There's a long tradition in many families of fathers, sons and grandsons (and an occasional granddaughter) all serving in the same police or fire department. Wouldn't it be nice if more minority families had the opportunity to have the same tradition?

Unfortunately, as a report in Sunday's edition of The Press by staff writer Donna Weaver pointed out, many police departments in southern New Jersey have made little progress in diversifying.

The lack of minority police officers isn't just a question of fairness. Minority officers can help make connections with citizens who are sometimes wary of white officers. As the makeup of southern New Jersey towns changes - with larger Asian and Hispanic populations - increasing the number of minority officers is vital for effective police work.

Even in towns that are overwhelmingly white, police chiefs talk about the benefits of having officers who are bilingual or who understand different cultures.

In towns with large minority populations, the need is even clearer. Yet in Atlantic City, where 69 percent of the population is made up of minorities, only 29 percent of police officers are part of a minority group. And that's a better record than most South Jersey departments. Some towns, such as Little Egg Harbor Township, have never had a black police officer.

Of course, for many area police departments, recent years have been a time of retrenchment, not hiring. Many officers were laid off as budgets were cut, and departments are still trying to get back to full strength.

As those efforts are under way, a guiding principle should be that our police forces should reflect our nation. But in many towns, the police department is still far more white and male than the community it serves and protects.

And while some departments say Civil Service testing makes it difficult to hire more minorities, there are certainly steps that can be taken to increase the number of minority police officers.

The first step is to make it a priority. With that would come outreach programs encouraging more minority applicants. Towns can also work with the Civil Service Commission when they are trying to fill specific needs or make up for a lack of effort in the past.

And towns in which a community-based review board advises police departments seem to do a better job of hiring minorities - just one of the ways such boards can help a police department relate more effectively to its citizens.

The most important thing is for local governments and police departments to commit themselves to ensuring that the diverse communities of southern New Jersey are represented on our police forces.

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