Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz wants the Police Department to reflect the area's growing diversity — and police officials and others see the latest round of promotions as a step in that direction.
The county recently promoted a woman and three minority officers to top command positions, bringing the number of women and minorities to eight out of the department's 33 sworn members of the executive corps, which includes captains, majors, colonels and the chief.
The department also has made strides in increasing the diversity of its overall force. But personnel numbers show it still has a way to go to mirror the demographics of the county of about 823,000 people.
Minorities now make up 40 percent of the county population, but only 16 percent of the police force, up from 12 percent in 2007. Blacks make up 28 percent of the county population, but less than 13 percent of the 1,868-member force.
Recruitment of minorities for public-safety positions has long been an issue for inner-ring suburbs, which have become increasingly diverse. And in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., complaints arose across the country that many police departments did not reflect their communities.
Officials in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties say they continue to look for ways to broaden their efforts.
"We go everywhere from military bases to schools to college campuses seeking out minority applicants," said Capt. Robert McCullough, who oversees the employment section of the Baltimore County Police Department.
McCullough said that in 1985, he was one of two black Baltimore County police cadets in his class. Last week, he was promoted from the rank of lieutenant into a top command group that county officials say is the most diverse ever.
As Kamenetz addressed the officers, family and friends at the promotion ceremony last week, he noted that employing people of varied backgrounds was "critical to our success."
"The department needs to fairly reflect the diversity of the community they serve," Kamenetz said in an interview. "We're a much more diverse county than we were in the 1950s and 1960s."
Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, noted that the department has not had a black colonel since Johnny Whitehead — who also was the first black police captain in the county — retired in 1997.
Fugett said he would like to see more minorities in top positions, but that people need to come up through the ranks, so it will take time.
"We're hoping that with the captains, it's a good start, and that we will continue to see progress," Fugett said, adding the chapter has forged a good relationship with county Police Chief Jim Johnson, who is white, and meet with him regularly.
"Having the diversity and the relationships in the county can prevent those types of unfortunate situations that have happened in other parts of the country," he said.
McCullough said good relations with young people is crucial. As a youngster in West Baltimore, he said, "I always had positive interactions with police."
But that isn't the case today for many youth of color, said Maya Beasley, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and co-founder of the T10 Group, a diversity consulting firm.
People are not likely to get interested in a law-enforcement career "if they're watching people in their community be brutalized by the police," she said.
"If kids are growing up seeing it with their own eyes, hearing stories from their parents … where people have had negative interactions with the police, then you can understand why this wouldn't be all that appealing," Beasley said.
Beasley, author of the book "Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite," said her research has shown that black students, in particular, are interested in careers they believe will give back to the community.
"The thing I think is interesting is that we don't see a huge amount of interest in policing, and I suspect a good deal of that is because of bad police relations with minority communities," Beasley said. "And so that career is not seen as giving back to the community — it's seen as, if anything, antithetical."
Kamenetz said that in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division wrote to county officials, asking for more information on the hiring of African-Americans in both the police and fire departments. He said the county supplied the federal agency with data, but has not heard anything since then.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
McCullough said the county has tried to reach out to minorities in promotional materials and through its cadet program, which provides training for people interested in law enforcement. The proportion of cadets who are minorities grew from 8 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2014, according the department.
For many, a personal connection to police work is what inspires them, McCullough said. Whitehead, his second cousin, encouraged him to become a police cadet in the 1980s.
But while many young people apply for positions, they don't always follow through, he said.
That's also a challenge in Anne Arundel County, where only about half of all applicants show up for testing day, said Lt. James Fredericks, who oversees the police personnel section. The length of the hiring process can discourage applicants — both minority and non-minority — or make them turn to other departments where they can be hired more quickly.
Then-Police Chief Kevin Davis told state lawmakers last January that the number of minorities in the department was "unacceptable." He and the county fire chief outlined recruiting plans after legislators received complaints that their departments did not reflect the county's demographics.
Davis has since left the department for Baltimore, but minority recruitment remains a top goal of Police Chief Timothy Altomare, Fredericks said.
The Police Department is about 88 percent white, 7 percent black, and 3.5 percent Hispanic. That's compared to a county population that is about 77 percent white, 16 percent black, and 7 percent Hispanic, according to census figures.
In the current application cycle, about 55 percent of applicants are minorities, Fredericks said.
"We're very happy with that," Fredericks said, but "we'd like that to be higher."
The department has worked to make applying more efficient to compete with other jurisdictions, he said. It has also tried to focus more on community-oriented events, in addition to traditional advertising. For example, recruiters visited a Hispanic community event sponsored by the county health department last year.
In Howard County, police send recruitment information to Asian churches and businesses and reach out to historically black colleges, police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said. The department also trained members of the Citizens Advisory Council to conduct recruitment outreach, and places ads in multicultural newsletters, among other efforts.
The police force is 77 percent white, 14 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 3 percent Hispanic, she said. This compares to a county population that is 57 percent white, 18 percent black, 16 percent Asian and 6 percent Hispanic.
Last week, Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner announced new community policing initiatives designed to enhance public trust in police, and Llewellyn said recruitment outreach will be a part of that.