York City Police Lt. Gene Fells talks with Nicole Landgaard, a member of the Air National Guard Security Forces, during a job fair for veterans at the
York City Police Lt. Gene Fells talks with Nicole Landgaard, a member of the Air National Guard Security Forces, during a job fair for veterans at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (John A. Pavoncello)

Men in suits mingled with women in fatigues and high-heeled, fast-talking recruiters hawking keychains.

Carrying tote bags through a world-class sports stadium in Philadelphia, U.S. veterans moved among booths in search of opportunity. Many stopped to chat with a police officer who'd obviously recruited at job fairs before.

Smiling, Lt. Gene Fells explained where Clifford Chavous, an Army veteran, could find York on a map.

"Some people call it Pennsyltucky -- but no," Fells said, finishing the joke.

The lieutenant's pitch, though laced with humor, had a deliberate purpose.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley sent Fells and two other officers to Philadelphia on a recent Monday to talk as many veterans as possible into applying for a job with the department.

Diversity: The ultimate goal, Kahley said, is to build a police department that looks and sounds more like York City -- a community rich with a mix of backgrounds, colors and languages.

"We want a diverse police department because we serve a diverse community," Kahley said.

Of 106 officers currently serving the York City Police Department, two are women, four are black and three are Latino.

All the rest are white men. Only four officers can speak Spanish.

Veterans are a naturally diverse community, and, generally speaking, they are already accustomed to working with people of different backgrounds, Kahley said.

But that's not the main reason Kahley sent recruiters this year to veterans' job fairs rather than college campuses, as he's done in years past.


Advertisement

Hiring process: The city's police department is one of 13 in York County that find qualified police officers through the Metropolitan York Police Testing Consortium. Every two years, the consortium produces a list of applicants who make the cut.

When there's a job opening, Kahley said, he can pick from the top three people on the list.

But, for York City, there's a catch.

State law requires that third-class cities give veterans a 15-point advantage over non-veterans. So, almost every time Kahley has hired a new officer in the past three years, veterans have been at the top of the list.

And, for whatever reason, those veterans have tended to be white men, Kahley said.

"I've seen our demographic in our department change opposite of the direction we would like it to go," he said.

Encouragement: Fells, one of the department's few black officers, has been on the force 26 years. He said he often hears members of the community criticize the department's lack of diversity.

"My response to that, though, is we need to talk about that in the black community," Fells said. "We need to encourage young people, male and female, to apply for the job."

It's not always the department's fault, he said.

"We should be encouraging our young people that this is a career. It is a career worthy of them serving," he said.

On the job, Officer Jeremy Strathmeyer said he has seen the impact of a non-diverse police force. People sometimes assume white officers are racist, he said.

"We're out there to do our jobs and protect and serve the community, and regardless of race or gender, we do that," he said. "It stings a little bit because I know that none of us are racist. I know that none of us really care what color skin anyone has."

As for why diversity has proved elusive, Strathmeyer said he couldn't point to a particular reason.

"Being a police officer is a way of life," he said. "I can't answer the question as to why we don't have more of a diverse department. I can just answer as to why I wanted to be a police officer, and it had nothing to do with the color of my skin."

Gender, too: Tiffany Vogel joined the department four years ago. Today, she is one of two women officers.

Vogel said she considers her fellow officers "brothers," but she'd still prefer a few more women on the force.

Women tend to show more compassion, she said, and children are more receptive to a female officer. Practically speaking, female officers are needed to search other women, she said.

The consortium is accepting applications until 4:30 p.m. Friday. Candidates may return applications with a $40 application fee to any participating police department in person or by mail.

Written exams will be given at the York County School of Technology, 2179 S. Queen St., at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, and at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 23.

For more information, or to download an application, go to yorkpolicejobs.org.

-- Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.