James Sloan is the kind of officer the Waco Police Department and other area law enforcement agencies are competing to recruit.
He had experience in patrolling racially diverse neighborhoods in moving here from Bossier City, Louisiana, and he agreed to go through the local police academy to get his Texas certification before starting to work here almost four years ago. As one of only 24 Black police officers on a Waco police force of 239, Sloan, 34, sees his racial status as a benefit in building trust with residents in a city that is majority nonwhite.
“There’s going to be an officer in this neighborhood regardless,” Sloan said. “Whether you like it or not, there’s going to be somebody in this uniform. So would you rather that person looks like you and understands where you are coming from, or doesn’t look like you and doesn’t understand where you’re coming from?”
Area police chiefs, elected officials and law enforcement experts agree a more diverse police force is a more effective police force, especially in a time when racial tensions over policing have flared up around the country.
Yet local departments remain overwhelmingly white in McLennan County, a Tribune-Herald survey of 12 law enforcement agencies in McLennan County shows. Of 803 sworn officers reported in those agencies, three-quarters were non-Hispanic white, in a county with a minority population of about 47%. White majorities prevailed on police forces that serve majority nonwhite cities including Waco, Bellmead, Lacy Lakeview and McGregor.
Police and city leaders in those communities said the lack of diversity is not for lack of trying. They acknowledge a diverse police force can bridge language and cultural barriers, but they say recruiting new officers has become more difficult in general as fewer people pursue careers in law enforcement.
Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt said the Waco City Council is focused on hiring city officials who mirror the Waco community in race and gender while looking for the best qualified candidate, a standard that extends to the search for a new police chief.
Holt, who was police chief until taking his new role this year, said alongside the department’s Explorer program and junior police academy, the department spent more to recruit the latest group of cadets than it has in previous years. The city has spent money on billboards in minority areas of other cities and has recruited at Fort Hood, and is also seeking candidates from historically black colleges and universities.
Still, fewer than 23% of officers at Waco Police Department are minorities, in a city that is about 59% minority. Holt said that can only change with the slow process of retirement and recruitment.
“The reality is that individuals in law enforcement tend to be there for 25 to 40 years. … You can only move the needle when those people leave,” Holt said. “It is a slow process, but we have seen some movement in that area.”
Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary said he wants to step up efforts to diversify the police force, which has two Black and one Hispanic officers among its 17 officers. While minorities account for about 60% of the city’s population, they make up less than 18% of the police force.
Zakhary said that in a time of nationwide racial tensions, police departments have to work harder to build trust with minority communities. Having a diverse force helps.
“It is beyond essential,” he said. “It’s detrimental to an organization if you don’t have it. The time to develop those relationships is not during a crisis. You need to be in contact with your faith-based leaders, with your merchants and the community.”
Zakhary came to Bellmead last year after a long career in Woodway as city manager and police chief and formerly served as president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association and of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He said he has observed that all police departments face recruitment challenges when they are trying to diversify.
“In Bellmead, what we’re trying to do is continue to diversity the entire city (government),” he said. “That has unique challenges in cities that are challenged economically. Those quality applicants we’re all pursuing tend to go to better-paying departments. We all want them. I want them. Waco wants them. Woodway wants them.”
Zakhary said cities cannot wait passively for minority applicants, and the city’s decision to raise police salaries and offer incentives for bilingual employees is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, all 17 of Lacy Lakeview’s officers are white, in a city whose demographic makeup is roughly 50% white, 25% Black and 25% Hispanic.
Police Chief John Truehitt said that since he became chief in December 2012, the department has had one Black applicant, who was hired and left after a brief period for a job with better hours.
“The best police departments look like the communities where they work and reflect the diversity in that community,” said Truehitt, a 33-year law enforcement veteran. “We are trying, but if anybody has a better mousetrap, we’d love to hear it.”
Truehitt said his agency tries to recruit new officers through police academies and high schools, along with community policing initiatives, the National Night Out program and block parties.
“We are three officers short right now and we probably have been understaffed for 90 percent of the time I have been chief here. There are just no applicants,” Truehitt said.
Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the state’s largest police labor organization, said the problem is generational as much as it is structural.
“Diversity is very important because without it, you don’t have street cred, automatic trust and the ability to interact in the community and do your job,” Wilkison said. “Many, many years ago in Texas, the police forces in this state were all white and male, and I don’t mean that predominately. That was just the way it was. Even in African-American communities and Latino communities, the police officers all were white.”
Law enforcement agencies historically have relied on recruiting through the military and through bloodlines, with multiple generations of cops lining up to serve. Wilkison said changing that pattern will take a concerted effort among city managers, police chiefs, recruiters and everyone in between.
“It is going to take a very special person to put in their application with the police department,” Wilkison said. “It is the kind of individual who would be swimming upstream away from current public opinion and current political thought.”
Wilkison said when state Civil Service laws were created to add a level of professionalism and accountability to police departments, it equalized the workplace, allowing minority officers to break through the all-white ceiling.
“An old white officer told me once he worked several months before he realized people had civil rights,” Wilkison said. “When Texas moved into an era where Civil Service started in big urban settings, it created this equalization, whether or not it was intended.”
He said offering incentives, such as paying for college, could help, much in the same way rural hospitals offer perks to attract doctors.
“Let’s work hard to find the right folks for our community, and the standards have to go up, not down,” Wilkison said.
Among local departments, Hewitt’s most closely aligns with the demographics of its residents, though the city is 71.5% white. With two Black officers, five Hispanic officers and one Pacific Islander officer on the force, its minority proportion is 30.8%, slightly higher than the city itself.
Hewitt Police Chief James Devlin said a more diverse force legitimizes the police in the eyes of the public.
“Without the community having your back, it’s a fight,” Devlin said. “We don’t want that. We want people to be able to trust us, and to see that there are members of our agency that reflect them.”
Devlin said the department has prioritized diversity more since he became chief, but it is a struggle to recruit at all, let alone to prioritize diversify.
“McLennan County, all the law enforcement agencies, are fighting for the same candidates,” he said. “It’s not unheard of to have a candidate that’s tested for Hewitt, tested for Waco and tested for Robinson. They’re sitting on that list and we’re all trying to be first to get that individual.”
The department recruits from all police academies in the region, including Temple and North Dallas, but most come from McLennan Community College’s law enforcement academy.
“Most of the people there are sponsored, they’ve already been hired by agencies,” Devlin said. “There’s a lot of people in this county interested in becoming law enforcement officers. There’s never any shortage of individuals that want to get into the police academy, so there’s always a chance to pull from folks that haven’t been hired yet.”
He said their biggest recruiting asset so far has been the department’s social media platforms, especially now that COVID-19 has interfered with the job fairs the department would usually attend to bring in recruits.
Waco NAACP chapter President Peaches Henry sees another opportunity for police diversity: the search process for a new Waco police chief.
Henry said with the right chief at the helm, the department could bring on more officers of color who could then serve as mentors to newcomers who might not otherwise consider law enforcement as a career.
“That is one of the reasons I advocate for a person of color as the head of the police department, because it indicates a specific perspective at the top,” Henry said. “The fact that we’ve never had a police chief at the top, I think, is very telling.”
She said systemic racism is about structures within systems, not individuals and their behavior.
“Someone who comes in and understands the result of that kind of system is someone who can begin to deal with the fallout of such a system,” Henry said.
While racial unrest in U.S. cities this year has drawn attention to interactions between police and Black residents, area city officials said issues surrounding policing in Hispanic communities should not be ignored. Zakhary said police need to overcome cultural and language barriers when dealing with immigrant communities, along with fears that local police would report undocumented crime victims to federal authorities.
Waco City Council Member Hector Sabido, whose South Waco district is largely Hispanic, has been doing his best to push back against that fear.
“When you’re dealing with a demographic that is from a different country and speaks a different language, there is because of what we see in the media that fear factor from local government or a local police force. But the message I’ve been trying to work on, especially during COVID-19, is that the police are not going to take you away and send you to ICE,” Sabido said. “The police are here to help, whether it’s patrolling neighborhoods or arriving on emergency scenes or just answering questions.”
Sabido said Hispanic officers can do more than just bridge a language gap. When a community has been historically marginalized, there are subtle cultural differences that can also be barriers to trust.
Some officers earn a stipend by testing to serve as a bilingual translator, but McLennan County Sheriff’s Sgt. Marco Hinojos, 39, just sees it as part of the job.
A native Spanish speaker who grew up in Florida, he is often is called on to help translate for Spanish-speaking inmates. Hinojos has worked in the county jail since he was hired 13 years ago after a four-year stint with the Army at Fort Hood.
He said diversity in the sheriff’s office ranks is important because it can help ease tensions inherent between law enforcement and the community, including the jail population.
“Being a diverse agency helps us understand the diversity that is out there in our community,” Hinojos said. “Just having the diversity within an agency — age, religion, sex, whatever it may be — that plays a vital part in managing a community.”
After he got out of the Army, Hinojos worked in the insurance field for a time. But it did not fulfill his desire to serve, the same desire that led him to join the Army. He said his service in law enforcement fills that need, even though the current climate often looks dimly on officers.
“Right now, we are not the greatest in the limelight, but the people we are getting understand and the servant’s heart part of them wants to make a difference. That is what it comes down to, wanting to make a difference.”
The competition for minority applicants comes amid a nationwide slump in police applicants, but Waco Police Sgt. Jenny Duncan said the local academy has seen strong recruiting classes.
“What I’ve seen over the last few hiring processes is that even though we don’t have as many applicants that apply and test with us, the number of qualified applicants and the quality of the applicants has been significantly better than in the past,” said Duncan, who oversees recruiting efforts.
She said a police exam might draw close to 800 applicants 20 years ago, and 300 a decade ago, but that has dropped to about 100 in recent years.
Yet as the numbers shrank, the applicant pool has become noticeably more diverse, she said.
Holt, the former chief, agreed that recent recruiting classes have been strong on quality and diversity despite the falling number of applicants.
Among the most recent recruits is Alex Ko, 34. After his graduation in December, Ko will be one of the first Korean officers to serve the city of Waco. He said his father was a police officer in South Korea before immigrating to Texas, and his stories initially drew him to the career path.
“I try to bring it up in class, because maybe not everyone has been around a lot of Asians,” Ko said. “Obviously here in McLennan County there’s not a huge Asian population, so I feel my perspective and life experience is important, especially now, because we’re all here to learn about interacting with the public.”
He said the way someone might respond to law enforcement differs from person to person, but culture and upbringing are huge factors that are invisible to someone not trained to recognize them. As one of 17 police cadets in his class, discussions about race are not restricted to cultural diversity courses.
“I think we have a good bit of diversity,” Ko said. “There’s another guy who’s part Asian, a Hispanic guy, two Black guys, another guy who’s part Hispanic and two guys who are part Native American, even if they might look Caucasian. That shows in the different stories that they’ve told and how we’ve interacted with each other. We’re here to learn to interact with all kinds of people … but at the same time we have to recognize that there are cultural differences.”
For Sloan, the Black officer from Louisiana, circumstances more than recruiting brought him to Waco. But he said the department’s pay scale made it attractive.
Sloan moved to Waco to be closer to his mother after his father passed away, but he said he likely would have left Bossier City eventually because of the lack of opportunity for advancement and the low wages. In moving to Waco, he was able to increase his yearly pay by $20,000.
He said the department is likely more diverse than any previous point in history, but it is still going to take time for those more recent hires to gain seniority and make their way into more divisions of the department.
“I think Waco is a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity and making sure that there are officers of different races and ethnicities within a department,” Sloan said. “Because it’s one thing to hire officers to do patrol work, but if you’re not allowing them to grow within your department, not allowing them to move up to different divisions, it kind of defeats the purpose.”
Sloan graduated from Grambling State University, a historically Black university in Grambling, Louisiana, in 2010. Waco police officials planned to send Sloan this year to Grambling, Prairie View A&M University and other historically Black campuses to recruit new officers, but COVID-19 dashed those plans.
“Hopefully next year we’ll be able to make that happen,” Sloan said.
Sloan, like Ko, knew what he wanted to do from a young age. Detective stories fascinated him as a kid, and that combined with a desire to help people drew him to a career in law enforcement as an adult. He said he is not sure how to reach people who would not otherwise consider a career as a police officer, but it is worth trying.
“I’m not saying white officers don’t want to understand, because there’s a lot of good white officers that patrol neighborhoods every day and know everyone there, from the grandmas to the mothers,” Sloan said. “But I think when it comes to seeing a person in uniform that looks like you, it’s a different kind of comfortability.”