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How local law enforcement stacks up on matching diversity of Gainesville, Hall County communities
08122020 DIVERSITY
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish, center left, and Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch, right, attend the first part of a conversation series put on June 18, 2020, by the Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville's civil rights group. - photo by Nick Watson

As the national spotlight has shown on law enforcement agencies and race relations, local community activists say agencies should focus on staff diversity. Leaders of those agencies agree that reflecting the population served is ideal, but for various reasons both agencies struggle to reach that goal for some demographics. 

In Gainesville, Latinos make up the largest percentage of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, but they are the most underrepresented demographic group at Gainesville Police in comparison to the overall community. The agency falls a few percentage points short of reflecting the city’s Black population.  

Meanwhile in Hall County, the Sheriff’s Office’s number of Black officers is on par with the community overall, but it also falls well short of reflecting the county’s Latino numbers. 

Community leaders say if local police forces looked like the community members whose neighborhoods they are policing, it could strengthen relationships between the groups. 

The Rev. Robert Washington, senior pastor of Grace Center of Hope Worship Center and part of the Gainesville Police’s chaplain team, said diversity in law enforcement is as important as in any other organization. 

“If you have levels of diversity in it, then you’re going to always be more successful, because you don’t have a one way of thinking,” he said. 

Vanesa Sarazua, executive director of Hispanic Alliance-GA, said she remembers one Black teenager who said during protests in June that he was afraid of calling police because of how they have interacted with his family in the past.  

“I think there has to be that change for our community and for our youth to be able to trust the police department, to (be) able to feel that they can call them and talk to them if they have an emergency or if they have a problem that they need law enforcement for,” Sarazua said.  

She said she feels cultural awareness training is important for law enforcement officers to undergo, especially in a city with large minority populations.  

“I think it’s important to have that training yearly, not only for police officers but different school districts. … I think it’s important to think about how we can also educate others as to how these minorities think and live so that we can have more understanding and better education,” Sarazua said. 

Open-air conversations put on June 18 and July 2 by Gainesville’s longtime civil rights group, the Newtown Florist Club, allowed members of the community to express their concerns followed by law enforcement and judicial officials sharing their perspectives and information.  

These events were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed in late May during an encounter with Minneapolis Police and ensuing protests held nationally and locally. A video circulated widely showing the officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he placed him under arrest. 

“The most lingering area that we have yet to focus on is more of how people who are impacted most by law enforcement have to say about law enforcement,” said the Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club. “That’s a whole body of work that requires a lot of time and consistency.” 

Gainesville Police and diversity 

Between 2015 and 2018, 18% of Black applicants to the Gainesville Police Department were hired, for a total of 10. During the same time span, 23% of Latino applicants were hired, for a total of 13. Meanwhile, 13% of white applicants were hired, for a total of 47. The department received an average of roughly 100 total applications each year between 2015-2017 before getting 179 applications in 2018, according to Gainesville Police.  

Police Chief Jay Parrish said he feels the department has come a long way but still has a ways to go in terms of having a department that mirrors the community. 

More Latino officers would give the department greater insight into Latino culture, Parrish said. The chief said bilingual officers may also help with any potential language barriers. 

Like in other government agencies, people want to feel like they are equally represented, Parrish said. 

“The victim may better identify with someone of their own gender or their own race than they would the typical white male that is predominant in law enforcement across the country,” he said. 

Parrish addressed the Gainesville City Council Tuesday, Aug. 4, about the need for a “citizens and police” committee of 10 to 15 community members who will help with the department’s strategic plans.  

He said he hopes the committee will also identify ways to make annual training on bias and race “more impactful,” though specifics were not given. 

Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said much of the training offered is facilitated through the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. 

One online course offered at the training center, for example, is called “Cultural Awareness.” 

It is a two-hour course that can count toward a 20-hour continuing education requirement for all law enforcement officers. It can also be used to satisfy a two-hour annual requirement for community policing training. 

“Given the increasing diversity of our communities, law enforcement officers must have an understanding of cultural differences and how those differences can affect interactions with the public,” according to the course’s description. “This course will help officers explore how their own background and experience influences how they relate to others, with the goal of increasing trust and respect between the public and the law enforcement community.” 

Parrish has also focused on increasing training related to mental health and at least triple de-escalation training for officers. 

