By Stan Donaldson Jr., The Marshall Project
Yarnell Rickett wants to see more Black and brown police officers at his police department. He believes Historically Black Colleges and Universities like his alma mater, Central State University in Ohio, are fertile grounds to hire a new generation of officers who have a better understanding of the communities they serve.
So when Central State asked Officer Rickett to speak to some of the university’s criminal justice majors during homecoming week in October, he quickly accepted the opportunity. The San Antonio Police Department, where he works, paid for him to travel to Ohio’s only public HBCU, near Dayton, to recruit new police. (Nearby Wilberforce University is one of the country’s oldest private HBCUs.) That same month, recruiters from the Cleveland Department of Public Safety were also at Central State to pitch jobs to prospective recruits.
Across the country, police departments have struggled to recruit and retain police officers, especially of color. The reluctance of Black and Latino communities to pursue law enforcement work is partly tied to longstanding tensions with police, which increased after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
Recently, police departments are turning to HBCUs to recruit from the very demographics they have had problems policing.
“I believe HBCUs can serve as a gateway,” said President Ericke Cage, president of West Virginia State University. “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.”
HBCUs produce nearly 20% of all Black college graduates, according to the United Negro College Fund, but many non-Black students attend these schools as well.
HBCU graduates are described by professors and administrators as highly educated, culturally competent, critical thinkers, and trained to be servant-leaders — individuals who prioritize their community’s success, and could help change negative attitudes toward policing in communities of color. Those are crucial skills for departments with demographics like Cleveland, with a history of mistrust between Black residents and police.
“Many of the scholars who are graduating from HBCUs are the products of the communities where we are needing people to actually serve,” said Cleveland City Councilwoman Stephanie Howse, an HBCU graduate herself. “There is a learning curve that wouldn’t need to be reached.”
But some Cleveland residents aren’t convinced that hiring minority officers or HBCU graduates will solve issues between police and Black and brown communities, based on their involvement in deadly use-of-force incidents over the years.
“A person coming from an HBCU may have the best of intentions, but once a person becomes a part of the police department here in Cleveland, they normally go along to get along because they want to be a part of the blue,” said Brenda Bickerstaff, an activist with Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, a group calling for more police oversight in the city.
Recruiting police officers of color is not a new, or fully-proven, strategy for departments seeking to improve relations with those communities. Numerous cities, large and small, have tried it, with mixed results.
Officers of color often have to “toe a fine line” in policing minority communities, said Charles Adams, professor and chair of the criminal justice department at Bowie State University in Maryland.
“[They] are often challenged to pick a side,” Adams said. “You’re either blue, or you are Black.”
Black and brown students at HBCUs are aware of the prickly racial dynamics within police departments and between their communities, but remain optimistic about their ability to make a difference.
“People think that all cops are bad, and I understand some of the reasons why…but I want to be a part of change,” said Connor Saxon-Boclear, a 21-year-old junior criminal justice major at Central State who hopes to be a police officer.
The Marshall Project – Cleveland reported in September that the federal monitor overseeing the city’s police reforms described Cleveland Division of Police hiring practices as “disturbing” and “alarming.” The monitor’s report said that the city hires officers who could not pass background checks with other police departments. The report also stated the department lacks accountability, community engagement and trust.
In August, Mayor Justin Bibb announced the city would hire a marketing firm to help recruit more police and develop a five-year plan to recruit and retain officers. The city’s marketing and recruiting budget for the year was set at $68,000, said Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, Cleveland’s police spokesperson.
Since 2020, recruiters from the Department of Public Safety have attended over 300 career fairs and other job-related events across the country, both in-person and virtually, to pitch public safety positions to prospective employees. Eight of those events involved outreach at HBCUs, according to records provided by the city.
Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond said the city is working to hire qualified police officers who meet the requirements of the department and the community. Though the city has done some engagement, Drummond said he wants the department to have a “more robust relationship” with Ohio’s two HBCUs.
“It is not just about race, it is about having people who have diverse and lived experiences,” said Drummond, who briefly attended Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville, before transferring to the University of Toledo to finish his degree.
Data provided by the police department showed that as of November 2022, over a third of the city’s police were people of color. Cleveland’s population is about 47% Black and 12% Latino.
HBCU faculty and researchers say that police departments should look deeper than demographics when hiring officers. They said officers of color could help change policy and subcultures within policing.
Some HBCUs have established their own specialized officer training programs and policy centers that conduct research and programming to improve relationships between police and the Black community.
Last year, Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, became the first HBCU in the country to start a police academy, graduating 47 cadets.
Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill, who is the director of its law enforcement training program, said his goal for creating the program was to “increase the diversity pool” for police agencies in the state and to have a place where students can share their ideas and perspectives on policing.
“Our academy is different from most academies,” Hill said. “We teach the required Peace Officer Standards and Training, but we also talk about things that we can do to make our neighborhoods better.”
“You can find crime anywhere, but can you solve problems within your neighborhoods? To me, that is true policing.”
Hill also said that Lincoln’s police academy is offered in a traditional classroom as opposed to paramilitary style training, where cadets can ask questions and engage with each other. In addition to a police certification, the cadets receive 15 hours of college credit that they can use toward obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Police departments should consider education requirements for police outside of civil exams and attending police academies, said Adams, the Bowie State professor.
“What research [from the Department of Justice] has shown us is that the more education and the more professional development … the better the officer,” Adams said.
He added that as police departments transition to modern policing, they should also consider HBCU graduates for civilian jobs in the departments, such as crisis intervention specialists, research analysts and cybersecurity staff.
Some of the HBCU students interviewed did not plan to enter public safety positions after graduation. They wanted to work in other aspects of the criminal justice system.
Daryl Thorpe, a 22-year-old criminal justice major at Bowie State, said he wants to reshape the system from the courtroom.
“Coming from Baltimore City, especially during the time of the Freddie Gray trial, I never had an interest in doing that…it made me cautious,” said Thorpe, who is also president of the university’s student NAACP chapter.
Gray was a Black man who died in police custody in 2015,sparking nationwide protests. Three of the officers charged in his death were Black.
Thorpe said real change must come from inside the courtroom, citing problems with bail reform and sentencing. He plans to pursue a law degree and become a defense attorney. Thorpe said police have a duty and need to be respected, but they must also follow high standards and be held accountable when they don’t comply with policies.
“I love studying criminal justice, but I couldn’t see myself as a first responder,” Thorpe said.
Shakayla Chambers is another criminal justice major at Bowie State who doesn’t want to be a police officer. For Chambers, the dangers associated with the job are a deterrent. One of her mentors, Baltimore Police Officer Keona Holley, was fatally shot in a 2021 ambush while sitting in a patrol car.
Chambers’ goal now is to become a youth counselor to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. She said police departments should look at recruiting cadets who want not only to change the community through law enforcement, but also through mentorship, outreach and service.
“One person can make a difference,” Chambers said. “I want to help by keeping young people from becoming incarcerated.”
On the other hand, Nya Norvelle, a 22-year-old criminal justice major at Central State, plans to join a police academy when she graduates, hoping to become a police detective.
“You can’t make anything better unless you are willing to be a part of the solution,” Norvelle said. “Policing is not just about crime prevention, it is also about bridge building.”
On that point, Bickerstaff, the activist from Citizens for a Safer Cleveland, agrees. She said the department should hire police — regardless of ethnicity and experience — who care about the city’s residents and want to engage with them, and who practice what she referred to as “constitutional policing,” or upholding people’s civil rights.
Bickerstaff also said that HBCU graduates shouldn’t be considered over Black people who may not have college credentials, instead focusing on improving their police academy training.
But she remains skeptical. “Once they get into that culture with the city, and the police department … they change,” Bickerstaff said.
When homecoming arrives next fall, Rickett hopes to return with recent Central State grads who can share their experiences as members of the San Antonio Police Department. He said he understands the tensions that exist, but he sees new opportunities.
“There is a generation of officers who are leaving because they don’t like the transparency, the accountability…a lot of that ‘old’ thinking in policing is going away,” Rickett said.
“Minority officers are needed and now is the time.”