As police departments across the country continue to face significant challenges recruiting and retaining officers, some are turning to historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. And while many advocates see this move as an ideal way to increase officer numbers and help diversify a profession that has overwhelmingly employed white men, critics say more Black officers will only serve as a Band-Aid for a broken system.
“I think this is an excellent thing,” Kirk Burkhalter, a New York Law School professor and former 20-year NYPD officer, told Yahoo News, acknowledging the cynicism that he says comes with the job. “Police departments have to get used to people being skeptical. … If you want to have leaders from the community — Black folks — then they have to start somewhere. I think police departments should be reflective of the communities they serve, which can only be a positive thing.”
HBCUs produce 1 in 5 Black college graduates in the U.S., despite making up just 3% of colleges and universities in the country, according to the United Negro College Fund. The institutions are often rooted in community and service — values that police departments believe align with their own.
In Winston-Salem, N.C., potential police recruits at local HBCUs are being wooed with college scholarship funds. Baltimore’s police department recently unveiled a 10-week internship program to attract both students and recent graduates of Morgan State University and Coppin State University. And in Philadelphia, elected leaders have sought to introduce legislation to partner Pennsylvania’s two HBCUs with police departments, to increase diversity in law enforcement.
“I believe HBCUs can serve as a gateway,” Ericke Cage, president of West Virginia State University, told the Marshall Project. “We can help get to that model of 21st century policing. It is one that is inclusive, and one that inspires trust and confidence on all sides of the equation.”
But not everyone is sold on the idea.
“The strategy of recruiting police officers from HBCUs gives the illusion that hiring Black police officers will improve the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement, [but] that couldn’t be further from the truth,” LaTonya Goldsby, president and co-founder of the Cleveland chapter of Black Lives Matter, told Yahoo News.
Goldsby noted that while her city has a heavily Black population, a Black mayor and a Black chief of police, its police department is still majority white. It’s also the department that was accused last year of “disturbing” and “alarming” hiring practices in a review by the federal monitor overseeing the city’s police reforms.
“The truth is Black police officers kill Black people, too, and once they become a part of the blue line, they are no longer Black. They’re blue. Which means they must conform to the ways of the blue line,” Goldsby said.
Historical inequities in law enforcement policing have played a critical role in the tense relationship between Black Americans and the police. Slave patrols in the 1700s were responsible for heading off slave rebellions and preventing enslaved people from escaping. Officers turned their police dogs and water hoses on Black protesters during civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Today, Black men make up 35% of those incarcerated nationally but only 13% of the male population. Conversely, police departments are 66% white and just 13% Black, according to census data.
The high-profile police killings of Black people, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and Jayland Walker’s killing in Akron, Ohio, last year, have exacerbated contentious relations between Black communities and police. Critics like Goldsby see the move to hire more Black officers as more of a PR gimmick than an earnest effort.
Regardless of police departments’ motivations, the evidence is clear that they have been facing staffing shortages since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial unrest of 2020. Fewer people want to become officers today, and the number of applicants has nosedived.
While there is no comprehensive federal data on police employment, a survey last year of nearly 200 departments by the Police Executive Research Forum found that resignations were 43% higher in 2021 than in 2019, and that retirements had increased by 24% in that period. As a result, police departments from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Seattle have had to rely on fewer officers working longer hours, and they have to accept that wait times for calls are steadily increasing as violent crime has risen in recent years.
“It wasn’t just what happened in Minneapolis [to George Floyd] — it was felt nationally in a way it never has been,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum, told the New York Times. “I think that’s taken its toll, either on prospective candidates or existing cops rethinking what it means to be a cop in America today.”
In a creative initiative to cultivate more Black officers, Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in 2021 became the first HBCU in the country to start a police academy. It has since graduated more than 45 cadets.
“We are at a point in law enforcement, with retirements and resignations at an all-time high and recruitment at an all-time low, that we must listen to our communities and work better with them,” Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill, the director of its law enforcement training program, told Yahoo News.
Hill noted that Missouri has 21 police academies, with few nonwhite enrollees. “I thought establishing an academy on the campus of an HBCU might increase the minority applicant pool for Missouri police or sheriff departments,” he said.
He also made the case that increasing the number of Black officers will improve the relationship between Black communities and their local police departments.
“There are several studies out there showing minority police officers use less force than their white counterparts,” Hill said. “We stress in the academy that it takes courage to stand up and say something when they witness integrity issues, especially racial discrimination. … By working with our communities, it can help shift the narrative about what we do and how we do it.”
Simply diversifying police departments — without also implementing other changes — has only mixed results. Increased minority representation, various studies have shown, has produced little to no improvement in disparities of treatment during, for example, traffic stops. Reform advocates argue that a structural overhaul of police training and procedures is needed to accompany increased diversity in the ranks of the police force.
Goldsby believes that police would benefit from cultivating “homegrown talent” in communities like Cleveland to police the areas where people live and are known.
“We must remove strict environmental barriers to hiring and retention, which keep authentically Black and economically depressed people out of the police force,” she said. “We need authentic and empathetic Black leadership, not smiling Black faces in high places.”
The prospect of recruiting more Black officers at HBCUs comes down to a simple question of choice for Burkhalter, the New York Law School professor, whose brother and father also served more than two decades in the profession.
“Black folks have been serving this country in the military, in civil and public service. So why should this be an area where Black folks cannot be trusted to think for themselves?” he said, quipping, “What is the alternative?
“Well, we've seen the alternative. That's how we got to where we are. It took Black men being snuffed out in front of the nation to inspire change, so let's not wait until we see another Black man die on national TV before we make a leap forward.”
Cover thumbnail photos: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Lincoln University, J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo