By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
The 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo. drew national attention to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old Black teenager. Strained community-police relations continue as diversity — ethnic, gender, religion, sexual orientation, experience, background — in law enforcement agencies and other reforms still have a long way to go.
During the first quarter of 2017, 46 percent of all new deputy hires by the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) have been persons of color and/or female.
With about 170 languages now being spoken in the county, recruits who speak a second language have become as valuable as those who have served in the military in a war zone. This is one change Sheriff John Urquhart has successfully led.
“Why not give that person who has that extra skill a step up?” he asked. “Why don’t we look for that real value that can bring not only to the organization, but more importantly, to the community? And that’s why I did that, and if we get diverse people as well, well then, it’s a double win.”
“The number one criterion has to be the heart of a servant, to be able to want to go out into your community and make a difference. That’s what I’m looking for,” he said.
Sergeant Loi Dawkins has been recruiting deputies of color for the KCSO for the last year. Her mother is Asian, and her father is Black. She said, “The message with our recruiting team is that we are inviting people from all walks of life to apply for our department because we have a need for them.”
In addition to expanding recruitment and outreach, the KCSO’s proactive efforts to improve diversity include hiring minority officers from other jurisdictions.
“ We are working hard to recruit a more diverse workforce that reflects our community,” she said.
One barrier among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that is deterring them from becoming deputy sheriffs — a lack of trust in law enforcement underlying their belief they need not apply.
According to a 2016 report “Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement,” from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this barrier in recruitment exists along with other barriers, like the reputation or practices of a police agency and the lack of awareness of career opportunities within a police agency.
Dawkins’ job is to also increase the awareness of career opportunities at the KCSO, like working as a school resource officer or receiving full health-care coverage, a $62,710 starting salary, and a take-home car as a deputy sheriff.
“I was able to go back to school and get my master’s in public administration, and then I found more things that I could apply my education to, so there’s truly something for everyone on this department, as long as people take advantage of that,” she said.
Urquhart said, “There’s so many different things you can do throughout your career. Hopefully, this will be at least a 40-year career for people.”
Retention and promotion of Asian American and other minority deputies that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve are equally as important as recruitment.
Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and retired captain of the Denver Police Department, spoke about the Ferguson protests in a 2014 “PBS NewsHour” broadcast. She says what was seen in Ferguson from the beginning were policy decisions, such as the decision to bring out heavy armor.
“Those are policy decisions that if you don’t have diversity in the ranks of command staff that can give some insight to decisions being made, often times, this is the result.”
In an online KCSO video, Dawkins said, “I could be the officer that I would want somebody to be to me and rather than complaining about officers, I decided that I would be the change that I wanted to see.”
Her sentiment echoes a quote often associated with Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Dawkins gives an analogy during her public speaking appearances.
“I played sports in high school, and I tell people, ‘You know, we’ve all been to some sporting event or another,” she said. “Especially with the youth, I use that and tell them, ‘You have an opportunity to get into the game versus standing in the crowds, throwing popcorn. That’s not going to change the plays that the players make.’”
For minority adolescents 14 to 20 interested in getting into the game, there is the King County Sheriff Explorer Program. It offers them the opportunity to see first-hand what real police work is about and go on ride-alongs with officers.
“It’s a great way for them to develop leadership skills early on because I think that through the Explorer Program, I have seen kids with a better sense of confidence,” she said.
Urquhart wants the KCSO to understand its diverse community.
“We have to listen to the community. We have to absorb the values that they want us to have,” he said.
“We shouldn’t bring our values to the job.”
For more information about the next Deputy Information Session on June 17 at 9:00 a.m., email Sergeant Loi Dawkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.