MANATEE -- The police departments in Manatee County’s two largest cities have few minority officers -- a void that some say jeopardizes effective policing, even as Bradenton and Palmetto struggle to bridge the gap.
The shooting that left two dead and 22 wounded at Club Elite in Palmetto has bared that lack of diversity.
In the Palmetto Police Department, there are no sworn black officers, three Hispanics and three women in an agency of 33. The city’s population is 10.5 percent black, 28.3 percent Hispanic and 49.8 percent female, according to the 2010 Census.
“We want our agency to reflect the community that we serve,” said Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells. “Even though we haven’t been able to hire any African-American officers to this point doesn’t mean we are not trying.”
Bradenton Chief Michael Radzilowski faces the same issue with his force of 118 officers, which includes 12 women, three blacks and 10 Hispanics.
The city’s population is 53.4 percent female, 15.9 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census.
“City agencies seem to struggle recruiting and maintaining minority candidates. I think it’s because their services are so sought after that they can pick where they want to go,” Radzilowski said.
Even if there was a line of available minority officers, Wells says he probably could not hire them because of budget cuts. For now, he is looking for qualified recruits to volunteer in the department’s reserve program until a position opens up.
The Club Elite shootings have sparked conversation throughout Manatee County about the lack of minority officers and how that hinders communications between law enforcement and the community.
There have been rallies and marches, and task forces have been formed to try bridging some of those gaps.
“We are not saying it’s about skin tone,” said Shavonda Bailey, 33, a community activist in Palmetto. “It’s a cultural thing. If we had black officers who grew up in the community, the community would feel more comfortable talking to them about different crimes that take place. ...
“With those police officers coming from that community, they have family members from there -- people know their grandmother, their kids, and there is a trust factor.”
A small pool
Competition is fierce for the few minorities who choose law enforcement as their profession.
“You don’t take that type of job to get rich, but you want to afford your family a level of a comfortable life,” said Edward Bailey, Manatee chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “They do have a small applicant pool.”
Money often is the deciding factor. Officers’ salaries start at about $35,000 in Palmetto.
“As far as hiring, we are one of the lowest-paid in the county,” Wells said.
Within the past five months, the Palmetto Police Department lost two black officers to other agencies that could offer better money and job options, the chief said.
“We had two veteran officers. They were good, they knew the community,” Wells said. “Unfortunately we lost them almost within a couple of months of each other.”
Going through the police academy at Manatee Technical Institute can often be a roadblock for minorities wanting to become law enforcement officers.
Recruits “have to go to the police academy on their dime, and a lot of them are supporting themselves,” Radzilowski said. “It’s very difficult when large departments send them to the police academy.”
Those departments include the St. Petersburg Police Department, which has a starting salary of $43,616, according to its website. It also pays cadets $34,362 as they go through the academy, the website states.
Every law enforcement agency in Manatee requires people to pay their own way for the academy, except for the sheriff’s office corrections program. Those who go through that program get $31,438 while they’re enrolled, and then the same starting salary as a first-year deputy of $39,689, according to sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow.
MTI charges a $4,450 fee that includes all materials needed during the process. It has about three class sessions a year, two full-time and one part-time, with about 20 students in each session.
Xtavia Bailey, youth coordinator for the NAACP, recalls being the only black person in her academy class. She enrolled in part because of her upbringing.
Growing up in Oneco, she had officers in her community such as Manatee Sheriff’s Office Lt. Lorenzo Waiters, who is known for being involved in community outreach efforts.
“Even as a kid, I saw the same police officers who were parked outside the neighborhood, they were in the stores,” she said. “I always trusted them and knew they were there.”
But she had no idea how much law enforcement gives back to the community until she took a college course in criminal justice.
“I just said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know they do all this,’ ” she said. “It’s not just traffic stops and giving tickets, you can be involved with the community.”
Although she ended up choosing against police work, her current career revolves around working with children and volunteering with groups that aid them.
Waiters now works in the crime prevention unit. He no longer patrols neighborhoods, but he’s still a trusted figure in the community.
“I am black, I was raised in the neighborhood and that’s how people knew me, but it’s a fine line,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to know and trust you, because over the years the community has been promised a lot of things.”
When those resources failed to materialize, he said, people began to lose faith in law enforcement.
“People are apprehensive and you give them something and take it away, so that trust was gone,” he said.
He said deputies are encouraged to go to the zones they patrol on their down time and to interact with the community. With higher call volume, a larger population and fewer officers, however, there is a lot less time.
But officers still make the effort.
On a typical work day, Palmetto Officer Luis Martinez will pull up in two Palmetto neighborhoods, park his car and turn on his lights and sirens.
Within moments, local children come racing toward him and surround his car.
They’re screaming his name, and each demands his attention.
On one stop last week, the children began running toward him before he even stopped his car.
“Go put on your shoes and I’ll give you stickers,” he tells the group of young girls as they race into their houses to grab some flip-flops.
