By Donovan Dooley
It’s no secret that law enforcement and Black communities haven’t had the smoothest of relationships.
Police forces across the country have for decades harassed, abused and wrongly arrested a plethora of Black people in this country’s history, leading to a level of distrust between many Black people and law enforcement.
Considering that harsh truth, there have been efforts made over the years to change the trajectory of this relationship including an increase in diversity measures. But on a macro level, the same issues still exist.
Now, in Cleveland, the Department of Public Safety is turning to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to fill positions in law enforcement in a possible effort to decrease racial tensions in their communities.
“Many of the scholars who are graduating from HBCUs are the products of the communities where we are needing people to actually serve,” said Cleveland City Councilwoman Stephanie Howse according to IdeaStream. “There is a learning curve that wouldn’t need to be reached.”
Last October, recruiters from the Cleveland Department of Public Safety were at Central State University, Ohio’s only public HBCU, and were pitching jobs to HBCU students.
According to reports from the New York Times, Police departments across the country have had trouble recruiting and retaining officers of color. The murder of George Floyd, in addition to the historical tensions between law enforcement and these communities, has led to significant problems in minority recruitment for a sector that desperately needs to understand the communities they serve.
“I believe HBCUs can serve as a gateway,” said President Ericke Cage, president of West Virginia State University. “We can help get to that model of 21st-century policing. It is one that is inclusive, and one that inspires trust and confidence on all sides of the equation.”
While HBCUs have the resources and talent to help bridge this gap, the societal factors involved don’t make this an easy fix for police departments.
Many Black students who are interested in law enforcement may be challenged both internally and externally because of how the criminal justice system has impacted Black and Brown people throughout history.
Charles Adams, professor, and chair of the criminal justice department at Bowie State University said that officers of color are “often challenged to pick a side” and have to “toe the line in minority communities.
“You’re either blue, or you are Black,” said Adams.
Brenda Bickerstaff, an activist with Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, a group calling for more police oversight said that recruiting HBCU talent may not be the resolution that these departments think that it is.
“A person coming from an HBCU may have the best of intentions, but once a person becomes a part of the police department here in Cleveland, they normally go along to get along because they want to be a part of the blue,” said Bickerstaff.
Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond said, “It is not just about race, it is about having people who have diverse and lived experiences.” Drummond also mentioned that the city is doing work to engage with Ohio’s two HBCUs but Drummond would like to see that relationship expanded.
The need for more people who look like us in this space is evident but the nuance of the relationship between Police forces and Black communities can create a slower integration.
Police entities should focus on continuing to build a stronger relationship with Black communities and with HBCUs in order to start slowly seeing progress in racial tensions.