Scant diversity in Pennsylvania State Police

Mensah M. Dean
The Philadelphia Inquirer

HERSHEY — Walking the halls of the Pennsylvania State Police Academy — where troopers are made — is like walking through history.

Inside the main building, portraits of 36 directors of the training facility are mounted on a wall, spanning more than 100 years of leadership. All, except one, are white men.

Down another corridor in the spartan, 1950s-era building, hang the portraits of most of the 111 troopers who died in the line of duty — from 1906 to 2017. All, except one, are white men.

As of this month, the 4,588-employee state police force was 92.8% white — and men make up 86.5% of that, according to agency statistics. Of the 1,170 who’ve obtained the ranks of major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant and corporal, 94.1% are white.

In a commonwealth where people of color account for nearly a quarter of the population, according to the census, Blacks make up just 3.2% of the State Police force; Latinos, 2.5%, and Asians, 0.83%.

Critics say those numbers are appalling at a time when law

enforcement agencies across the country are striving to diversify amid a national reckoning on race.

Recruitment: State Police Lt. Richard

Nesbitt, who oversees recruitment for the agency, said the agency is committed to expanding diversity in its ranks and working to recruit more women and people of color. Toward that end, he said, recruiters regularly visit historically Black colleges and universities and job fairs.

“This job is open to everybody. And when we say all, we mean all,” said Nesbitt, who is Black. “We believe that by having a diverse workforce we can better meet the needs of the citizens of the commonwealth. We want to be representative of the population of our state.”

Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP State Conference, said those efforts at inclusivity clearly fell short. And he went a step further, suggesting that the lack of racial diversity within the state police could be attributed to racism.

“Systemic racism is real, and the only way we’re going to deal with it is to call it out, identify it and expose it for what it is,” he said. “We’ve got a problem, and the problem is not going to fix itself.”

Even as the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police led to calls for police reform, including stepped up recruiting of people of color, the state police have been slow to act, Huston and other critics say.

In interviews, Nesbitt and five other state police officials said the department strives to be more representative. But they said the state police, like so many other law enforcement agencies, struggle with a falloff in applicants as police agencies across the nation come under criticism amid growing mistrust of law enforcement.

Skepticism: Cpl. Danea Durham, one of just 15 Black women on the state police force and a recruiter for its eastern division, which includes Philadelphia, knows about that skepticism firsthand.

“When I chose to become a trooper, I got a lot of backlash from cousins and from my family members,” said Durham, who graduated from Temple University and joined the force in 2003. “A lot of members of my family stopped talking to me when I became a cop — I lie to you not. So, that has been my experience.”

She and other state police officials said competition from local police departments draws away many worthy underrepresented candidates. And they said some recruits bristle at the requirement that cadets live in the academy’s barracks in Hershey during six to seven months of training, and others object to the prospect of being initially assigned to locations far from their homes.

“What I see, as a Black woman, when I’m trying to recruit other people that look like me, a lot of times what I hear is, ‘I don’t want to go all the way to Hershey,’ or, ‘I want to stay close to home. I don’t want to have to leave my family,’” Durham said. “So there are a lot of those types of factors that I hear from a lot of minority females.”

Lt. Jamal Pratt, who oversees basic training as section commander of the Operational Training Division, said diversity was a goal, but not the only one.

“We want the best of the best, and it doesn’t matter to me what my cadet class looks like as far as (race) as long as I have the best qualified applicant that met our criteria,” said Pratt, who is Black.

“I love our process. Can it be improved upon? Absolutely,” he continued. “Can our numbers be improved upon if you’re looking for that particular focus of diversity? Sure. But at the end of the day, I want the best.”

Huston, the state NAACP president, said he doubted the agency’s contention that it can’t find qualified candidates from underrepresented groups.

“I’m tired of hearing the excuse we can’t find Black and brown candidates. Well, you could find them if you wanted to. You’re just not looking,” he said. “If they’re trying to change that narrative then they have to change the tactics that they’re using, that they’re employing, to bring people of color into the Pennsylvania State Police.”

Initiatives: State police officials touted two initiatives designed to address the diversity dearth.

Next year, a program called Explorers will be launched in Hershey and eventually branch out to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with the goal of exposing high school students and college freshmen to the possibility of joining the state police, Nesbitt said.

