3 veteran Black officers’ perspectives: minority recruiting challenges

MIAMI VALLEY — As we watched racial justice and police reform protests from Minneapolis to the Miami Valley, the scenes often mirror separate protester and police sides.

For African-American officers, like Montgomery County Chief Deputy Sheriff Daryl Wilson, those scenes are personally complex--a complexity Assistant Dayton Police Chief Eric Henderson deeply understands.

"When I put this uniform on, I'm law enforcement," Wilson said. "When I take it off at the end of the day, I'm an African-American male."

"Me as a black man, I don't want to be labeled. And me, as a police officer, I don't want to be labeled," Henderson added.

20 year Dayton Police veteran officer Leatha Savage says a law enforcement career was not something encouraged in her childhood home, outside St. Petersburg, Florida.

"Growing up in a black home, black brothers, black sisters, cousins, aunts. I even asked, I'm like, 'Has anybody ever thought of being a police officer?' And it was like, 'Why? No,'" Savage said.

All three officers say they experienced mainly positive interactions with police when they were young. Wilson grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a single mom.

"I would do things I wasn't supposed to be doing, so law enforcement back in those days would take me home and I would get it from my mom," Wilson said.

Henderson is a Dayton native, who attended Wright State University after graduating from Meadowdale High School.

"A DARE officer came to the school and I actually rode in the cruiser with the DARE officer going around to schools, talking with kids about why they shouldn't use drugs," Henderson recalled.

Savage says police officers were welcomed into the home she shared with her mother and four siblings.

"We had a police department, like on Sundays, it was nothing for police officers to come have Sunday dinner at your house," Savage said.

One of just three Black female DPD officers, Savage worked the front lines during recent protests.

“One young man kept saying, ‘You look like my mom. You could be my mom,’” Savage remembered. “And I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And then he said I should never put this uniform on again. And I said, ‘If I didn’t put this uniform on again, your mom wouldn’t be on the department.’”

There is a renewed push for more women and minorities in uniform as citizens demand law enforcement better reflect the communities they serve. 2010 Census numbers there is much progress to be made.

The Dayton Police Department has 370 officers. 26 of them are Black, representing 7% of the force in a city whose population is 43% Black.

The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has 203 sworn officers, 11 of whom are Black. That is about 5%, while the county's population is 21% Black.

To increase numbers, both departments launched minority recruiting campaigns, including billboard ads and slickly-produced videos showcasing officers' different duties.

However, the three veteran officers believe the first hurdle is overcoming the mistrust among people of color toward police.

"I get called names from my people, other people of color, because I am law enforcement," Wilson said.

Wilson understands the animosity. He recalls one experience when he was traveling out of state, out of uniform, and a white officer approached him using what Wilson perceived as a racial slur.

“Maybe he calls everybody ‘boy.’ But that’s not cool. Or maybe because I was Black, he’s calling me ‘boy.’” Wilson said. “And, you see even law enforcement say, ‘Well, what can we do to help you with this movement?’ Because, you know what? Good cops hate bad cops.”

Negative police interactions are also a part of Henderson's family conversations. He feels it's important for all sides to listen.

"A lot of times, as an officer, you forget the power and the potential impact you have over someone's life when you're interacting with them and how that person may feel," Henderson said.

Just like the officers she grew up with, Savage advocates for more outreach in Black and Hispanic communities. She is also partnering with Dayton Public Schools to connect with middle and high school students.

"And we're going to give them the opportunity to interact with police on a regular basis to see us as the human beings that we are," Savage said.

All three invite other people of color to consider joining them and helping the movement toward more racial diversity in law enforcement.

"If you want change within the police department," says Savage, "be a police officer."

Henderson urges critics to be part of the solution.

"I think in order to make change, you have to have a seat at the table. I'm sitting at the table and I would really like to challenge more people to have a seat at the table," Henderson said.

And though the job is difficult, Wilson says the positive interactions with citizens make it worthwhile.

“People still tell us, ‘We pray for you. Thank you.’ That right there is rewarding. That right there keeps me going. That right there is what makes me do this job,” Wilson said.

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