FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The city of Ferguson is attracting a large pool of applicants to police jobs, including minority candidates seeking the position left vacant by the resignation of Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, the mayor said.
Mayor James Knowles III believes city leaders have made it clear they are seeking minority officers to build a more diverse police force in the St. Louis suburb that endured months of unrest after Brown’s death last summer.
“Considering the number of people interested right now, I’m sure we’ll find outstanding applicants to be new officers here in Ferguson,” Knowles said in a phone interview.
About 1,000 people applied for a vacant dispatcher’s job, and 50 to 60 people applied for two vacant patrol officer jobs, one of which was created by Wilson’s resignation in November. Two additional openings are expected soon from pending retirements, officials said.
Neither the mayor nor city spokesman Jeff Small knew how that applicant pool compares with those of previous years.
Knowles said he did not have an exact racial breakdown of applicants, but several black officers from neighboring departments have told him they applied.
Wilson, who is white, fatally shot the 18-year-old Brown, who was black, on Aug. 9. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson. Both the shooting and the grand jury decision stirred months of unrest in Ferguson and invited scrutiny of race relations in the St. Louis suburb.
Ferguson came under fire for the racial imbalance of its police force. At the time, just three of 53 officers were black, even though two-thirds of the town’s 21,000 residents are African-American. There are currently 52 officers – 44 white, four black, one Hispanic and three of Asian or Pacific Island descent, Knowles said.
The mayor said city and police leaders were making a concerted effort to attract more minority candidates long before Brown was killed, and they have redoubled those efforts in the six months since then, reaching out to predominantly black colleges, for example.
“As we continue to replace officers who will retire, we’ll absolutely continue these efforts to seek out a more diverse pool of applicants,” Knowles said.
It isn’t easy. The mayor said Ferguson cannot compete with the pay or opportunities offered by bigger departments like St. Louis city and St. Louis County. He noted that one neighboring town with a largely African-American population recently lost all of its black officers to higher-paying police jobs.
“That just goes to show you the kind of competition that’s out there,” Knowles said.
Christopher Jamison, 23, is an African-American who grew up in Ferguson. He recently graduated from Lindenwood University in nearby St. Charles with a law-enforcement degree, but he’s seeking work with the city of St. Louis, not Ferguson. It’s nothing against his hometown, he said.
“For the most part, if you want to get on a tactical team or if you want to do detective work, you have to get on with St. Louis County or the city,” Jamison said.
Despite the challenges, Remy Cross, a professor of criminology at Webster University, said Ferguson has an opportunity to remake its department to better reflect its community.
“It is an opportunity, but it’s not a guarantee,” Cross said. “It’s not just hiring more minority candidates. It’s taking a hard look at how they train those officers and the way they interact with the community.”
Knowles agreed. That’s why, he said, the department has expanded its community policing effort, encouraging officers to engage with residents, rather than simply react to crimes. More officers are reaching out to schools and businesses, too.
The city is also starting a program to get high school students interested in firefighting and police work. The police Explorers group will hold its first meeting next month. Knowles said about three dozen kids have shown interest.
“This,” Knowles said, “will be probably the most significant way to change that dynamic between young people and law enforcement.”