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Salisbury Police Department works to ensure makeup of officers reflects community

By Shavonne Walker
shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Police departments across the United States don’t always reflect the racially diverse communities they serve. However, more police departments, including Salisbury, are implementing progressive diversity to better serve the cultural makeup of their communities.

According to the U.S. Census, African-Americans make up an estimated 38.1% of the Salisbury population — the largest minority group. Latinos comprise an estimated 9.3%. The percent of people in Salisbury identified as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino” is 49.2%.

If law enforcement agencies do not mirror their racially diverse community, should they intentionally diversify? Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes says “yes.”

“We must reflect our community. With an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and a majority-minority community in Salisbury, having a force that is not diverse would have the potential to interfere with relationship building,” Stokes said.

He said, “It’s just better to see and relate to someone who looks like you.”

When Stokes was hired in 2016, he began tracking the racial and gender demographics of the department. He provided the Post with a July 2016 graph showing the racial and gender makeup of the department and the current computations as of Feb. 4.

In 2016, the department 64% of the department were white males, followed 16% white females as the next highest percentage. About 12% of the police force were black males, with 6% black females and 1% each of Hispanic males and Asian males.

Today, the numbers have changed slightly: 59% white males, 12% white females, 17% black males, 8% black females and 4% Hispanic males.

“We have a couple of Hispanic officers who are fluent in communicating in Spanish. Without them to call on, we would have some significant issues investigating incidents where the victim or witness is Hispanic,” Stokes said.

The data further show the department has one more female officer today than it did in 2016, but the percentage of female officers remains the same at 20%, Stokes said.

Retirements of four women officers — Capt. Sheila Lingle and officers Annice Chunn, Anne Cooper and Rita Rule — is part of the reason the percentage the percentage is the same.

He said the white male percentage is down from 64% to 59%. The African-American officers (both male and female) account for 25% of the police force now versus 18% in 2016.

“We are doing better with Hispanic officers, but way lower than I’d like based on the growth I expect to see in that demographic in the upcoming census count,” Stokes said.

It’s harder to see based on the data, Stokes said, but he believes the department has done a lot of diversifying, as many of the minority officers are new hires.

“We really struggled with vacancies and we could have lost ground, but we concentrated on looking for candidates who were minorities to reflect our community and not just fill spots to fill spots,” Stokes said.

Diversifying the force was one of the directives Stokes and Deputy Chief Shon Barnes gave to Police Recruitment Manager Sgt. Corey Brooks. Brooks took the recruiting helm in 2018 and has hired 16 new officers since then. Of the 16 who were hired when Brooks took over as recruitment manager, five are women, five are African-Americans and one is Hispanic.

“We purposely sought out candidates who had different backgrounds,” Brooks said.

And like Stokes, Brooks said he’s not just looking to fill a position when he makes hires.

“I look for people who are going to shine,” Brooks said.

Of the sworn women officers, six are minorities. There 17 minority men and, of the 17, three are Hispanic. That makes the current police force the most diverse staff ever, Brooks said.

Both Stokes and Brooks said they believe the department should reflect the community in which these officers live. Brooks said some officers have grown up in “rough” neighborhoods and can relate to the people who live in more crime-ridden areas.

“They know how to adjust themselves appropriately in high crime areas,” Brooks said.

The majority of officers are from Salisbury — they know the area and the people. One is from Detroit, and three are from Charlotte.

Brooks is currently in the process of reviewing over 50 potential candidates. Those 50 will become fewer, as some will not advance or meet the requirements.

Two officers are leaving — one of whom will retire and the other will take another job. Brooks will then move those two potential candidates to Chief Stokes.

“I can choose the best two people — no matter the race, no matter the sex. The best two people out of that group,” Brooks said.

Younger officers, Brooks said, have been more proactive in getting to know the people in the community. They know citizens by name and even their nicknames, he said.

Even if the Salisbury Police Department reaches capacity, Stokes has instructed Brooks to continue recruiting because people may retire or leave this department for another agency.

“I, not unlike everyone it seems, have a perception we are more diverse,” Stokes said. “I think it has more to do with getting out in the community and people seeing the officers more and developing that opinion there are more minority officers now than before. We struggled a bit at a point with community relationships and that is greatly improved.”

That Major Barnes, the department’s deputy chief, and Capt. Melonie Thompson, the only female captain in the department, are in top leadership roles, Stokes said, is one reason the department appears to be more diverse than it’s been in the past.

“I think it tells a candidate that they will be accepted and have the opportunity to succeed. Neither are in their spot because they are a minority; they are very talented and capable people. It just helps us that they are,” Stokes said.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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