He only spends about 10 minutes with the group, tossing a football, telling jokes and handing out police-badge stickers, but those few moments allow him to build a relationship with those neighborhoods.
“He talks to us about his job and tells us to tell him if any boys hit us,” said Sheila Medina, 11. “He’s fun, he’s awesome! If anything bad happens I am going to call 911 and Mr. Martinez. I feel safe with him.”
Martinez said he enjoys the interaction with the children because it helps them trust law enforcement and allows him to stay connected to the community.
“If something does happen I can say, ‘Did you guys see something happen?’ And they’ll say so-and-so did it,” he said.
Martinez is one of seven Community Redevelopment Agency-funded officers in Palmetto. Part of their job is community interaction. Other agencies, including the sheriff’s office, have similar programs to keep law enforcement connected to the community.
But for Shavonda Bailey, it’s not enough.
She grew up in Palmetto at a time when her neighborhood would see the same officers walking the streets every day.
Those police had a personal relationship with the residents, she recalls, and now she doesn’t get the same sense of involvement.
During a recent anti-violence meeting in Palmetto, she contended that there is a “disconnect in our community” between citizens and the police because there are not enough minority officers.
After the shootings at Club Elite, she argued, more community policing might have led to a quicker arrest.
Detective Darryl Davis of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has worked throughout the county as both an officer and in his current position.
“I hate that race plays a factor in all of this,” he said. “We don’t have those officers in the community like we used to.”
But he said people’s reluctance to speak to law enforcement has more to do with overall confidence in law enforcement than it does with race.
“Me, personally, I can go into any environment and be successful,” said Davis, who is black. “I am capable regardless of my skin tone.”
Davis said trust isn’t about skin color or background, it’s about a connection.
“Whatever area an officer works at I would hope, and it’s my prayer, that they are having a connection with the people in the community, he said.
“Society has come a long way, but we have a long way to go because we get blinded with these issues. What if it happens in a Hispanic community? What are we going to do, put all the Hispanic officers there? You start doing that and you will burn people out.”
Some are better mirrors
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Department has a more diverse staff, but Sheriff Brad Steube says it is a constant struggle to hire and retain minority employees.
“We are always trying to recruit minorities, including females, and I know other law enforcement agencies do the same thing,” he said. “By us hiring qualified minorities, it shows the community that we are just as much invested in this as anyone else.”
About 6 percent of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s employees are black and another 6 percent are Hispanic, according to their 2010 annual equal employment opportunity report. Countywide, about 8.7 percent of the population is black and 14.9 percent is Hispanic.
In Holmes Beach, there are no minority or sworn female officers. Bradenton Beach has 10 full-time officers -- one Hispanic and nine white males.
In both cities, the numbers represent their area’s demographics fairly well with 95.8 percent of Bradenton Beach’s population being white and 97.6 percent in Holmes Beach.
“The issue out here is we don’t have a large permanent population,” said Bradenton Beach Chief Sam Speciale. “It’s not a diverse population out here.”
Bilingual officers crucial
Language plays a major role in policing. And with the county’s growing number of Spanish speakers, there is a higher demand for officers who can connect with that population.
Martinez works in largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods and is often needed by his colleagues to translate.
“You have to be more involved, so you have to work more because you have to be in more cases,” he said.
But the extra effort pays off.
“I have had a few people say, ‘Thank God,’ when I come up,” he said. “I have to tell them one at a time because they get so exited that they can communicate with the officer.”
With the limited number of bilingual and female officers, agencies are often forced to share their resources.
For Martinez, the basic rule of patrolling remains the same no matter where he is: “Be down to earth, just be human.”
“It’s about remembering their names and if they know who you are, they’ll talk to you,” he said.
Women on the force face the same kind of demand, often called upon to do searches on other females and to speak to some crime victims.
“In certain situations, people tend to relate better to a woman,” said Detective Jennifer Lesko of the Bradenton Police Department. “When it’s a rape, women want to speak to another woman.”
It takes a community
Ultimately, Edward Bailey says, it’s up to law enforcement agencies to create diverse working environments.
“I would like to see more Hispanic officers, African-American officers and women officers,” he said. “I would like to see law enforcement reflect the place they live.”
The Bradenton Police Department in years past reached out to the community to recruit more black officers.
“In the past we have advertised in black newspapers and talked to black ministers. I’ve sent recruiting officers to Tampa,” Radzilowski said. “It’s difficult. Quite frankly we need more women, black or white. It’s tough finding good quality people.”
Steube says he constantly brings up diversity when talking to his recruitment officers, but understands it’s a difficult task.
At the end of the day, Steube says, it all boils down to police work, and he can’t place deputies in areas based only on their race or ethnicity.
“We pick for zones by seniority,” he said. “We do that not because you’re black, white or Hispanic. That green uniform is the sheriff’s office uniform and we work together.”