As the Los Angeles Police Department seeks to hire 1,000 additional officers over five years, recruiters are facing a particularly difficult challenge: attracting African American candidates.
That was clear last week when a team of African American officers working as recruiters attended a Police Commission meeting with 300 black residents in South Los Angeles.
The recruiters fanned out through the audience at the Prince Hall Memorial Auditorium, dispersing hiring information to those the right age to sign up and encouraging older residents to pass the brochures along to relatives.
Nobody in the audience signed up for the test to become a police officer, and when the floor was opened for public comments, speaker after speaker rose to complain about the department. Some said they had been harassed; others said they had not received sufficient protection from crime.
Yevetta Armstrong, 22, stood up to tell the commission that her brother had been shot to death recently by sheriff's deputies. The incident soured her on all law enforcement officers.
"I used to want to be a police officer, but now I'm just afraid of them," Armstrong said.
The relationship between the LAPD and the African American community has been strained for years by such incidents as the police response to the 1965 Watts riots and the 1991 police beating of Rodney G. King, an African American motorist.
The Christopher Commission, formed to examine the LAPD after the 1992 riots stemming from the King incident and the ensuing trial and acquittal of the officers involved, found significant mistrust of the police among blacks.
More recently, African American leaders criticized the LAPD after last year's fatal police shooting of Devin Brown, a 13-year-old who officers feared was driving at them with a stolen car after a traffic stop.
At last week's meeting, Lawrence Toliver told of attending a recent graduation at the Police Academy. He asked others in the audience to guess how many African Americans were in the class of police recruits.
"Zero," he said, before sitting down in disgust.
The latest graduating class of 39 recruits included four African Americans, LAPD officials said.
The tone of the meeting echoed a citywide survey commissioned by the city's Personnel Department in 2004. It found only about 39% of African Americans had a favorable opinion of the LAPD. And nearly 65% of black respondents said they would not want their son or daughter to join the department.
"We have to hit that head-on," said Cmdr. Kenneth Garner, an African American who is the LAPD's top personnel official.
Garner said he had increased the staff assigned to recruit blacks, adding that the African American officers make a point of describing their own good experiences in the LAPD.
Recruiters have approached leaders at dozens of predominantly black churches and community groups for help.
"This is something that this community can help us significantly with, bringing more minorities into the department," Police Chief William J. Bratton told the audience at last week's meeting. "We cannot do it alone."