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Despite efforts to increase diversity, local law enforcement remains largely male and white
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Despite efforts to increase diversity, local law enforcement remains largely male and white

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Lt. Horace Staples of the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department said he often gives the same advice to people of color who want to see a change in the way law enforcement operates: Join up.

“If you really want to change something you feel strongly about, you have to change it from within,” Staples said. “If you feel strongly about it, take the test.”

With a nationwide focus on racial bias in the criminal justice system in the wake of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, one issue has been the disparity between typically overwhelming White police forces serving communities with large percentages of minority residents. That disparity is apparent in Kenosha County as well.

In the city of Kenosha, 11% of residents are Black, but just 3% — seven of the city’s 207 police officers — are Black. About 7% of officers are Latino, compared to 17% of city residents.

Overall, the city’s police force is 89% White, while the city’s population is about 67% White.

For the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, which serves the county as a whole, 88% of deputies and sworn officers are White, compared to 75% of county residents as a whole. Three percent of the department’s officers are Black, 6.6% Latino.

Local law enforcement officials say they have attempted to increase diversity in their departments, hoping to see their departments reflect the communities they serve. But disparities remain.

Recruiting is key

Isaac Wallner, a lifelong Kenosha County resident, has organized several of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the community.

A 30-year-old truck driver, Wallner said he would like to see a number of changes to improve policing and the relationship between officers and the minority community.

Among changes, he said, are body cameras for all officers, a focus on community policing and more civic involvement between officers and the minority community.

“And definitely a push to employ a more diverse police department and outreaching to do that, trying to get people who are vested in the city of different ethnic backgrounds to come out and apply,” Wallner said.

Capt. Justin Miller of the sheriff’s department said recruiting officers in general has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement agencies, with the number of applicants overall declining.

“Twenty years ago, we would have to recruit once a year, maybe once every two or three years,” he said. “Now, we’ve gone to quarterly recruitment.

“It’s difficult in this profession and in this political environment to recruit anybody right now.”

When he applied for the department 18 years ago, there were 2,500 people in his recruitment class, with so many people taking the test required as the first step in the application process that they were given at a local high school.

Now, he said, they average about 400 applicants a year — with 96 applicants in the last quarterly recruitment drive.

“Obviously, I think all law enforcement agencies really need to look at recruiting not only minorities, but female candidates. The $100,000 question is how to do that,” Miller said.

“I think for communities across the United States it starts with trust. It’s community policing, to have people have the trust to want to work with us,” Miller said. “‘Trust’ is a big word for law enforcement.”

Inspector Thomas Hansche of the Kenosha Police Department said the city also has seen fewer applicants overall and has had to work harder to attract applicants, especially from the minority community.

“We don’t have any shortage of male White applications, so we try to focus those recruiting efforts on those people we are looking for,” he said.

Hansche said the department makes sure to include minority officers in its recruitment social media and in meeting people at job fairs and educational events. “If you have a female in a uniform and send her to a college recruiting fair, it speaks to young women who might be thinking about it as a career,” he said.

Gateway readies candidates

Miller said the sheriff’s department has not attempted to directly recruit minority candidates, but does attempt overall outreach at job fairs and at local schools and colleges.

If enrollment at Gateway Technical College is any indication, local Black and Latino students are interested in law enforcement careers.

Of students in the criminal justice program at the school, 14% are Black and 26.6% are Latino. There is a higher concentration of minority students in the criminal justice program than in Gateway’s overall student population.

Terry Simmons, dean of the school of protective and human services at Gateway, said the criminal justice program has historically had one of the most diverse student populations at the technical school.

Most of those students, he said, are at least considering going into law enforcement. Others are considering working in security, as probation officers or in corrections.

Simmons is not sure why there is a disparity between the number of minority students considering becoming police officers and those who make it a career.

“There are barriers,” he said, including the lengthy hiring process for police work. For some people, Simmons said, the written test is intimidating. Others are knocked out of the process because of a criminal conviction or driving records.

Miller himself teaches law enforcement classes at Gateway Technical College, and encourages students to apply.

The sheriff’s department is also working to encourage its detention staff, who work in the county jail and Kenosha County Detention Center, to apply as deputies.

“We don’t have any problem recruiting minorities for detentions,” Miller said.

Job candidates for the department who work for the county receive preference points in the application process.

