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To better match their community, police in Yonkers try to find more Black recruits

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years now, communities across the country have been saying their police departments should look more like the cities they serve. That includes Yonkers, N.Y., where police are specifically looking to recruit of officers of color. The team at NPR's Embedded podcast spent a year there reporting on the effort. Dan Girma brings us this story.

DAN GIRMA, BYLINE: It's May 2022, and about a dozen potential police recruits are on a track at a high school field in Yonkers, kind of like a track meet for adults. Family and friends have come to watch. It's cold and wet from the rain the night before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This track, inside lane - six laps right from start to finish.

GIRMA: A timekeeper lays out the rules for the group. The goal is to do a mile and a half in a time determined by your age and gender.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ready? Begin.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Come on, Camille (ph). You can do this.

GIRMA: One of the runners sprinting down the track is Stephen Burton. He's 28 years old, and he's a little surprised to find himself here.

STEPHEN BURTON: Honestly, like, I didn't think I would ever even want to be a police officer.

GIRMA: That's until one day out of the blue...

BURTON: I just got a phone call from a police officer saying, hey; are you registered for this Be the Change? And I was like, I have no idea what you're talking about.

GIRMA: Burton had never heard of a program called Be the Change, but he didn't hang up. The officer explained that the Yonkers Police Department is trying to hire more officers of color. They even put out an ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The Yonkers police is hiring.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And we want you to take the test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We are looking for a diverse group of men and women to help keep Yonkers moving forward.

GIRMA: Department promised to help people through the application process, which started with a written exam and then a physical test if you scored high enough. The ad ended with this call to action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Be a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Be a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Be a hero.

JOHN MUELLER: Be a hero. Be the change.

BURTON: I didn't really see, like, a lot of minority cops in this department. And that's one of the things that I really would like to see.

GIRMA: Burton grew up next door to Yonkers in the Bronx and had a lot of run-ins with the cops, mostly white ones.

BURTON: Whenever I got pulled over or got stopped by police officers, the first thing they asked me is, where are you going? Or, whose car is this? It's always an aggressive tone with police officers.

GIRMA: Burton didn't really want anything to do with the police. But after that call with the Yonkers cop, he started thinking about how, if he really wanted to be the change, he should do something about it.

BURTON: The driving factor behind it all is just wanting to see change in the system because it starts with police officers.

GIRMA: So Burton applied and took the exam. And after he passed, he was invited to an information meeting put on by a Black police organization in Yonkers called The Guardians. The group's president began the meeting.

CHARLES WALKER: My name is Lieutenant Charles Walker. Everyone you see here tonight is an officer, and some are retired officers.

GIRMA: In all, 12 current officers and two retired officers are there.

DANIELLE SANTOS: You know, all of them lined up at the front of the room, it looked like the Avengers (laughter).

GIRMA: This is Danielle Santos, another Black police candidate.

SANTOS: I've never seen so many Black cops in Yonkers ever.

GIRMA: That's why The Guardians are holding this meeting - to show how many Black officers there actually are in Yonkers but also why they need even more.

WALKER: It's not enough of us on this job. Our intent is to get all of us on this job.

GIRMA: It was even more apparent when Walker joined the Yonkers Police Department 19 years ago.

WALKER: I started looking at the history of the department, how many applicants we're getting, how many were actually Black and just seeing the numbers. And they were dismal.

GIRMA: That's when he decided to devote himself to getting more Black officers on the force.

WALKER: If you speak to any Black officer, there are plenty of times where you go to a scene, whether it be a traffic stop or, you know, a domestic or any interaction with the public where representation matters, people who look like you matter.

Before you leave, if you want to pull somebody aside...

GIRMA: Walker spends the meeting telling the candidates how The Guardians will help them through every step of the recruitment process. And then he opens up the floor.

WALKER: Any of you want to come up and ask any of the officers any questions now?

GIRMA: Stephen Burton raises his hand.

BURTON: Once you get hired and you go through the academy and everything - right? - and you do your year probation, how long does it take to be at the patrol, to be in a specialized unit?

WALKER: That is - I like the ambition. I like the ambition. I like the ambition.

GIRMA: What Stephen is asking is, what does it take to advance in the department and become something like a detective or join a special task force? - because it's one thing to bring in a new group of Black candidates. It's another thing to see those Black officers climb the ranks. Right now, as a lieutenant, Charlie Walker is the highest-ranking Black officer in the Yonkers Police Department. There are no Black captains, no Black chiefs, no Black commissioners. Walker says that without high-ranking Black officers, cops at lower ranks get discouraged.

WALKER: And because of that, you have Black officers that have no faith in that process at all.

MUELLER: We don't control how we promote.

GIRMA: John Mueller was the police commissioner in Yonkers at the time of this reporting. He says even if he wanted to change the process, which he believes is fair, it's not up to him.

MUELLER: It's state civil service law. I can't change the law. I can't say, I want to uplift African American lieutenants, and I want to make them captains. If they don't score high enough - and it is an imperfect system. It is.

GIRMA: Mueller thinks that if you get more Black cops on the ground level, the entry level, it will trickle up to higher positions in the department over time.

MUELLER: Like, the first step is you get, you know, a diverse class of officers coming in, right? Once they come in, now you have more people that are of color that now are eligible to take the sergeant's test and then more people of color that are sergeants to take the lieutenant's test and so on and so forth.

GIRMA: Which is what the Be the Change program is supposed to do. Charlie Walker still doesn't love the name.

WALKER: I would have liked Help Us to Be the Change, right? It's acknowledging that we need to do the work, and it's a collective.

GIRMA: But he'd take it because finally, with the Be the Change program, there was an acknowledgement that something needed to be done, that the department had to cast a wider net and that these new recruits needed coaching through the exam process and needed to be trained for the physical...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Let's work. Let's work.

GIRMA: ...Which is why many of The Guardians were up early on a cold May morning on the sidelines of a high school track.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Good, Steve. Good, Steve. Good, Steve. Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving.

GIRMA: As Stephen Burton reaches the final straight, The Guardians start cheering louder.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Come on, Stephen. Let's get it, Stephen.

GIRMA: He lets out an emphatic yell as he crosses the finish line.

BURTON: Oh, yeah. Woo (ph).

GIRMA: Burton had to finish his run in 12 minutes and 53 seconds, and he smashed that number.

BURTON: Finally did it - made it under 10:30.

GIRMA: In fact, all 15 Guardians candidates who took the physical test that day passed it. Every one of them will be a Yonkers police officer, which is a big step in making a department like Yonkers more diverse. But it's just the first step. Dan Girma, NPR News, Yonkers.

SHAPIRO: That reporting is part of a new series called Changing the Police from NPR's Embedded podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Girma
Dan Girma is an assistant producer for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit.