African-Americans might not look kindly on an officer, a local Black police officer said, even one who looks like them.
As an African-American kid growing up in Harlem, Ben Yisrael became interested in law enforcement as he watched police chase muggers and catch criminals.
But some family, friends and acquaintances were worried or just didn’t like his interest in crime fighting.
“Just the the challenges that I would deal with,” Yisrael said about their concerns. “The challenges with racism, and it wasn’t just with white folk. It was all the way around.”
African-Americans might not look kindly on an officer, he said, even one who looks like them.
“They may be of the opinion that I’m a sell out or Uncle Tom, because I’m with the Police Department,” Yisreal said.
But Yisreal became an officer just the same. He is now a captain at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.
The captain is among a small fraction of minority officers and deputies in most local police departments. The low number of minorities in police departments in Volusia and Flagler counties in comparison to the populations they serve has always been a problem. Stepped up recruiting efforts in recent years have failed to improve the overall situation.
In Volusia and Flagler counties, 8.82 % of deputies and police officers are African-American while African-Americans make up 11.4 % of the combined population of 668,365 people in the two counties, according to the U.S. Census.
There are no African-American police chiefs or sheriffs in Volusia or Flagler counties, but a Black man is running for sheriff. Retired Flagler County detective Larry Jones is challenging Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly in the Nov. 3 general election.
Jones said minority representation in law enforcement is critical for all agencies. He stressed that Black officers have to have advancement opportunities.
“Twenty years ago, you would’ve never seen a Black man running for sheriff in Flagler County,” he said. “It’s a very important issue nationwide with all that’s going on today. And nothing really has been done about it. So we’ve got to make a change.”
Recruiting falls short
Volusia sheriff’s Capt. Yisrael said he sometimes hears complaints about law enforcement from other African-Americans, but often he can explain a situation and the person complaining gains an understanding of an action taken.
“This cop treated me wrong or he could have treated me a different way,” Yisrael said he hears people say. “And when we talk it through, I realize it wasn’t harassment. The officer was just doing his job. They may not be happy with the outcome but they have a better understanding of why the scenario went the way it went.”
The perspective of African-American officers may be needed more than ever as protests roil the nation after the killing of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, died after a now-fired Minneapolis white police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The former officer, Derek Chauvin, is now facing murder and manslaughter charges. The incident was recorded on citizen video.
Despite that needed perspective, African-American officers and deputies still only represent a small fraction, often in the single percentage digits, of most departments.
Some departments in recent years have more successfully recruited minorities than others. But overall, racial breakdowns in local police departments have not changed much in the past six years. That’s the last time The News-Journal examined sworn-officer rosters following the tumultuous summer of 2014 when Black man Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off weeks of riots and protests around the nation.
Brown was killed three weeks after a police officer choked another Black man, Eric Garner, to death on a New York City sidewalk during an arrest over illegal cigarette sales.
Some law enforcement leaders say efforts to add minorities to police forces won’t get easier in the near future with the anti-police sentiment across the country sparked by Floyd’s killing.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 had 17 African-American deputies representing 3.7 percent of its force. Today, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has improved with 25 African American deputies representing 5.9 percent of its 420 sworn law-enforcement officers.
African Americans make up about 11 percent of Volusia County’s 553,284 residents. That percentage has not changed in six years.
African-American interest dropping
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said it’s been difficult to attract African Americans to the badge locally in his past 14 years, four as sheriff and 10 as police chief in Daytona Beach.
“The number of African Americans who take the certification exam has dropped every year despite our recruiting efforts, despite our scholarships, despite everything that we are doing,” Chitwood said.
The biggest challenge, he said, is there just aren’t enough African-Americans in the hiring pool. One reason is the one cited by Yisreal: African-Americans are sometimes discouraged from putting on a badge and returning to police their communities. Some are discouraged by family or friends who have had negative encounters with police.
Another reason is that there aren’t as many African-Americans taking the state test that qualifies people to be hired by police agencies.
In 2019, about 4,900 people took the state exam to be certified as a law enforcement officer. Passing the exam does not make a person a law enforcement officer but does qualify them to become one if a police agency hires them.
Chitwood said 555 African Americans became eligible upon taking the test and there are 367 police agencies in the state of Florida, or about 1.5 applicants per police department.
“There is no way you’re ever going to diversify in a thousand years if you can’t figure out a way to drive up the numbers of African Americans entering law enforcement,” Chitwood said.
Chitwood said he has reached out to the churches, to the NAACP, Bethune-Cookman University and has held job fairs in hopes of attracting African-American police.
Lack of trust and confidence
Distrust in police can keep minorities from joining law enforcement, said Maria B. Velez, an associate professor in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland.
“Potentially, the argument would be why would people join an organization that they don’t have any confidence in or less confidence,” Velez said.
Velez’s research has found that communities function better if their local elected officials and police departments are representative of their communities.
“If you have a larger share of Black and Hispanic officers in the police departments, that will encourage more trust in neighborhoods in the police and government,” Velez said in a phone interview.
“It sends a signal that the city is listening to the potential grievances of people who are marginalized, in this case African Americans and Latinos, about how policing and more generally how government is done,” Velez said.
Yisrael, 44, has been with the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office for 17 years. He said law enforcement got his attention when he was young.
“It’s something that I always wanted to do,” Yisrael said. “I was born and raised in New York City and I saw a lot of police activity and it was exciting to me as a child.”
He said he has no issues with recent peaceful protests against police in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“I’m all for protests,” Yisrael said. “That’s one of our rights in America, freedom of speech. We get out here and express our concerns with peaceful demonstrations. Nothing’s wrong with that. And here in Volusia County, I haven’t seen any issues. Everyone is doing it pretty well.”
Yisrael said peaceful protests and contacting local and congressional leaders is the way toward change. Volusia County is ahead of the curve when it comes to law enforcement working with the community, he added.
“I think we’ve made preparations for this climate,” Yisrael said. “We started working on this years ago and I think because we started working on this years ago it put us in a better place to deal with what’s going on now. Our situation isn’t perfect but it’s a whole lot better than other places are dealing with.”
’Bridge the gap’
Daytona Beach Police Chaplain Monzell Ford, who is African American, was also interested in becoming a police officer when he was growing up in Los Angeles. But he was discouraged from doing so by the community perception of police, he said.
Instead, he took an opposite path. He joined a street gang, the Crips. He ended up getting shot. He said a couple police officers took the time to convince him to take a different path in life.
“I think quite a few people are actually uncomfortable on how they would be perceived in today’s world if they put on a badge,” Ford said.
But it’s important to keep working to recruit more African Americans, he said.
“The more African Americans you have patrolling and policing in predominantly African-American communities, it will be a better feel and you will be better able to bridge the gap,” Ford said. “Because then you will at least have, quote-unquote, one of us. And if there would be a problem, you wouldn’t be able to say it was racism anymore.”
The Daytona Beach Police Department has made recruiting a priority, and is doing better than other local agencies in bridging that gap.
In 2014, Daytona Beach Police had 28 Black officers making up 13.3 percent of its force. It now has 58 African-Americans, representing 19.6 percent of its 295 officers. The city’s percentage of African-Americans has remained steady at 35 percent.
Police Chief Craig Capri said the department has a former law enforcement officer whose sole job is to recruit.
“It’s hard to recruit officers in general with what’s going on around the country,” Capri said. “But we’ve been successful, I think, because we’ve really focused our efforts on it.”
He said there are plenty of places to look for candidates locally, including Bethune-Cookman — a Historically Black College or University — Daytona State College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The location between military bases in Jacksonville and Brevard County is also helpful, Capri said. Plus, Daytona Beach has brand-recognition as a place to go.
The department also has an African-American second-in-command in Deputy Chief Jakari Young. Young, who Mayor Derrick Henry has touted to become police chief when Capri retires later this year, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Capri said that he is proud of the diversity in his agency. But he said it’s a challenge to maintain.
“It’s a small number that we have to fight for to get,” he said.
Capri also said he expects recruiting of minority officers will become more difficult, at least in the near future.
’All-out attack on law enforcement’
“I think in general you are going to see a lot less people putting in for law enforcement jobs based on what is going on around the country and in the media,” Capri said.
The chief called events in the wake of Floyd’s killing “an all-out attack on law enforcement.”
