HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — For the past two years, 10 On Your Side investigations has revealed that Hampton Roads’ police department demographics don’t reflect their city’s makeup.
Community leaders say that needs to change. Police admit there’s a problem and say they’re trying to recruit minorities, but there are challenges.
In an interview rarely conducted this way, 10 On Your Side created a panel of African-American men and asked them why they don’t want to be law enforcement officers.
26-year-old Keon from Virginia Beach says, “They tell you don’t trust them.”
“Being told to watch out be careful, avoid those people, you wouldn’t want to be in those ranks,” says 22-year-old Tevin from Norfolk.
34-year-old Keion from Hampton says, “You don’t want to separate yourself from the community, only to join that community, and not be fully accepted over there either.”
One of the men on the panel says he has considered law enforcement as a career, but is conflicted.
37-year-old Kenneth from Suffolk says, “I do feel the same way. It’s a shame that we as black men get nervous if and when we do get pulled over. But I’ve also seen friends in a small city who certainly wasn’t a goody-goody growing up. She grew up. She became an officer and she’s still herself and still has the same circle of friends.”
They have different backgrounds, live in different cities and are different ages. The men on the panel are a microcosm of African-American men.
Tevin, 22, lives in Norfolk, but was raised in Portsmouth. Born to a teen mom, he is now a college student and marine reservist.
“Growing up, you get influenced by the people you are around a lot,” he said.
Keon, 26, is a married father of two who lives in Virginia Beach and works to help the homeless and uninsured with medical care. He said, “I never felt like they would ever help me.”
When asked why he didn’t want to be in law enforcement, Keion, 34, said, “I think it has to do with exposure initially.” He grew up traveling with his military family and is now a contractor at Langley.
Kenneth, 37, is a businessman who grew up middle class and now lives in Suffolk.
These men represent a group of people police chiefs are trying to recruit.
“I think it’s a challenge across the country,” Virginia Beach Police Chief Jim Cervera said.
The challenge is revealed in the numbers.
Two separate 10 On Your Side investigations, in 2015 and 2016, revealed that none of the seven Hampton Roads cities had officers that reflect the city demographics.
This year, stats show a similar trend. Most agencies made little or no changes in the number of African-Americans on the force.
Police Diversity Statistics 2015-2017
Chief Cervera says challenges in recruiting minorities are two-fold.
“I think one of the biggest challenges that we have is overcoming or at least acknowledging history and then working through that. The second big challenge in today’s environment is the constant visuals of social media of when a police officer has a situation, where force has to be used,” he said.
The men 10 On Your Side’s Brandi Cummings spoke to agree. They say history and the images of police brutality and officer-involved shootings of minorities — justified or not — have a profound impact on how they view the people sworn to protect and serve.
“It’s like you’re supposed to protect me, you aren’t supposed to harm me, you know. You’re not supposed to intentionally try to put me in a situation where that could even happen,” Keon, 26, said.
“It’s like they just kill us and go home and go on vacation. That’s how we see it,” said Keion, 34.
However, law enforcement is working to reach minorities.
In Virginia Beach, there are two new recruiting videos being shown in movie theaters. New recruiting posters better reflect diversity. They have a program to attract high schoolers to law enforcement and officers are recruiting during the annual college beach weekend. There are officers who even go to churches trying to recruit.
“We’re working hard, because we do believe that we should reflect our community,” Chief Cervera said. “I’d like to see the community step in and help the community in attaining that goal.”
“Someone doesn’t become a cop because of a poster. They become a cop because they realize the virtues of the job. They realize the importance of the job and they realize that individuals will step out and do things for people they’ve never met, they have no connection to and may never see again,” Chief Cervera said.
We shared with the men on the panel some of the outreach initiatives by local law enforcement but only one person had even heard about the community events.
Of a forum held by one police department Kenneth, 37, said, “To me, that’s not intimate enough.”
The men we spoke to believe there is a way to fix what’s broken.
“You’ve got to reach them. You’ve got to try,” Tevin, 22, said. “I think attacking the young thing is a good idea but that’s just a start. Once they start seeing the change in the younger people, I believe the other people are going to say, ‘OK, maybe this is a good idea. Maybe it’s not so hard to trust them.’”
“Something, somewhere where people can get to know each other,” Kenneth, 37, suggested.
“If the police department as a whole just attacked these real bad neighborhoods on a positive level I can almost certainly guarantee you’ll start making some changes,” Keon, 26, said.
Keion, 34, said, “It would help if you started and continued what you started with the school-aged children, and then carry it through middle school and high school so you don’t lose them.”
“You need something to balance what’s happening as far as the negative press that they’re getting. I say the first thing they need to do is mitigate the damage that these bad apples have caused in the eyes of the community,” Keion, 34, said.
“You’ve got to meet the people where they are. They need to put together some type of campaign where they put some dollars toward maybe recruiting somebody that we will listen to, who is of the community that we respect and we already hold to high regard,” Keion, 34, said. “Maybe you do need to have a concert by Pusha T or somebody from the area. Somebody who will make us notice that this is going on.”
We shared the idea of a concert with Chief Cervera. He told 10 On Your Side’s Brandi Cummings he would consider it.
“There are other ways to do it and we will start to look at some various ways. When you ask a 62-year-old guy what he thinks, it’s a certain way, but a 22-year-old man or woman may say, ‘hit me in a different direction’ and that’s what we’re going to look at,” Chief Cervera said.