GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly two years after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, law enforcement in Michigan is struggling to hire minority officers. This comes as police agencies across West Michigan are facing significant officer shortages.

“The officers are suffering. Most officers who work in law enforcement right now will not recommend their children or their grandchildren to work the job,” Allen Cox, the president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said. 

Out of 1,903 Michigan State Police officers, nearly 90% are white, according to MSP statistics. Just over 100 officers are Black — just under 6% — while 14% of the state’s population is Black, according to 2020 census data.

It’s an issue that Victor Ledbetter, the director of the Kalamazoo Law Enforcement Training Center, is seeing first-hand. 

“I’ve been here since 2018, and I have not graduated one Black female,” Ledbetter said. “Matter of fact, I haven’t had one Black female apply.”

He runs a “diversity week” during cadet training, which includes community members sharing their perspectives with recruits.

“This place will be filled with about 80 different people from the community who want to develop relationships with the cadets,” he said. “It’s a two-pronged process. It shows the community that not all white officers are racist, and it shows the cadets that not all Black people hate the police.” 

In the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, 7% of sworn-in deputies are Black and 7% are Hispanic.

“We’ve had some very determined efforts to increase our contact with potential people who might want to join the career,” Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said. “We’ve been doing this for a number of years. We’ve worked with the Grand Rapids Urban League, we’ve worked with the (Hispanic Center of West Michigan).” 

The sheriff also said the dialogue about increasing diversity in law enforcement needs to translate into action. 

“It needs to start focusing on how do we get community groups, neighborhoods, churches and families to start fixing the problem?” she said. “We have to dig very deep to help people we come into contact with in neighborhoods to know, we need people to go into the industry. Not just law enforcement, not just corrections, but public service in general.” 

Cox said that for law enforcement to create change, it will need to do some reflection. 

“When we ask someone to be the change they want to see, we should also take a mirror and hold it at ourselves and say we want to help to institute the change that we want to be,” he said. 

Robin Hornbuckle, the first vice president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said representation is what brings more people of color into policing.

“My cousin was an African American female,” Hornbuckle said. “She worked for Detroit. She’s what made me want to join. You have to be able to see yourself in those positions that are out there.” 

The issue goes far beyond our region, Hornbuckle said. 

“I don’t think this is a Wayne County problem, a Michigan problem; I think it’s an American problem,” she said. “We have an American policing challenge right now. In order to be able to get those people of color, those females, we have to actually want those people of color and want those females.” 

Elton Oliver, the second vice president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, added that since recruiters are predominantly white, bringing in minorities can be challenging. 

“You have a person coming in who’s recruiting, who’s part of law enforcement, who that group of people feel is oppressing them or standing on their neck telling them, ‘Come on and get on board,’” Oliver said. “Well, they’re thinking, ‘If I get on board with them, am I selling out? Am I selling out my fellow people who are being oppressed like me? Am I going to the other side?’”

He said Black officers should be a part of changing that narrative, too.

“Where the group of people are feeling like, ‘No, I’m not changing sides, I’m helping to bridge the gap,” he said. “I’m helping to change it for everyone so we can feel like we’re on the same team.’” 

It’s important for officers to come from the same neighborhoods that they police, Cox added. 

“Make the community feel at ease with the people who are policing the environment,” he said. “Therefore, they look to you as the guardian and not the occupational force. As we should be protectors, protectors of the people.” 

Dave LaMontaine, representing the Police Officers Association of Michigan, said that “if you live where you work, it changes how you work.” 

“This is an integral piece of this discussion,” he said. “The facts are we (LaMontaine, Cox, Oliver, Hornbuckle) lived where we worked. We saw the people we arrested in the grocery store. And that relationship doesn’t go away. All of us endeavor to treat people fairly without prejudice.” 

Many law enforcement agencies are struggling to hire new recruits, including the Kent County Sheriff’s Office as well. It is fully-staffed right now, but that hasn’t been easy. 

“When I first started to get involved with hiring, if we posted an opening for one or two deputies, we would literally have hundreds of applications,” LaJoye-Young said. “Now the ratio is, at best, two applicants for one spot.” 

Another cause of officer shortages: low pay, Hornbuckle said. 

“We’re some of the lowest-paid professionals,” she said. “Why would I go to college and get a $70,000 loan when I only start off at $25,000 a year? Whether you’re Black, white, purple or green, it doesn’t help that the money is not there.” 

“I have three sons,” Hornbuckle added. “All three of my sons, I would not allow them to come to the department.” 

“Neither would I,” Cox agreed. 

“Neither would I, with my sons,” Oliver said.