On Volusia County’s west side, DeLand Police Department is much smaller than either Daytona Beach or the Sheriff’s Office and its 8% of Black officers falls some where between those.
But DeLand has improved over the years. In 2014, three of DeLand’s 64 police officers were African-American, meaning 3% African-Americans patrolling a city where 17% of its 27.031 residents were African-Americans.
Today, the city’s population has grown to 34,851, but its share of African-American residents has decreased slightly to 15.6 %, according to the census. The police department currently has 61 officers, five of whom are African American.
Police Chief Jason Umberger wrote in an email that the numbers are an improvement from three years ago when his agency only had one African-American officer. He said the department is working to recruit “the best qualified people who reflect the face of our community and are in need of some new officers.”
Six DeLand police recently quit to take other jobs.
Umberger wrote that some prospective officers don’t make it through training while others decide the career is not for them. He wrote that others leave the department for opportunities at larger agencies with better pay.
Departments with no Black officers
Five departments in Volusia and Flagler counties don’t have any African-American officers: South Daytona, Holly Hill, Lake Helen, Flagler Beach and Bunnell.
In 2014, Holly Hill Police had one African-American among its 25 officers. That one officer meant the percentage on the force of African-Americans was 4%. The officer patrolled a city of 12,119 at the time when 1,087 or 9% of residents were African-Americans.
Holly Hill has now grown to 12,357 residents and, according to the U.S Census, its African-American population has increased to 2,421 or 19 percent. But the city now does not have any African-Americans among its force of 26.
Police Chief Steve Aldrich wrote in emails that he is currently accepting applications to fill an anticipated vacancy. He works with Daytona State College to find applicants.
“We have hired a diverse workforce, but being a small agency it is historically difficult to attract applicants, particularly African American applicants,” Aldrich wrote. “We have employed African American officers in the past, but they have each left our agency to explore employment opportunities or larger police agencies.”
Tom Foster, Bunnell’s police chief, said the lack of African-American officers in his department is not for lack of effort. Bunnell does not have any black police officers.
Foster tries to recruit at area colleges, but it’s an uphill battle. His department’s starting salary of about $38,000 is one of the lowest in the region.
Bunnell has a sizeable Black community that makes up over 20 percent of the city’s population. But Foster said it’s not fertile ground for recruitment as there’s little interest locally to join the force.
“It’s a national problem,” said Foster, who’s been Bunnell’s police chief since 2014. “I’ve been fighting for cops since I became chief here. It’s getting harder and harder.”
Competition is fierce as law enforcement agencies near and far scrap for qualified candidates. Foster said he’s competing with agencies like the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which offers new hires a salary that hovers around $50,000 along with signing bonuses that range between $1,500 and $2,500.
“I’m frustrated,” he added. “I’m frustrated we can’t get good folks. I’m frustrated I can’t get any African American men and women here. But I cannot compete with the bigger agencies who are offering more money to these young men and women than we can.”
Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney said smaller departments like his, which has 15 officers and has been approved to two more, have infrequent vacancies, sometimes once every two years. Flagler Beach has zero black officers.
Doughney also said Flagler Beach, like other smaller departments, don’t have as many specialized units as larger agencies, like a K-9 unit or narcotics unit. Flagler Beach does not have a SWAT team but one of its officers is on the Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, he said.
“A lot of people are looking for that they want to be on a SWAT team or on a motorcycle unit, ” he said.
Flagler County Sheriff’’s Office dwarfs the other two police agencies in that county.
Cmdr. David Williams is one of 20 African-American deputies and Williams is working to increase that number. He has helped with recruitment for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office since 2008. It’s been one of his primary focuses over the past two years.
He goes to job fairs and visits campuses like Florida A&M University and B-CU once a year. But he said he hasn’t seen high interest from students at historically black colleges and universities.
“A lot of young Black people are not interested in law enforcement,” he said. “So how do you recruit minorities to be cops if they’re not interested in it? They’re not taking the classes in college. They don’t even come to our table.”
Some say they are deterred by the pay – the starting annual salary for Flagler County deputies is around $42,000.
That is similar to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office where a help-wanted ad on its website said the starting pay for a deputy was $41,709. Daytona Beach Police pays a starting officer $40,367 and Orange City Police pays $40,710.
