Missouri needs to provide scholarships or loan forgiveness programs to encourage more minorities to become peace officers in the state, Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday in Kansas City.
Law enforcement agencies also need to return officers to classrooms to engage and mentor students like they did in the days of the anti-drug program DARE, Koster said at a roundtable event he organized in response to the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in August.
“Ferguson has highlighted the crisis in representative policing in our state and also the consequences of our failing to address this problem,” Koster said. “The consequences that Ferguson is going through for ignoring the importance of representative policing is playing itself out in really challenging ways across the streets of St. Louis today.”
About 100 community leaders and police officials attended the event at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A similar gathering was held earlier this month in St. Louis, where those attending said efforts to steer minorities into law enforcement careers should begin as early as middle school and continue through college.
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One idea is to provide scholarships to African-Americans and other minorities to attend one of 20 police or law enforcement academies connected to community colleges throughout Missouri. Koster said $2 million in state aid would cover the $6,000 cost for about 300 people to enroll in those classes and obtain law enforcement certificates.
Politicians, civic leaders and others made suggestions at the Kansas City discussion. Koster said he plans to prepare a report within two weeks about solutions discussed in St. Louis and Kansas City, and he plans to make suggestions to lawmakers for action that can be taken during the 2015 legislative session.
“The issue from this meeting is intentionality and will people now become intentional when it comes to making changes,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who praised the meeting as a positive step toward improving police and community relations.
Koster organized the twin meetings following news articles in The Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that highlighted the low numbers of African-Americans and other minorities in police forces of Missouri’s urban and large suburban police departments.
The lack of minority police officers has been a significant complaint during weeks of civil unrest in the St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson. Two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are African-American. Nearly all of the department’s officers are white.
African-Americans, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 12 percent of the full-time officers working for police departments nationally in 2007, according to the U.S. Justice Department. However, most of them worked in the nation’s largest cities, the statistics show.
Missouri has more than 14,000 law enforcement officers. Officials do not know what percentage is not white because the state does not track that statistic, Koster said. That is a problem, he said.
Also on Tuesday, community activist Pat Clarke met with 19 area police chiefs and other law enforcement representatives to address the minority recruiting issue. From that session, the departments tentatively agreed to hold a one-day minority recruiting event from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Robert J. Mohart Multipurpose Center in Kansas City. Several agencies said they would be willing to participate.
“There is a national crisis in hiring police officers right now,” said Independence Police Chief Tom Dailey. “The more we can do to reflect the community and get our message out in how important policing is to a community, the better off we are.”