The agency has also begun to offer swimming lessons, since being able to swim is a job requirement. “There are a lot of inner-city people who don’t know how to swim,” he said.

David Fisher, president of the

National Black Police Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter, questioned key parts of the hiring process, such as background checks.

“They don’t have a problem getting applicants. The problem is getting them through the process,” said

Fisher, a retired Philly officer. “You think Blacks aren’t scrutinized more coming out of North Philly than (whites) coming out of Erie, Pa.? … Let’s be real.”

Elsewhere: While most police departments across the country are predominantly white, they’ve been trending toward greater diversity since the 1990s, according to a 2018 study conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The share of white non-Hispanic police officers fell from 78.5% in 1997 to 71.5% in 2016, the study found.

“Diversity is a real issue and one that we have addressed forever. I would like to think because of that our numbers have improved, but I don’t think anyone would ever suggest that it’s where we would want it to be,” said Greg Bean, consulting coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

In New Jersey and Delaware, white troopers are also overrepresented on the state police forces, according to numbers provided by those departments. Of New Jersey’s 2,978 troopers, 75% are white in a state that is 54.6% white, while in Delaware, 85% of the 726 troopers are white in a state that is 61.7% white.

The Philadelphia Police Department, which has been the target of criticism about the diversity of its officers, is much more racially balanced than the Pennsylvania State Police. Of its 6,200 officers, 56.8% are white, 30.7% are Black, 9.9% are Latino, 2% are Asian, and Native Americans and others comprise less than half a percent, according to numbers provided by the Philadelphia department. Numbers provided by the state police indicate that, along with people of color being in short supply, so are white women. Just 289 troopers are white women — 6.3% of the force. But they are better represented than Black women and men.

Cadets: In the Hershey training academy’s last four graduating classes — from December 2019 to January 2021 — there were no Black female cadets. Just 11 Black men graduated to become troopers in those classes, compared with 293 white men and 24 white women.

The state police have 4,197 applications for the academy class that will begin in the fall, Nesbitt said. Black men submitted 466 applications, Black women submitted 236, Latino men submitted 380, and Latino women submitted 109, he said.

Those numbers indicate that state police recruiters are seeking out people of color, said Trooper Alexander Figueroa, a recruiter in Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. “You have to look at the channels,” he said. “There are different parts of the process. We’re getting people to apply. I’m not doing the other parts of the process.”

Before making it to the academy, recruits have to navigate a 10-month hiring process that includes written and oral exams, a polygraph test, a background check, a psychiatric evaluation, a medical exam and a physical readiness test, the officials said.

Numbers provided by the state police for applicants between Aug. 1, 2019, and Sept. 9, 2020, indicate that most Blacks did not make it past step one, the written exam. Of 1,203 applicants, just 323 completed the exam, while of 5,536 white applicants 2,445 took the exam, the numbers show.

“We continually monitor our cadet processing cycles to identify any disparities and evaluate our hiring practices to ensure the processes themselves do not adversely impact persons of any race, gender or ethnicity,” said Cpl. Brent Miller, the agency spokesperson. “Nonetheless, we are bound to abide by certain disqualifying criteria specifically identified in the Confidence in Law Enforcement Act.”

Huston, state NAACP president, was skeptical.

“There is a concerted effort by the state police and police departments across this commonwealth, to intentionally not hire people of color,” he said. “ … They absolutely do not want to see Black and brown people in positions of authority.”

Aleata Burke, 34, who works for the state Department of Public Welfare in Philadelphia, applied earlier this year to become a state trooper, driven, she said, by her desire to help others and by the attractive pay — starting salary $63,346 — benefits and job security.

Relocating to Hershey for training and being assigned to an outpost is fine with her, said Burke, who is Black. Still, she senses that her odds of being selected to enter a future academy class aren’t great.

“When I hear the statistics, it seems like my chances could be slim to none. But you never know unless you try. That’s why I’m trying,” said Burke, who has an undergraduate degree in hospitality management from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in business from Lincoln University.

“Although it is still predominantly white, even in Philadelphia I’ve noticed how cops stick together. That’s another thing I’m looking for,” she said. “A job with good morale and good co-workers.”