Minority officers are few in many South Jersey towns - New Jersey News - Press of Atlantic City

Minority officers are few in many South Jersey towns - New Jersey News - Press of Atlantic City

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Minority officers are few in many South Jersey towns

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The Little Egg Harbor Township Police Department has not hired a single black police officer since its creation in 1967, Chief Richard Buzby said.

Buzby also cannot recall ever having an African-American applicant.

"Most of the police chiefs I know would welcome that opportunity of having people who represent all ethnicities," Buzby said. "It opens all kinds of doors in the community."

Police departments in South Jersey have tried to diversify for decades, with varying results. Many have found a number of obstacles to their efforts. Among them: their own community's lack of diversity, Civil Service testing rules, and residency requirements that often discourage minority officers from applying. As a result, most police departments in southern New Jersey are mirror images of their communities when it comes to race.

So, in the case of Little Egg Harbor Township, where just 1 percent of the 20,065 residents is black, there is no minority representation on the force of 38 police officers.

Buzby said that although he would jump at the chance to hire more officers, including minorities, since 2010 his priority has been rehiring some of the 11 officers laid off in a move to balance the township's budget.

"I still have three officers that I am trying to bring back to work. I am fighting to keep what I have and get back what I lost," Buzby said.

Meanwhile, he touted the department's diversity hires of two female officers and three Spanish-speaking officers - two of them fluent - and said he would love to have more Spanish-speaking officers since the township's population is more than 5 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census.

In a case such as Little Egg Harbor Township's, the lack of diversity is not a major issue, but it can be in other communities.

Linda Steele, president of the Atlantic City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said communities need to fight for diversity. Municipalities not being scrutinized do not feel the need to change or make available positions to minority employees because there is no pressure or discussion, she said.

"I think the challenge is that the police departments are like an old-boys network kind of thing, and if you look at a lot of police forces and fire departments, there are a lot of consistent names who are hired," Steele said.

The hiring process is further hampered by applicants being eliminated for minor issues, but many times if an individual has connections within the municipality the scrutiny is not as severe, Steele said.

"The attitude is why fix what isn't broken. If the population is predominantly white (and) if you don't have a minority mix in the community, it will be less likely to have minority officers on your police forces," she said.

As of Jan. 1, 220 of the 310 full-time police officers in the Atlantic City Police Department were white and not of Hispanic origin. African Americans numbered 61, 19 were Hispanic or Latino, and 10 were of two or more races.

In all, 29 percent of the force is minority. But the number of minority officers pales in comparison to the city's population, according to the 2010 census. Atlantic City's population in 2010 was 39,558, with 15,148 black residents. Hispanic residents numbered 12,044 and 10,543 were white, Census data show. Sixty-nine percent of the population is minority.

If municipalities add community-based review boards, then the chances might be a little better that the hiring process will be more diverse than when left to department and municipal officials, Steele said. But municipalities tend to be slow to institute citizen review boards that would address minority hiring in police departments. It took the NAACP's criticism and threats of lawsuits to develop more minority hiring for State Police candidates.

"We have been fighting for a board in Atlantic City and it has been slow going," Steele said.

In nearby Pleasantville, as in Atlantic City, there are more minority officers compared to surrounding area forces. The Pleasantville Police Department has 19 African-American officers, or 41 percent of the 46-member department. There are 10 Hispanic officers, representing 24 percent of the department, and 17 white officers, for 37 percent.

Pleasantville's population in 2010 was 20,249 and breaks down to 9,303 African Americans, or 46 percent, 8,314 Hispanic or Latino residents, or 41 percent, 490 Asians, or 2 percent, and 4,926 whites, or 24 percent.

In Galloway Township, the Police Department has one black officer, one Asian, five female officers, two Hispanic officers and two Spanish-speaking officers, Chief Pat Moran said. The township's population of 37,349 includes 4,271 African Americans, or 11 percent, and 3,752 Hispanic or Latino residents, or 10 percent, according to the 2010 census.

"We haven't hired over the last few years - we've laid off," Moran said.

Before the department laid off officers in 2011, there were two black officers. Towns that are bound by Civil Service guidelines not only have to give preference in the hiring process to residents of that town but to veterans, said Galloway Township Manager Arch Liston, a retired police officer.

Many municipalities that are not bound by Civil Service guidelines fall under hiring requirements by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. In New Jersey, about half of the police departments fall under the Civil Service regulations through the state Department of Personnel, Title 11, while the remaining law-enforcement agencies hire according to local ordinance or regulation.

Departments that fall under Civil Service guidelines require applicants to take the statewide Civil Service Examination. The departments that do not follow Civil Service regulations have varying hiring processes, which usually include an examination. The chiefs association administers many of these exams, according to their website. These municipalities most times are not restricted by the residency requirements that exist in the Civil Service hiring process.

Diversity is vital, said Liston, who cited the need for more bilingual officers.

"If you have a minority community, you're going to have a lot more minority candidates. With Civil Service and with the veteran's preference rule, you can't circumvent that to get to a minority applicant," Liston said.

Towns who are bound by those guidelines can make a request to the state Civil Service Commission regarding the community's specific needs when it comes to hiring officers.

"In my department, I wrote a request to the Civil Service Commission for female officers because that was what we needed. With certain things a department needs, like female and bilingual officers, there are ways to get through the system," he said.

Galloway Township Mayor Don Purdy said having a diverse police department and servicing the community has to be a balancing act.

"I do not think we should make a lesser standard for a certain minority. It should be the best person for the job gets the job," he said.

Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora said it is unfortunate that the police departments of many communities in southern New Jersey reflect the white-dominant communities of the suburbs.

But, Spodofora said, it is a little more difficult than someone may believe to recruit minorities to a suburban police department.

"I would especially love to hire more people who can speak two languages, and we have been actively looking into it and making it happen," Spodofora said.

The township has a population of 26,535 residents, 2010 census data show, and of those, 278 are African American and 1,410 are Hispanic or Latino. The Stafford Township Police Department has one black officer and one Spanish-speaking officer, although the officer is not Hispanic, Lt. Thomas Dellane said.

The department has two female officers. The department has not administered a test to police applicants in a year and a half but is starting to do background checks on the current list of potential officers, and there is a minority applicant in the Top 15, he said.

Contact Donna Weaver:

609-226-9198

DWeaver@pressofac.com

Follow @DonnaKWeaver on Twitter