Laurinburg Police Chief John Evans appeared before the City Council this week armed with a plethora of statistics on how well his department was fighting crime.
But the figure that most concerned some city leaders was the number of black police officers on the force.
Council members had questioned staff in March about seeking out minorities as possible applicants for three vacant positions in the police department. Since that time, two of those slots have been filled — but not with black officers.
On Tuesday, Councilman Herbert Rainer questioned Evans about why more effort had not been put into attracting qualified minorities. Rainer said that there were Basic Law Enforcement Training programs at Richmond Community College and Robeson Community College that the city could draw from.
“Have you contacted anyone from those areas to get names of those who finished at the head of their class?” Rainer said.
Evans said that at least four of his officers work as instructors in college BLET programs.
“I tell them if they have a minority in these classes, please talk to them,” Evans said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the individual has already picked another agency to go to.”
“That is 99 percent … what about the other 1 percent?” Rainer said.
“We don’t want that person here,” Evans said.
Rainer told the police chief that he knew of a local minority student who recently finished first in her class.
“She has not come here and talked to us,” Evans said.
“You just made a statement that you have people that teach there and that make contact with people in those classes,” Rainer said. “Has anyone talked to her?”
“I can’t answer that question,” Evans said. “I don’t know who you are talking about.”
Rainer said if Evans’ officers are serving as BLET instructors, he should have a better handle on who the promising candidates are.
“We have a concern about the percentage of minorities on the police force,” Rainer said. “I think we should put forth a little more effort. I truly and sincerely believe that the effort is not there.”
Evans seemed to resent that assertion.
“Mr Rainer, I challenge you to bring someone to me that I can look at and I would be more than happy to consider that individual. This last RCC graduating class did not have one black person in it.”
When Rainer asked about black students in the graduating class at Robeson Community College, the chief said he had not had any contact with the Lumberton-based school.
“As I say, sometimes I question the effort,” Rainer said.
The chief again argued that he was doing the best that he could.
“I don’t want to go out and have to beg people to come work at the police department,” he said. “We’ve got an open door. We put it on the website … we put it in the justice academy.”
“It is not called begging …. it is called effort,” Rainer said. “We have an institution in a neighboring county with people that already live in this area, but we can send an ad to Charlotte and Raleigh? You can drive to Robeson County in less than an hour.”
Councilman Curtis Leak said having more black officers would benefit the city’s crime fighting efforts. He said that black residents would more easily relate to black officers and be willing to share information that could help solve crimes.
“In the black community, we have to have somebody that people can trust …. that they will talk to and identify with,” Leak said. “There is a need to find some young minority officers who can do some community policing and give us some help.”
Mayor Tommy Parker suggested that if council members were aware of qualified people, they should share the information with the police chief or city manager.
“Sometimes we know things that may evade them,” Parker said “Not for a lack of effort, but things fall through the cracks sometimes. I think he has heard you and wants to comply with your request if at all possible.”
Rainer gave another example of Laurinburg’s poor recruitment effort. He said the town of Maxton has had to lay off police officers because of a budget shortfall. No one has contacted that department, he said.
“As I said, intent and effort, we could use a little more of that,” the councilman said.
City Manager Ed Burchins said that staff would do what it could to “increase our efforts.”
Councilman Kenton Spencer said the city needs to do more than pay lip service to the issue.
“We should not just knee-jerk say ‘we will do better,’ ” Spencer said “What is the plan … how are we going to do it and what resources do you need to make it happen? To hear that we’ll just do better is not good enough.”
Councilman Drew Williamson agreed.
“A diversified police force is important,” he said. “We need to come up with a plan to really address this and take it head on.”
But Mayor Parker said it may be easier to talk about the issue than solve the problem.
“I want to defend the chief ,” Parker said. “To stand before the council and have the type of criticism is somewhat humiliating. I know you would not willingly subject yourself to that. Council makes a good point, but don’t think the chief is trying not to do his job. It is little tougher to put into practice than it is to talk about.”
Evans added that it is hard for Laurinburg to compete with larger police departments that are also trying to recruit black officers.
“A black male police officer is at a premium throughout the United States,” Evans said “I cannot sit here and hold an officer with Fayetteville offering them $8,000 more. I can’t compete.”
Evans and Burchins said there were also concerns about leaving positions vacant as crime in the city escalates.
“Do I leave a vacancy with no troops on the ground until I can come up with a solution to find these individuals?” Evans asked at one point.
Council member Mary Jo Adams said it may be more important to have an officer in place regardless of race.
“I feel like there is a position out there and there is a qualified applicant and we need the police officer that perhaps we should hire the police officer,” she said. “Then work on the plan and develop that plan.”
The police department has about 46 employees. Of those, are 30 are white; 8 are Native American; 5 are black; 2 are Hispanic and 1 is Asian-Pacific, according to the city human resources department.