On Thursday, another 30 cadets joined the ranks of the Chattanooga Police Department, but the department, like most law enforcement agencies, still has recruiting headaches when it comes to applicant numbers and diversity.
A full two-thirds of this latest round of cadets are white men who will be joining a pool of officers that overwhelmingly looks a lot like they do. According to numbers from October, provided by Chattanooga police, 358 of the department's 488 officers are white men — 73 percent.
The man in charge of department recruiting, Sgt. Joe Shaw, said boosting the number of minority applicants is one of his highest priorities, but there are a handful of barriers that must be overcome. He said he took over his current position a few months ago and since then he's seen that part of the battle is the public's perception of the department and law enforcement in general.
"I got the sense that there might be a misconception in the general public that the police department maybe does not really want minority applicants," he said. "We're trying to get the word out there more that not only is that a false narrative, but we actually need more minority applicants badly, because it's important to us to reflect the demographics of our citizenship."
(as of October 2017)
American Indian: 3
American Indian: 0
Source: Chattanooga Police Department
In order to counter that, the department implemented several new policies and procedures under former Chief of Police Fred Fletcher that have continued under current Chief David Roddy. Those are designed to increase the number of interactions between police and the public and develop community relationships.
(including some who left and returned months later)
2017 (thru October): 31
Source: Chattanooga Police Department
One such initiative has been holding neighborhood front porch lineups, which are briefing sessions for officers starting their shifts. Members of the public host the routine meetings and have an opportunity to engage with the officers who patrol their neighborhoods.
"I think people tend to believe those [misconceptions about police] when they don't have a personal experience to fall back on," Shaw explained. "People are going to continue seeing the negativity on social media and even mainstream media directed at police, but when they have a personal experience with police officers, that will override those things."
The department is also toying with financial incentives to attract minority applicants. Last year, the Each One Reach One program was introduced in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to pay $500 to anyone who refers a minority candidate who comes and trains to be an officer.
"We just paid out for five cadets that came to our latest academy through the Each One Reach One program," Shaw said. "There's plenty of money left."
Cash incentives aside, Shaw said having a conversation and following up with potential applicants is one of the most effective methods for boosting recruit numbers. In October, he and several other officers gathered a list of minority applicants who had either not shown up for testing or who had failed testing and chose not to retake it and called them.
"We made 435 phone calls during that time, and we actually spoke on the phone with 116 people, and then we had several callbacks on top of that. We probably reached close to 150 people," he said.
Maintaining a steady stream of recruits is essential to counterbalancing an average attrition rate of three or four Chattanooga police officers a month who are leaving for other departments, changing careers or retiring. Shaw has worked to ensure there are two police academies every year of 20-25 officers in order to keep the force around 500 officers, but that total fluctuates.
"We never really stay at 500. Once we reach 500, we quickly start to drop. My goal is by having two academies a year we can keep that number from dropping below 475," he said.
Keeping recruitment numbers up can be difficult, especially amid national conversations about the responsibilities of law enforcement that have been stoked by videos of police shootings and false arrests.
2016 (first academy): 26
2016 (second academy: 27
2017 (first academy): 22
2017 (second academy): 30
Don Gorman, director of administration for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, said those conversations, paired with lagging salaries and the nature of the job, have had an impact on applications.
"It's tough recruiting right now, I'll tell you. There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in joining law enforcement right now," he said.
The sheriff's office faces many of the same recruitment and retention challenges as the Chattanooga Police Department does, but with the added responsibility of maintaining and staffing the jail, which is where most newbies start. Applicants have to commit a year to the corrections facility before having a shot at patrol.
"We try and recruit into the jail to keep the jail staffed first of all and then give the people in the jail first shot at going on the road. We don't hire anybody right off the street to work patrol," he said. "Keeping people in there is very difficult. It's depressing and you're working with the worst of the worst."
Adding to the challenge, Gorman said, is the increasing difficulty the office has had in finding viable candidates who meet minimum state standards. He said plenty of applicants are non-starters because of a requirement that disqualifies anyone with a criminal record.
"Any person employed as a jail administrator, jailer, corrections officer or guard in a county jail or workhouse shall not have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, or entered a plea of nolo contendere to any felony charge or to any violation of any federal or state laws or municipal ordinances relating to force, violence, theft, dishonesty, gambling, liquor, controlled substances or controlled substance analogues," the requirement reads.
"That takes out probably about 50 percent of our applicants right there," Gorman said. "You can't make people apply for positions, but when they do, the rules are very strict."
Such applicants can qualify for pre-employment waivers granted by the Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control, but that adds weeks onto a process that is already months long. Applicants to the sheriff's office have to undergo 12 weeks of training at a facility outside Nashville before they can start.
"We provide them transportation and they can come back on Saturdays and Sundays, but if they've got young ones or loved ones at home, it can be a little difficult," Gorman said.
The agency has been looking at ways to streamline and speed that process, including working with the police department to expand its academy into a dual academy that could accommodate the training needs of both agencies, a step that could offer a partial solution.
However, in the long term, comprehensive answers to law enforcement recruitment will likely involve a variety of measures targeting different procedural shortcomings. Michael Baskin, chief policy adviser for the city of Chattanooga, has been working with police to figure out what some of those answers are, and he said finding them is a matter of experimentation.
"I think the more and more that the police department can uncover for [itself] what works, that's where we win," he said. "That means figuring out along the way, 'Where are the places where we're losing applicants? Where do we not have enough applicants?'"
A $42 million national initiative called "What Works Cities" organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies helped solve part of that equation — city officials and the police department worked with behavioral scientists through the initiative to fine-tune recruiting efforts.
Various postcards with different messages encouraging residents to apply to the department were distributed to a randomized group of 10,000 homes, and when all was said and done analysts were able to determine those cards emphasizing career benefits and the challenges of the job drew appreciably more minority applicants.
"Because we knew who we sent those postcards to, we could see who applied because of the postcards and who might not have applied otherwise," Baskins said. "It's about building our muscles to figure out what works. We don't know, so we just have to test."
"We know we have to get better, and the only way to get better is one step at a time."
Anyone who knows someone who might be interested in applying to be a member of law enforcement or would like to apply themselves can find more information about the Chattanooga Police Department at chattanooga.gov and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office at hcsheriff.gov.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.