community policing agenda, the APD has launched a massive, citywide effort to raise awareness of the upcoming police exam, as well as several programs designed to support candidates through the process of becoming an officer. With much of the community on his side, Krokoff is poised to lead the department to fulfilling his promise.

“We committed to working hard to create a department that accurately reflects the community that we serve,” says Albany Police spokesman Deputy Chief Stephen Reilly. “We recognize right now that that’s not true, that the department doesn’t accurately reflect the community that we serve, so we’re trying; we’re putting the word out. We’ve made it a priority, we’ve got the community involved, and we’re doing everything we can.”

The APD’s campaign has been a multimedia extravaganza compared to the flyer-based efforts of past years, including public-service announcements through Albany Broadcasting on Jamz 96.3 and Fly 92, a marquee banner on display at the Palace Theatre, recruiting events at Hudson Valley Community College, UAlbany and the College of St. Rose, as well as a recruitment poster that appeared throughout the city on billboards and on 25 Albany Yellow Taxis. The effort was also profiled on several radio and television stations.

As pervasive as the message has been, perhaps the most effective and most radical shift for the department was its decision to reach out to the communities within Albany for assistance. The APD put together recruitment packets and asked various community and political leaders spread the word to potential quality applicants.

“We have so many people going out to recruit for the Albany Police Department. . . . That has impact,” says Michelson. “That has people talking to each other, talking to their community groups, people starting new conversations with people, like, ‘Have you ever thought of doing this? This might be something you want to think about.’ The more people that you have outside of the police department doing something like this, the greater impact it has. It has an impact on promoting better relations with the police department and on trust building.”

Community activists and leaders were asked to approach people that they thought exhibited the qualities they would want in a police officer. The response was very positive.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk in the community, which is something that you generally don’t hear,” says Wanda Willingham (D-District 3). “So this is a totally different perspective that people are taking with regards to trying to recruit African-Americans to join the police force. I think their efforts have been pretty good. I can’t complain.”

Also recruiting for the APD were Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin and members Lester Freeman (Ward 2) and Barbara Smith (Ward 4), among many other citizens and activists, especially those with influence in minority communities.

“This is very different because there have been community meetings with the police department,” says Michelson. “They’ve sought out people who they knew would be aggressive in seeking out candidates; they didn’t just rely on a few people. They’ve talked to people about why they think this effort is important.”

In addition to fueling conversation about the police department, the recruiting effort has also presented an important opportunity to people that would have never before envisioned themselves as police officers. Irene Lyons is such a person. Originally from Michigan, 34-year-old Lyons moved to Albany 12 years ago. She lives in North Albany with her two little girls, ages 2 and 4, and works at the state offices through a temp agency.

Lyons had never considered being a police officer, and probably never would have were it not for a recruiter from South End Development.

“She really encouraged me to fill out the application and go for it,” says Lyons. “She sees potential in me. So, I’m going to join up.”

Now, Lyons looks forward to the opportunity to have a steady job and more money to take care of her family. She is getting more comfortable with the idea of being a police officer as well.
“I know this may be a textbook answer, but I believe in fighting for what’s right.”

There are a finite number of positions that candidates will compete for; the actual number is not known due to the frequency of retirement notices and retractions. The civil service exam is only the first of several evaluations that a potential candidate must pass. The department requires a physical and medical examination, a psychiatric evaluation, and an agility test—and of course, there’s a job interview.

“In order to get 10 qualified candidates, you have to canvass at least 100 people,” says Reilly. “Not everybody passes that series of exams, so you start to whittle yourself down pretty quickly with potential candidates. At any stage of that process, a person could find themselves excluded.”

In an outside-of-the-box effort to help candidates better move through the evaluation process, the APD launched a mentoring program that pairs current police officers with candidates to serve as their direct link to the department. These mentors keep in touch with candidates, relay important information, provide guidance, and are available to answer any questions their protégé may have.

Mentors will continue to assist the candidates following the exam and serve as a means to keep them involved with the department while they wait to receive their test scores or to find out about employment; normally that’s several months’ wait with little communication from the department.

The department is also offering two exam-preparation courses in mid-April just before the test. These courses are free for anyone registered to take the exam. In the course, participants will learn how to take a civil service test, as well as develop test-taking strategies with the hope of alleviating anxiety about the exam.

Such support from the department is unprecedented.
No data exists on where exactly minority candidates have fallen out of the police hiring process in the past, largely due to the department not recognizing the need for such data until recently. With no information on which evaluation might be historically vexing to potential new hires, it is difficult for interested parties within the department and in the community to help prepare candidates to overcome the roadblocks that have led to past failures.