The Rev. Washington said he feels there has been a good relationship in recent years through events at various churches. Concerns raised at these meetings include profiling. 

“We constantly are looking at how to make the community stronger and better and raising those questions,” Washington said. 

Johnson said she gets a sense that there are reservations in the Black community about joining the police department.  

“I think that some of the dust has to settle around police violence issues before the interest of qualified applicants can be addressed, that referrals can be made, excellent candidates can be recommended and actually be hired,” Johnson said.  

Regarding the diversity of the department, Washington was concerned about the higher ranks. 

“We’ve done a great job in getting more diversity in the patrol officers, but we still lack in the upper-level leadership,” he said. 

According to the most recent reviewed year for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, there were no Black or Latino sworn officers in the executive, command or supervisory roles. 

Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van said there is currently one Black woman in a supervisory role at the department.  

At the July 2 open-air conversation, Parrish called on the public to find residents who would become officers, adding that he has been working with local pastors for the past two years to “find better people to get into our agency.”   

One of the best recruiting campaigns, Parrish said, was a billboard in downtown Atlanta showing that the department was hiring.  

“We tried to hire straight out of the Atlanta market. Now, they pay a little bit more down there, but this community, as y’all are aware, is a little bit more supportive and less volatile for law enforcement,” Parrish said.  

The chief said he has talked with Hispanic community leaders about trying to match the demographic in his department, but one of the major barriers to hiring more Hispanic residents is that only born or naturalized citizens can become a peace officer in the state of Georgia.  

“However, one of the leaders told me not to worry because so many are about to hit that 21-year-old mark that you’re about to flood the market with the people that are available,” he said. Gainesville police requires that officers be 21 or older. “I think we’re on the front end of seeing that because I’m seeing some better applicants come through.”  

Holbrook said the department’s Explorers program, which is now roughly 70% Hispanic and where the average age of participants is 19, also represents a silver lining.  

The Explorers program “gives young adults the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement by working with local law enforcement agencies,” according to Gainesville Police. 

There are roughly 20 Explorers currently in the program. 

In the past two years, the department hired two Explorers, who were both Hispanic. 

“We are getting the return from that program as well as our other law enforcement partners,” Holbrook said. 

Partners include the sheriff’s offices in Hall and Forsyth counties, who can hire 18-year-olds to be jailers. 

Hall County Sheriff’s Office and diversity  

While Sheriff Couch said there is no particular demographic group being actively recruited, he said he believes an ideal department would more closely mirror the community’s demographic make-up. 

“In a perfect world scenario, of course, your police agency or Sheriff’s Office should directly reflect the exact numbers of the community you serve,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said in an interview following his reelection. 

In 2019, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office said 41 people were hired out of 540 total applications. A demographic breakdown of those applicants and who was hired was not provided by the Sheriff’s Office. 

“A career in law enforcement is typically a calling. We do not actively recruit from particular groups of people. We recruit qualified applicants from all demographics. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to apply,” Couch wrote in response to a list of concerns the Newtown Florist Club submitted to local law enforcement agencies. 

Their concerns include having body cameras for all officers, a citizen review board for use-of-force incidents and more training on deescalation.  

In addition to its recruiting website, the Sheriff’s Office recruitment unit visits job fairs and schools.  

The best recruitment system, Couch said, has been word of mouth, from the officers working at the sheriff’s office talking to their friends and community. 

Couch said he feels that all agencies are struggling with recruitment, particularly of Black and Latino candidates, and believes these issues will continue based on current societal issues around police. 

Couch was unavailable for a follow-up interview this past week to address additional questions, more recent efforts in diversity hiring and his thoughts since the Newtown Florist Club’s open-air conversations. 

‘There is a commitment … on both sides’ 

While the open-air conversations provided an opportunity for the community to air its grievances, there were still some who were reluctant to come forward, Johnson said. 

“The desire for freedom ends up being a greater goal for them than coming forward, and we understand that. But we also know that there are different kinds of ways that we can reach this particular community because their voices really do need to be heard,” Johnson said.  

The community at large has a responsibility to “participate and not just be on the sidelines,” she said.  

“The beauty of it all is there is a commitment, I think, on both sides to do the work that needs to be done,” Johnson said. “It takes a lot of effort to rise to the occasion of being a model community.”