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Building a diverse police force: Lessons from the San Francisco PD

SFPD works with kids as a way of achieving the long-term objective of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce reflective of the city’s population


SF Police Chief Greg Suhr waves while marching with a number of his cops in the 44th annual Gay Pride parade Sunday, June 29, 2014.

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Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. Below is an article in a series of pieces which will address the challenges facing police leaders during times of diminishing budgetary support and increasing public scrutiny. Learn more about Pulse of Policing


The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) is one of the most diverse departments in the United States, but it wasn’t always that way. In the mid-1970s, the SFPD was almost entirely comprised of white male officers, but a consent decree was placed on the department requiring it to recruit a more diverse workforce.

Like any agency operating under a consent decree, there were some bumps in the road, but over time a culture shift emerged and the notion of recruiting and retaining officers that were truly reflective of the population of the city became, in essence, “just how we do it around here.” Today, the department is roughly 42 percent white males. Among the agency’s cops, roughly 10 percent are African American, about 16 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian. About 15 percent of officers are female.

In 2011, the department ended a retirement incentive program and the agency lost about 15 percent of its workforce practically overnight. While those were good, experienced officers who were hard to see leave, the agency was given an excellent opportunity to redouble their efforts to recruit minority and women officers to the academy.

That effort continues in earnest to this day. The 246th Academy class — which graduated on November 21, 2015 — consisted of roughly 12 percent African American, 12 percent Asian, and about 12 percent Latino officers, according to the department. Women made up approximately 18 percent of the recruiting class. Among the group, the languages spoken include Spanish, French, Batanga, Bosnian, Croatian, Vietnamese, and Gaelic.

How Do They Do It? Get ‘Em While They’re Young
Working with kids — particularly in schools — is at the very forefront of SFPD’s effort to recruit and retain a force that is reflective of the city’s population.

The department has a summer jobs program that helps kids not only earn money and increase their self-esteem, but also see cops differently. The agency conducted a survey that asked the kids who participated in 2015’s program whether they had any intention of entering police work or saw cops as cool. At the beginning of the summer, that number was 20 percent. When the summer was over, that number had jumped to 80 percent.

“Our schools in San Francisco look like San Francisco,” Police Chief Greg Suhr said. “We go into the schools, and it serves a dual purpose. The number one group that contributes to crime or falls victim to crime are high school dropouts. So at the same time when we’re in there talking about the importance of graduating from high school, we talk about the summer jobs program.”

The summer jobs program has employed about 1,000 kids since Greg Suhr became chief of police. Suhr said that 90 percent of those kids are kids of color – 60 percent of which are African American.

“We try to really focus on the Mission and the Fillmore which have been traditionally underserved communities that have had a disproportionate amount of violent crime,” Suhr said.

Suhr explained that the jobs program’s message is about high school graduation. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that every kid can’t go to college, but nobody went to college who didn’t graduate high school. So we make the first finish line first — to get job ready or college ready. You only need a high school diploma to be a San Francisco police officer — and a number of other city jobs — so we’re trying to be the connector, and I think that the kids get that.”

Everything the agency does, of course, has the ultimate goal of making San Francisco safer, and the jobs program has had a positive effect on that metric too. “Our summers have been probably half what they were with regard to gun violence over the last four years,” Suhr said.

The department engages the city’s kids in numerous other ways too. Their cadet program aims to teach kids about the various aspects of police work in order to prepare them for a career in law enforcement. The department’s Wilderness Program brings San Francisco’s inner city youth together with the city’s police officers to share positive and challenging outdoor adventures. Like many agencies, they also have a successful Police Activities League that features things like baseball, football, cheerleading, and judo.

Chief Suhr even has a requirement that every member of their academy classes spend four hours per month — paid for by the police department — in a youth center or boys and girls club interacting with the kids and really just being kids themselves.

The Importance of Residence
When Chief Suhr entered the SFPD in 1981, there was also a requirement that officers had to live in the city for a year before they became an SFPD cop, and had to remain a resident of the city for a year after they were sworn in. That was an easy requirement for him to meet — Chief Suhr is a fifth-generation San Franciscan who grew up in the city and went to college (and played football) at SF State.

The agency eventually expanded that residency requirement to the nine Bay Area counties, and later eliminated the requirement altogether. However, with the work that the agency is doing to engage the city’s young people, that pendulum is swinging back — more and more of the department’s officers are “home grown” recruits.

“I believe there is a huge upside to having lived or worked or gone to school in San Francisco as far as ‘getting’ San Francisco,” Chief Suhr said.

Suhr explained that having lived in the city gives new officers a deeper understanding of the neighborhoods from day one. They don’t have to learn the nuances of different parts of the city during FTO because they’d had prior experience as kids on those streets that helps inform them of what happens in different neighborhoods and what the citizens are like.

Yes, San Francisco is Different
Yes, San Francisco is unusual in many ways, but much of what SFPD is doing in the area of recruitment of a diverse force can be repeated just about anywhere. The most critical elements are that you have to simply start, and thereafter you have to own the initiative forever.

“The sooner you start being cool, the sooner people will notice a difference. Then you have to stay there. Once you decide you’re going to start, you can never stop. It has to be in every breath you draw — it has to be the fabric of the department. I liken it to building a business. It should get easier and easier over time because your outreach and your engagement will be done by the young people that you touch over the years,” Suhr said.

San Francisco — and most of its residents — fiercely defends being “different” from other American cities, and Chief Suhr used the analogy of different well-known Pac 12 marching bands.

“Most police agencies are like the USC Marching band, but we’re more like the Stanford Marching Band. We may not be as paramilitary as some police agencies and we may march a little differently, but we do things thoughtfully and we do things intelligently,” Suhr said.

Chief Suhr had one more message related to recruiting a diverse workforce: “We’re hiring.”

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.