“Taking the test does not guarantee that a person is going to get a job,” says Corey Ellis, former Common Council member and mayoral candidate. “Taking the test is not the only issue; it’s understanding the whole process, being able to look at where it’s been failing to see where it is that minorities have been failing. Maybe it’s the agility test, maybe it’s the interview. All of that is data that needs to be collected if we are serious about having minorities in our police department. We don’t even know if they’re getting past the initial interview because no one keeps that data.”

With data comes transparency; an especially important asset in what some consider the cronyism capital of the Northeast.

“The history of Albany has always been political,” says Ellis. “People would say if you want to be in the police department or fire department, then work on a mayoral campaign and then take the test. That’s been the backdoor good-ole-boy network. Concrete data helps prevent this.”
Reilly was unsure of any specific plans to collect such data, but stated that doing so would be characteristic of Chief Krokoff’s agenda.

“Chief Krokoff wants to track and measure all of our processes,” says Reilly. “We want to know where potential quality candidates are dropping out of the process so that we can help and maybe correct that.”

The support that the recruitment effort has garnered shows a drastic shift in the perception of the department. Under former Chief James Tuffey, who retired in September 2009, communities dealt with unpopular decision after unpopular decision, according to Ellis.
“When we talk about building relationships between the police department and the community, the last administration continued to get it wrong,” says Ellis. “They would listen, Chief Tuffey would continue to come to meetings, the community would say one thing, and he would do another. That was the problem.”

Tuffey closed the Arbor Hill police station when Arbor Hill had the highest crime rate in the city despite “overwhelming public support” to keep the station open. Tuffey also did away with beat cops, again ignoring public sentiment, according to Ellis.

“There was no real dialogue between the department and the community, so there was always a sense that the department was an authority figure and not a figure that’s trying to partner up with the community. I believe that’s why we’ve had problems where the community would not speak up about crimes or report to the police department,” says Ellis.

It’s easy to see why a community that has little trust and almost no relationship with its police department would be less than eager to join it. According to Ellis, this is why previous recruitment efforts failed.

“I think that there has in the past been a lack of communication with the community, with all aspects of the community,” says Reilly. “We do it our way, the police department’s way whether anybody else likes it or not and that’s just not the way we’re doing business now. We recognize that in order to provide quality service and meet the needs of the people in our communities, that their input is critical. That’s part of the reason we’re working so hard. We recognize that developing a good relationship, a real give and take, is the only way that we can be successful.”
For many, Krokoff represents a new hope. When he was running the department as Deputy Chief following Tuffey’s sudden retirement, Krokoff brought back the beat cops, a gesture that showed he was different than his predecessor. Just before his appointment to chief, Krokoff summed up his philosophy while addressing the Common Council:

“We have long held an ‘us and them’ mentality in this police department, similar to the ‘us and them’ mentality that’s held in the community,” Krokoff said. “Breaking down those barriers is my job.”
The response to the APD’s call for public assistance in recruiting shows that Krokoff’s community oriented approach to policing the city has done just that; reunited the city with its estranged Police Department to mutual benefit.

“The community said they wanted community policing, the community said they wanted beat cops, so the new chief came in and figured out how to make it happen,” said Ellis. “That’s the difference.”

In several months, candidates from this round of recruitment will be sworn into service by Mayor Jerry Jennings. Later, they will graduate from the Zone Five Law Enforcement Academy and, budget permitting, begin their careers as full-fledged police officers. Irene Lyons may be among them.

Perhaps some of these new officers will be of minorities; perhaps none of them will.
The success of a recruitment effort such as this cannot be measured fairly after one season. It will take a continuous effort on the part of the department and the community to effect real change in the city police force.

“There’s a change in attitude on the leadership’s part about really actively not just saying it, but showing that they’re actively trying to change the makeup of the police department,” Ellis says. “I believe Chief Krokoff is the first chief to ever say that he wants to increase it based on the percentage of people in the city of Albany.”

In the short term, the APD has been successful. Last year, about 400 people took the exam. This year, the department estimates that well over 1,000 people will take the test at the end of April. The actual number of minorities will not be known. Anecdotal evidence alone will show how effective the department’s recruitment program has been at drawing minority candidates. Though it may not be this year, as the department continues to shift its image in the community’s eye, the Albany Police Department will move closer toward its goal of a racially representative police force.

“I think that in a very short period of time, we’re making great strides, and the reason for that is that the public can see that we’re actually doing what we said we were going to do and we’re not doing it behind closed doors, we’re doing it right out in the open and we want people to be a part of it,” Reilly says. “We’ve taken the egos and put them in our back pocket. This is about serving. That’s what our function is and that’s what our priority is: to provide the best service possible. ”