By the numbers
2014 sworn police personnel by agency, race, ethnicity and gender
Race: White 295; Black 37; Other 5
Ethnicity: Hispanic 6; Non-Hispanic, 331
Gender: Male 313; Female 24
Race: White 134; Black 5; Other 4
Ethnicity: Hispanic 7; Non-Hispanic 136
Gender: Male 137; Female 6
Race: White 121; Black 4; Other 3
Ethnicity: Hispanic 3; Non-Hispanic 125
Gender: Male 120; Female 8
Source: New York Department of Criminal Justice Services
Growing up in Schenectady’s Central State Street neighborhood, James Plowden thought about being a police officer. But the idea didn’t become focused until later, after college.
He learned more about the job. He saw police in the community, and he talked to officers.
“I just wanted to be a good guy and fight the good fight,” said Plowden, who became a Schenectady police officer last summer.
What makes Plowden’s journey to his hometown’s police department noteworthy is that he comes from a segment of the community from which the department and others around the region and country have struggled to draw personnel.
Plowden is black. The city he now serves is 20 percent black, but only about 4 percent of his department is black.
Albany and Troy, which also have significant black populations, also have police forces that are far from representative. Just over 3 percent of Troy’s officers are black, compared with 16 percent
of the city’s population. About 11 percent of Albany officers are black, while about 30 percent of the population is.
Why blacks are so underrepresented on police forces has been a matter of debate for years.
Change comes slowly in a system where the first hurdle for those interested in the job is a civil service exam, often only given every two years.
Other demographics are also underrepresented, including Hispanics and women.
Schenectady Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said he knows the numbers need to be better. The department and the city have been working toward that goal.
“We are a part of the community, and our demographic makeup should reflect that of the community at large,” Kilcullen said.
That is important, he said, because “it provides for an atmosphere of empathy and understanding and compassion.”
The lack of police diversity entered the spotlight again last summer after the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island. It came up locally earlier this month in a community forum held to address issues arising from those national incidents, and their implications here.
Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett gave his own critique of the department then, saying it needs more black officers, more female officers and more Spanish-speaking officers. It needs more officers, period, he said, to send into schools and underserved communities.
Achieving those goals, though, has been difficult.
The department has been active in attending job fairs, including one recently held through the Chamber of Schenectady County. They attend college job fairs and produce recruitment materials and billboards, Kilcullen said. They’ve also distributed applications at local places of worship.
Results have been mixed. The number of black officers on the Schenectady force in 2010 was five of 153. In 2014, the number of black officers was still five, but out of 143 total officers, according to numbers submitted to the state. Kilcullen said there are now six black officers.
For at least part of that time, one of the department’s black members — Mark Chaires — served as chief. Chaires was Schenectady’s police chief from 2008 to 2012.
The number of Schenectady officers reported as not black and not white has increased from one in 2010 to four in 2014, state numbers show. Hispanic officers increased from four to seven. The number of female officers remains the same: six.
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the local chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she recognizes the efforts Schenectady has made to get the numbers up. Those efforts must continue.
“It’s an uphill battle, but one that absolutely must be fought by these police departments,” Trimble said. “They need to do the best they can to recruit the best officers they can.”
And those officers have to reflect the community, she said.
“If you don’t have a diverse police force, you do not get the trust of the people that they’re serving,” Trimble said. “They need to know that their peers are part of law enforcement.”
Fred Clark of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped organize the forum earlier this month where issues of race and policing were addressed. He said he hopes to have another forum in the spring to follow up on the discussion, including diversity in the police department, bringing in ideas from local experts.
The issue is also a concern for the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, but there are no easy answers, Executive Director Angelicia Morris said. Common backgrounds lead to trust and confidence, she said.
The latest effort by Schenectady to figure out how to improve diversity in the police department, as well as the fire department and city workforce as a whole, is an affirmative action advisory board. The city also has an affirmative action director position shared with the county.
The board was reconstituted last fall after being dormant for years. Councilwoman Marion Porterfield pushed for the board’s return to come up with ideas and recommendations on how to increase diversity in the city workforce.
Board members have since gone through training and gathered data on the city’s workforce. The board is now starting the process of using that training to analyze the data.
“We can’t change everything overnight,” said Teneka Frost-Amusa, acting president of the board. “It’s going to take some time to get the information. We need to make recommendations that are going to make an impact.”
As for why the numbers are the way they are, Porterfield said she’s not sure. Some of it may be that people pursue jobs from people they know. If they don’t know people of color, she said, that might perpetuate certain demographics.
Law enforcement can also be a family job, as one generation of a family can follow the previous generation into the profession, Porterfield noted. Former police chief Chaires, she pointed out, was a second-generation officer whose father, Arthur, was the department’s first black officer.
As to how the numbers can be improved, Porterfield’s first thought is recruiting.
“I think there needs to be targeted recruiting,” she said. “I really believe that needs to start at a younger age.”
She suggested looking to other departments with programs in the schools.
Steps taken before the most recent exam given in November included help from Spanish-speaking, female and minority officers, City Affirmative Action Director Miriam Cajuste said in an email. They reached out to clergy and business to address congregants and patrons.
Prospective applicants were encouraged to ask questions of the officers, and they were even given a chance to ride along with officers, she said. The office also offered well-attended exam preparation sessions based on the state study guide.
One department that has had some success over time, albeit small, according to the state numbers, is Albany.
Of Albany’s 327 officers in 2010, 27 — or 8.3 percent — were black. By 2014, they had 37 black officers of 337 on the force, just under 11 percent.
“Obviously we still have work to do,” Albany police spokesman Steven Smith said, “but we’ve made tremendous efforts through the years to encourage minorities to take the police exam.”
He said the department offers test preparation for city residents, as well as prep for the required physical agility tests.
“We do a lot of different things,” Smith said. “We recruit. We never stop recruiting. At times, we recruit more than others, but we’re always recruiting.”
As for the civil service exams, those are the wild cards. The results from the November exam are expected in the coming months.
Some 380 from Schenectady County took the November exam, according to a county spokesman. Those who pass will be ranked by their score. In a process regulated by a series of rules, a single opening means the department gets to choose one person from the top three scores. Options vary with multiple openings or tie scores.
As for how Schenectady’s efforts worked leading up to the November exam, that’s unknown. Those taking the exam aren’t required to provide their race, a county spokesman said.
Schenectady’s Plowden, though, emphasized that taking and passing the exam is the first step. He took the test after returning to his hometown from several years in Georgia. He’d worked several jobs out of college before landing his first police job.
He was an Atlanta officer for six years before moving with his wife and three daughters back to Schenectady to be closer to family.
When he was sworn in last July, Plowden called serving the city where he grew up a “dream come true.”
As for the number of minorities on the force, he said the more there are, the more minority kids see officers like them and it becomes real for them.
The goal of the entire process, he said, is to get the right officers for the job. But people can’t know if they are the right person without taking the exam.
“That’s the big thing,” Plowden said, “Get on the list. Get your name in the hat.”