“We have a part-time track (in detentions) where people can get part-time jobs while they go to college — they can really dip their toe in law enforcement and say, ‘Is that for me?’”

Serving the community

“Right now law enforcement is going through rough times, rough times,” said Officer Christopher Bonds, a patrolman with the Kenosha Police Department.

Bonds joined the department 11 years ago when he was 43 years old. Before becoming a police officer he had a career in the airline industry.

Bonds said he knows first-hand the frustration people in the African-American community have with police officers. He remembers, when he lived in Chicago before becoming a cop, being stopped and hassled by police when he was running to catch public transportation to work. He was considered suspicious as a Black person, although he was dressed in his work uniform.

“Black people for years and years and years have said how they have been mistreated by police, and the standard rebuttal or narrative to that was stop whining,” Bonds said. “Then these videos started coming out ... Black people have said for decades they were being mistreated. The videos show that.” Bonds said that problem is with law enforcement in general, not just White officers.

Bonds said he understands the Black Lives Matter protests, and gets frustrated with White colleagues who do not. “For them to not understand why Black people are upset, that blows me away.”

He said he also believes that with the increased scrutiny of police in the current environment, some officers are being unfairly punished for shootings that are justified.

Bonds said distrust of law enforcement is what makes it difficult to recruit minority officers. He said Black police officers also are sometimes viewed as “sell outs” by people in the Black community. Bonds said some of his own family members disapprove of his choice to be a cop.

But he said he believes that to improve, police departments need more minority officers, and he encourages young people he knows to go into law enforcement.

“It’s a dangerous job, but it’s a fulfilling and rewarding job,” Bonds said. “When a person walks up to you and they say ‘thank you for saving my life,’ you know, to me, that’s pretty cool. It makes you feel extremely good.”

Lt. Staples, who is Black, has worked for the sheriff’s department for 25 years, serving in nearly every role from patrol to public information officer to administration. He is currently serving as the county’s director of emergency management.

Staples said he thinks one barrier to minority hiring at the sheriff’s department is that Black and Latino job candidates may be concerned about working in western Kenosha County, where deputies concentrate patrol, and which is far less diverse than the city.

“There is a lot of apprehension to join a sheriff’s department that does have a lot of rural area to cover,” Staples said, adding that he and other Black officers sometimes face racism while out on calls.

“A lot of it comes from not being educated. Lots of times that might be their only encounter with a person of color. For the most part, people are people, and if you just treat them with respect and dignity, sometimes you get respect back.”

For those racists that deputies encounter, he said, handling those calls regardless is part of the job.

“We are in the job that we have to protect and serve everyone,” he said. “We don’t get to pick and choose.”

Staples said he feels law enforcement is a calling and a way to help the community, to help keep people safe.

“We have the role of community caretaker,” he said.

He said he sometimes faces criticism from people in the Black community for working in law enforcement.

“When that happens, I’m a little dismayed, a little bit hurt,” he said. “But I tell them, ‘If you feel strongly about, take the test.’ I just keep repeating it over and over and over again; I invite them to come take the test.”

May become a police officer

Wallner said he himself has long considered a career in law enforcement. He took criminal justice classes in college and classes to become an emergency medical technician.

He still thinks of becoming a police officer some day.

“To hate on all police officers, it’s not OK. They need to be here to help protect us. Yes, they need to do it right. But there are police officers who are out there taking a lot of heat,” Wallner said. ”It’s not that police officers are bad; there are just bad people who are police officers.”

But while Wallner said he thinks creating more diverse police forces is necessary in fighting bias in the system, he thinks that will be hard to do with the current environment where the minority community feels targeted by law enforcement.

“There’s a major separation between the police department and the minority community because of the systemic racism. I feel that, due to that, they’re not going to have many people of color that are going to go and apply for those jobs — because of the fear they have and the chip on their shoulder, rightfully so.”

COLLECTION: Protests around the Kenosha area this summer

There has been an explosion of protests in the Kenosha area in recent months.

Whether it be in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement officers, graduates who were facing no in-person ceremonies or various other issues, groups have taken to city and county parks and the Kenosha downtown's areas to voice their concerns on the social issues impacting the local community and the nation.

Here is the Kenosha News' coverage of protests, rallies, vigils and the plethora of other similar gatherings that have taken place in the local area since May 2020. 

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