SCHENECTADY — When Sgt. James Plowden was sworn in during a promotion ceremony last week, he became one of just three people of color in a supervisor position at the Schenectady Police Department.
Overall, Plowden is just one of just nine minority members serving on the 160-member force.
The ongoing focus on systemic racism in the county this summer has exposed the lack of diversity at institutions, where companies have been forced to confront longstanding racial disparities.
Law enforcement agencies are no exception.
The lack of diversity among Schenectady police prompted questions at a handful of neighborhood forums this summer from residents contending the department should better represent the community it serves.
City resident Terry McDougald, who previously raised the issue at an event at Refreshing Spring Church of God in July, said she doesn’t have any problems with city police, but a more diverse department would help better foster a sense of mutual understanding.
“I think it would bring a different culture to the Police Department,” McDougald said on Monday. “We all desire the same thing, but we may approach it in a different way.”
City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield agrees.
“Any governing body that interacts with the community at that level should reflect the community,” she said.
The city has a population of 65,273, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates. Nearly 21 percent of the city’s residents are Black, and 10.4 percent, Latino.
Asians constitute 6.6 percent, while those identifying as two or more races make up nearly 7 percent.
Both are likely to include Guyanese. Outside of Queens, Schenectady has the largest concentration of Guyanese in the U.S. (for the first time this year, people have been able to record their country of origin and ancestry on the U.S. Census form, which will likely paint a clearer picture of how many Guyanese actually reside in the city).
Just 58 percent of residents identify as white alone.
Experts say bridging racial gaps is necessary to boost credibility.
“The culture of police departments needs to be based on community policing and building relationships will benefit all members of the community, especially marginalized community members,” said Dr. Danielle T. Smith, first professor of African American studies at Syracuse University. “I don’t think that can happen if most marginalized community members are minorities, and their status is not represented in the police department.”
The lack of diversity is not unique to Schenectady. While larger police departments in New York City, Houston and Los Angeles are narrowing the racial gap, many more remain whiter than the communities they serve.
Of 467 local police departments with at least 100 officers that reported data for 2007 and 2016, more than two-thirds actually became whiter relative to their communities between those years, according to a New York Times analysis published last week.
Police Chief Eric Clifford acknowledges minorities are underrepresented in the department, and said diversifying the force has been one of his priorities since taking the reins in 2016.
“Everything we do we do is under the lens of being more diverse and reflective of the community,” Clifford said.
Clifford pinned the gap, in part, on often onerous civil service exam requirements.
There’s no residency requirement to be a city cop, which itself has bubbled up from time to time as something that should be revisited.
But those seeking to take the exam must be a county resident or resident of an adjacent county, rules that can present a barrier to entry, Clifford said.
While a college degree is not required, some college credits are required.
Ideally, Clifford would like to see local high school graduates return to their hometowns after college and be able to immediately join the department.
Yet distance can also prove to be an issue.
“Unfortunately, if there’s a resident of this county and they go to school out of state, it’s not feasible for them to come home and take a test on a Saturday,” Clifford said. “Many times the test is given during the school year, so they would have missed it while they were in college.”
The same goes for Union College and Siena College students who may want to stay in the area after graduating.
“We’re trying to figure out a better way that we can recruit, especially recruit persons from the community who have a college degree,” Clifford said.
In the meantime, the department is continuing to dispatch public information officers to city schools to promote career options.
While Porterfield doesn’t believe requirements should be lessened, more flexibility — including perhaps letting applicants earn college credits after joining the force — may help boost the number of recruits.
City Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas agrees with forging stronger ties with Schenectady High School.
“There’s an opportunity to stay here and become a hometown hero,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.
Smith, the Syracuse University professor, said efforts by police departments to narrow racial gaps should also accompanied by concrete efforts within city governments to create lasting equity, including bolstering workforce training and development programs, for instance.
Culture, too, plays a big role, Smith said. It doesn’t matter how many minority officers a department has, for instance, if they have adversarial relationships with the community.
“They can’t focus on one element alone,” Smith said. “These problems need to be addressed holistically and comprehensively.”