Others have told Williams they feel like they would be hated in their community if they join law enforcement. Some seem uninterested in working years as patrol officers before rising to detectives or K9 deputies.
Larry Jones spent 30 years working for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and rose to the rank of sergeant before he said his career reached a glass ceiling. He upset former sheriff Jim Manfre, then an incumbent, in the 2016 Democratic primary before losing to Staly in the general election.
Jones said the solution to the recruiting more Black officers is starting early. His plan is for school resource officers to mentor elementary schools students who show interest in law enforcement.
“Keep them on the right track and get them involved as much as you can,” he said. “And when we do that, once they get to high school we put them in the academy and we’ve got a good candidate because it’s in his heart. That’s what he wants to do.”
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office had 136 sworn deputies in 2014. Eight of them were African-American. Black officers made up 5.8 percent of the ranks.
Blacks made up about 11.4 percent of the county’s population then. But in the six years since, three statistics have grown.
’More work to be done’
Flagler County’s overall population has swelled more than 15 percent, per U.S. Census estimates. The number of sworn officers has increased to 224. And the percentage of Black deputies – 8.9 percent – has risen closer to that of the county’s overall population.
Census records show 10.7 percent of Flagler County’s 115,000 residents are Black.
In a written statement, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly indicated he “has made it a top priority to have a workforce that is educated and reflects the community.”
The sheriff said he’s hired 21 minority officers since taking office in 2017 and sought the help of the NAACP and Bethune-Cookman University in recruiting more Black officers. Staly noted he’s also nurtured an internship program at B-CU, the Daytona Beach historically Black university.
“The sheriff continually emphasizes that a workforce that mirrors our community is significant,” his letter stated. “The FCSO is working to accomplish this through utilizing best practices for recruitment through internships and police academy scholarships for qualified applicants.”
Linda Sharpe Matthews, president of Flagler County’s NAACP chapter, said “There’s more work to be done.”
Sharpe Matthews said she plans to meet with Sheriff’s Office officials to discuss the prospect of implicit bias training for officers as well as a civilian complaint review board.
“What I see in the statistics is there is an effort to be made by swearing in more officers,” she said. “But those officers aren’t reflected in patrol. Those officers are inside. They’re school resource officers, they are detention center officers, and they should be officers that we see on patrol.”
Williams grew up in Long Island, New York. His father was a longtime officer in the New York Police Department. He was lured into law enforcement by the “extended family.” He remembers annual picnics at Yankee Stadium with his father’s partners and was drawn to law enforcement because of the brotherhood he witnessed as a kid.
“I just liked the respect,” he said. “I liked the camaraderie among his peers and the extended family.”
One of the main draws for Williams was the respect he saw his dad receive from the citizens in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, where he worked for years. Much of that reverence for law enforcement has been lost, Williams said.
“You just don’t see that on a grand scale anymore,” he said. “It still exists, but it is not what the mainstream media is pushing. They’re pushing the negative.”
Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy Royce James, 42, an African-American, said he heard negative things about the police while growing up in public housing in Daytona Beach. But he was never personally mistreated by an officer.
“At a young age I was taught by my peers to not trust police, that the police were your enemies, they are not your friends. Stay away from them, despite never being mistreated by police,” James said.
James was settled into a successful career as a financial adviser when he decided to put away the calculator and pin on a badge. He started out with the Ormond Beach Police Department where he spent six years before leaving for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office where he has been the last two years.
James said he made the career change because he got bored working as a financial adviser. He has had no regrets.
“I love the fact that every single day I come to work is completely different from the next,” James said. “And I have no idea what’s coming, almost everything is a surprise.”
He said complaints about racism are overblown.
“It’s easy to say, ’I didn’t get hired because of some racial disparity on a test or they are racist,’ ” James said. “There is racism, but not to the extent that they say there is.”
He said he is living proof of that. He said all the people that have hired him for jobs have been white. And if his life is in danger, he said his fellow white law enforcement officers would rush to help him.
“If you want something in life, go get it,” James said. “Stop with the excuses. Stop with the, ‘I’m not getting this because I’m Black.’ Stop it.”
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