For the past three years Edvin Gutierrez, 19, has spent two hours a week learning about law enforcement.
The Robert E. Lee High School graduate is among 10 to 20 young people, most of them teenagers, who participate in the Tyler Police Department Explorer Post No. 310.
Gutierrez learned about the program through his father, who heard about it from a police officer. Gutierrez originally wanted to be a firefighter, but now he wants to pursue a career in criminal justice.
“In the beginning, I was scared,” he said of coming to the program. But over the past three years that fear has given way to confidence. He is now one of the leaders of the group, a sergeant for the post.
The Explorer program is just one example of how the Tyler Police Department is working to recruit officers and specifically more minorities to its police force.
“We’re glad to teach the kids because this is our future,” Officer Kerri Long said.
For the past three years, 10 percent of the department’s sworn personnel have been minorities. For the two years prior to that, the number was 9 percent.
For nonsworn personnel, the percentage of minority employees has fluctuated between 15 percent and 20 percent for the past five years.
As of May, the department had 189 sworn personnel and 45 non-sworn personnel for a total staff of 234.
Assistant Chief Rusty Jacks said the department hopes to mirror the demographics of the community it serves.
In Tyler, the most recent demographic data based on the American Community Survey and provided by the U.S. Census Bureau shows Tyler at 67.6 percent white, 25 percent African-American, and 22.9 percent Hispanic. About 48.5 percent of the population identify as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.”
Ideally, the police department’s demographics would better reflect the city’s makeup. But getting to that point is not as simple as making a few more hires.
The Tyler Police Department falls under the state’s Civil Service law. It also has local Civil Service hiring guidelines.
This means there are codes that must be followed, many of which are designed to take out any favoritism in hiring, Jacks said.
For example, the top applicants for a position at the police department are determined based on the score they make on the Civil Service exam. The person who ranks first is the first considered for the job, second is the second and so on.
There certainly are hiring steps taken after the exam that may eliminate people - such as criminal background check, driving history or the inability to pass the physical test, but placement on the eligibility list comes down to the score on the test.
That’s why getting more people, and specifically, more minorities, to take the test is so important.
In addition to its educational outreach efforts such as the Explorer Post, attending community events and visiting schools, the department has a robust recruiting arm.
Lt. Eddie Sheffield, with the Tyler Police Department’s Support Services Division, said between 15 and 20 officers are trained to recruit - meaning they know about city policies and can readily answer questions about the department and the community.
“We’re selling the police department, but we’re also selling the city,” Sheffield said.
Annually, the department has recruiters at job and career fairs around the state, including those targeting veterans and those on college campuses. Officers go to between 20 and 30 recruiting events annually.
But recruiting is not limited to those official type events.
“Every call for us is an opportunity to recruit,” Sheffield said.
When the department administers its Civil Service exams twice a year, it asks test takers how they heard about it, Sheffield said.
Answers have included: When I was pulled over by an officer; When an officer spoke at my criminal justice class; and When I was an intern at the department.
This year, the department placed a billboard in northeast Tyler to advertise for the February exam date. And handouts about career opportunities include the website to get more information about joining the police force.
One of the new ways the department is reaching out is by letting churches and other community organizations know they need their help.
“They have a voice that we don’t have in those communities to recruit for us,” Jacks said, adding that some of the organizations targeted include Tyler Together Race Relations, the Hispanic Business Alliance, the NAACP and the Church and Community Network.
But the process is going to take time and there are several hurdles to overcome, department representatives say.
One is low turnover. The average length of service for an officer in the department is more than 15 years, Sheffield said.
The department employs almost 200 officers at any given time and hires on average 10 new officers a year, which means changing the demographics of the entire department could take 20 years.
Jeff Williams, president of the board for Tyler Together Race Relations and a retired engineering manager, suggested lateral transfers and bringing in new mid-level leadership to help change the demographics of the department. However, that option is not available.
Police Chief Jimmy Toler said the department has researched information about lateral transfers, but has not taken steps to make that a possibility locally because they are not comfortable with the legalities of it.
Tyler PD adheres to local and state Civil Service guidelines.
Toler said if the department had clear justification, it could take a proposal for lateral transfers to the local Civil Service Commission and City Council to see if those bodies were interested in adopting new policies.
Williams is quick to praise the police department for the work it is doing, but he feels more needs to be done.
“I applaud their efforts, but I think it only solves half the problem,” he said. “I think it’s a one-sided approach. I think they have to … start looking at bringing in mid-level leadership” and support that mid-level leadership, too.
He said that’s how corporations change and added it’s a false belief by the department to think the community’s going to wait 20 years for minorities to move up the ranks.
WHY IT MATTERS
During a recent panel discussion about policing and community trust, Tyler City Councilman Darryl Bowdre said one thing that is going to help Tyler in regard to building trust between the department and community members is recruiting people who look more like the people in Tyler.
The city is working to do this, he said, and the chief is working hard every day. In a plug for the department, Bowdre said being a police officer provides a good, secure job, with a starting salary of $52,000 ($53,514 for a Police Officer I) per year.
He said children should know and learn that it is an honorable job.
“One of the things that’s going to help curb things in our community is when little children in our community can look and interact with officers that look like them, that they can relate to,” he said.
In some settings, they already can. During the recent meeting of the Police Explorer Post, Tyler police officer Shane Jasper, an African-American, taught the group about proper handcuffing.
Those in the room included young men and young women who were African-American, Hispanic and white. All desire to go into law enforcement.
As Jasper taught them about proper handcuffing, he was patient, correcting the students when they made mistakes, and encouraging them that it would take time to learn.
Jasper knows what it’s like to be handcuffed, because as a young man, he was once handcuffed and released and never told why, something that upset him.
That is an experience he never wants for anyone he contacts in his official role.
“The main thing I did when I first got this job was the way I talked to people because I had been on the other side of the communication barrier,” he said. “I always tried to communicate, let people know this is why I am making contact with you, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is what you’re doing right.”
He sees the presence of minorities in the police force as vital to educating the community about the law, something he takes very seriously.
Today, as a community resource officer, Jasper gets to focus more on educating people. Some of his responsibilities include working with Tyler ISD’s criminal justice students and helping them prepare for competitions.
In that role, though, they also get to talk to students about real-life issues such as police brutality, and through their training students get an idea of the situations officers can encounter and the challenges involved in those situations.
Jasper said working with these students at a young age is the best way for the department to recruit more minorities because it allows the students and even their parents to become familiar with police officers and less wary of them.
It also helps show the students that law enforcement provides a solid career opportunity for them.
“The more positive contact you can get with people, the better they’ll think of you,” Jasper said.
Toler said by better resembling the community’s demographics, the department would have a greater variety of viewpoints, be more easily accepted by the community, and have an easier time engaging in community policing.
“I do just stress that trying to have a more diverse workforce is important to us and we spend a lot of time, energy and resources trying to make it happen,” Toler said. “And as we get better and better at it, we hope we start to see the fruits of our labors.”