All badges feel the backlash

The backlash is being felt across Erie County. Recent discipline against three Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers for
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

The backlash is being felt across Erie County.

Recent discipline against three Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers for a prank that seemed to be racially motivated has left a sting in officers around the area.

"It's a huge black eye," said Perkins police Lt. Al Matthews, a black officer with the department for 15 years. "It will probably take 10 years before people will forget about it."

It was learned one trooper snapped a picture of another dressed up in a KKK-like outfit while on duty at the Sandusky post the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The involved troopers said the picture was a joke and based on a skit by black comedian Dave Chappelle.

"I'm still shocked," Matthews said, adding that patrol officers have been hearing remarks from residents about it.

Others are feeling the heat too.

"It's had an impact," said Sheriff Terry Lyons. "We all kind of get painted with the same brush, that all of law enforcement in Erie County is this way."

Past incidents

Unfortunately, this is not the first time racism has hit local law enforcement. In the mid 1980s a Perkins police officer put up a cartoon character of a black man under a target and posted it on a fellow black officer's locker, Matthews said.

"Every department had some sort of racial incident or issue at some time," he said.

In a 1977 court case Sandusky police and fire departments were forced to have 10 percent minority representation in their forces. In 1996 the U.S. District Court in Toledo lifted its order, as minority employment had risen to nearly 12 percent.

The best prevention

This leaves department heads pondering the key to prevention. Diversity training benefits not only the officers, but also the community, Matthews said.

"It's just as important as having firearms training or learning how to do traffic stops," he said. "If you're a well diverse department, the department's image, to me, looks better. You're going to have less complaints from certain individual groups."

But it's hard to say if more diversity training could have helped prevent the trooper incident.

"No matter how much training you sign those officers up for, whatever their core beliefs are ... you can never change that," Matthews said. "You only hope the person is strong enough to curb their feelings towards another race that they keep it inside their home."

Having minority officers benefits both departments and the community, officials say.

People respond differently to officers in a variety of capacities. A woman may feel more comfortable reporting a rape to a female officer, for example, said Sandusky police Acting Chief Charlie Sams. Or youths might find it easier to talk to a younger officer, he added.

The same goes for minorities.

"Being Caucasian, how do I know what someone of color has went through?" Lyons asked. "If you have somebody that is in the workforce that is sensitive to those types of things, it seems to have an influence on other coworkers. I think that's healthy."

Deputy Johann Matute has been in law enforcement a little more than five years. Born and raised in Venezuela, the Hispanic deputy speaks English, Spanish and Italian.

"I have been very fortunate, and because of being a minority and because of speaking three languages, it was a lot easier for me to get into (the profession)," he said. "Basically I'm the county translator. I've translated even from out of state over the phone."

Prior to working at the sheriff's office, Matute was employed as a non-bonded Cedar Point officer and as a Perkins police officer. Matute said he has yet to experience racism within his department.

"It's actually a plus. It's been a great tool, the fact that I am not from here," he said, adding that he hopes to break the mold of stereotypes. "I try as much as I can to represent and give the Hispanic culture a good image because of the fact that I have a very public and somewhat respected position."

Being a minority can help on calls involving minorities.

"It does bring a level of ease to a call when I show up," he said. "In my experience it's been more of a positive than a negative."

Hiring practices

Department heads said they all value having diverse officers, but hiring practices vary. Sandusky police, for example, use a civil service exam. While minority candidates gain additional points toward their final score, other components factor in too.

Department leaders are continually working on increasing minority representation, Sams said.

"We have gone to job fairs and colleges to recruit minorities and females in particular," he said. "We want our department to mirror the community that we serve."

Sandusky is 74.5 percent white, according to U.S. Census in 2000. In a perfect world, about one of out every four officers in the community would be a minority to match that percentage.

Through a new program, the Sandusky police youth academy, the department hopes to recruit high school students, including minorities with an interest in law enforcement, Sams said.

"Getting individuals alone to work in law enforcement is difficult. It's a dangerous job," he said. "It's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job."

But locals are also being lost to more prospering markets, Lyons said.

The sheriff's office does not use civil service exams.

"You want the best qualified candidate with the best experience," he said. "It would be unfair to prefer any applicant over another. The ideal is that you have your workforce reflect the community that you serve."

Recovering

Matute said he believes the trooper prank will affect other troopers the most. But anyone wearing a law enforcement uniform could be hurt, he said.

"I think it's going to make it a little harder for all of us in law enforcement," he said. "I think it will be harder for us to gain people's trust."

Being proactive might be the best solution.

"Our challenge is to continue to get diversity training for all our officers," Sams said. "We'll continue to provide that training for our officers to hopefully avoid these types of incidents."

Recovering from this means open lines of communication with the community, Lyons said.

"We need to hear from the minority community on how frustrating and upsetting this is, and we need to be attentive to that and listen to that," he said. "We don't want this single act to define us as a community."

By the numbers

Officers, by race, in Erie County law enforcement agencies

Department White officers Non-white officers Total (includes part-time officers)

* Sandusky police 52 7 59

* Vermilion police 27 1 28

* Perkins police 19 4 23

* Huron police (No information available)

* Castalia police 9 3 12

* Milan police 10 0 10

* Bay View police 7 1 8

* Kelleys Island police 6 0 6

* Berlin Heights police 5 0 5

* Erie County Sheriff's office 72 5 77

(includes jail staff) /

* Totals: 207 / 21 / 228

(Overall about 9.2 percent non-white)

Source: Local law enforcement agencies