The Smithfield Police Department hopes to expand its hiring pool to include those who can’t afford the mandatory training.
Last month, the Town Council approved a program that will allow the police department to pay for training for officer candidates who sign a five-year employment contract.
The program is part of an effort to bring diversity to Smithfield’s police force, said Police Chief Michael Scott. The town has a growing Hispanic population, but only two of 42 officers are minorities, he noted.
A police force should reflect the community it serves and protects, Scott said. “It is important to have that structure within a police agency so people feel comfortable with who’s policing,” he said.
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Many police forces in North Carolina lack diversity, and that makes it hard for Smithfield to recruit competitively with larger cities like Raleigh, Scott said.
“I don’t want to call this a minority initiative, because we’re an equal opportunity employer, but the reality is if we can increase our hiring pool, then we can hire more minorities,” he said.
Johnson Community College offers police officer training. Scott said he knows several people who would like to take the training but can’t afford it.
Trading the cost of training for a five-year service commitment has benefits for both the candidate and the police force, Scott said. The candidate gets a job without having to pay out of pocket for training, and the force gets a longstanding employee.
“If we can get them here for five years, we can use them,” Scott said. “They start making enough money, and they don’t want to go somewhere else.”
According to the American Community Survey’s five-year estimate for 2008-2012, 14.2 percent of Smithfield’s population is Hispanic. That’s a slight drop from the 2005-2009 five-year estimate, which put the town’s Hispanic population at 15.7 percent. Johnston County’s Hispanic population has grown slightly, from 12 percent in 2009 to 13 percent in 2013, according to American Community Survey one-year estimates.
Councilman Perry Harris said Smithfield couldn’t possibly be the only place in the country considering a program like the one Scott proposed. Scott said this was a practice at his old agency in Iowa, and in most states, candidates can’t even get into a police academy without the backing of a department, he said.
“In North Carolina, it’s somewhat unique that you allow people to go on their own,” Scott said. “In most states, you can’t even get in on your own. But here, they allow you to go into junior college and get certified. Other agencies around here – larger cities – do this all the time.”
Councilman Andy Moore asked what would happen if a candidate flunked out of the training. Scott said that was a risk taxpayers would have to take.
“I’m not saying we should do this with everyone – but in this case where we want to create a bigger hiring pool,” he said.
Mayor John Lampe said he liked the idea. “Best scenario is we get the same percentage of races as the town of Smithfield,” Lampe said. “If we can get them by sponsoring them and paying for their education, as long as they’ll sign an employment contract, I think it’s a great idea.”
The council voted unanimously to approve the program.