Homegrown talent may be key to hiring more Ill. minority firefighters

Along with citing the need for more minority positions within the department, there were significant gaps in the hiring of female candidates


By Steve Tarter
The Journal Star

PEORIA, Ill. — Plans to grow the number of minority police officers and firefighters in this community could resemble setting up a farm system similar to baseball’s minor leagues.

The Peoria Fire and Police Departments are both in the final stages of announcing “cadet” programs which would “home-grow” talent by allowing teens to be hired onto the force before they complete their formal training.

The city’s idea is to develop new and diverse talent. Think of it as a plan to extend the existing explorer programs which offer opportunities for those between 14 and 21 to get a sense of what it is like to be a police officer or firefighter.

If it works, City Hall hopes the departments will be more reflective of the communities they serve.

Setting up such a farm system for the city departments would have multiple benefits, said Police Chief Jerry Mitchell, himself an African American.

“When you grow your own, there’s no guessing on the people you’re hiring,” he said.

Having officers visit schools talking about law enforcement can also serve as a deterrent to crime, said Mitchell who’s been with the Peoria force for 26 years. He was named captain in 2014.

“It’s all about the interruption. We know what 14 and 15 looks like. If we can get to kids at 13. If we can engage them, we think it will continue to trend in the right direction.”

That direction, he hopes, will provide a boost in diversifying police and fire numbers. Minority representation on the Peoria Police Department is presently at 18.6 percent while the number of minority firefighters on the Peoria Fire Department is at 14 percent.

That’s drawn fire from groups like the NAACP who want to see municipal hiring reflect the fact that minorities make up 40 percent of Peoria’s population.

“There’s a real sense of despair and hopelessness when it comes to the potential of finding meaningful employment with governmental units in this area,” said Don Jackson, president of the local NAACP branch, when addressing the Peoria City Council last year.

Added City Manager Patrick Urich: “From the city’s perspective, we don’t have a workforce that’s reflective of our community. When it comes to hiring police officers and firefighters, there are rules we have to follow but the importance of these jobs in the community is that there’s no better opportunity for young men and women to move into the middle class.”

The present salary range for Peoria policemen and women is from $39,944 to $56,595 (not including bonuses or benefits) while the range for a Peoria firefighter is between $37,000 and $55,784.

A report filed last year noted there was only one African-American hired out of 74 firefighters employed in the past 10 years. Out of that report, a 10-person committee was found to address the lack of representation. The committee presented its report to the City Council last October with 10 recommendations.

“We studied the data and saw some very serious problems,” said Rita Ali, vice president of diversity, international and adult education at Illinois Central College and one of the committee’s cochairs.

Along with citing the need for more minority positions with the city’s police and fire departments, there were also significant gaps in the hiring of female candidates, she said. Some of the subcommittee’s recommendations have already been implemented, said Ali, adding City Hall is working on an ordinance addressing minority hiring.

One recommendation from the committee, a pass-fail system for testing potential police officers, likely wouldn’t take hold until next summer. Pass-fail isn’t possible for firefighters as current state law requires fire exam finalists be ranked in order, meaning the department must pick the candidate with the highest grade.

One of the recommendations already acted upon is the city’s decision to move to semi-annual testing of candidates rather than just once a year. Preference points will also be added for those living in the city of Peoria, another recommendation made by the subcommittee.

Mitchell and Peoria fire chief Charles Lauss agree the key to increasing minorities in the ranks is more applicants.

“We need to bring more people to the table. That means talking to younger kids to prepare them for a career in the future,” Lauss said.

Of the seven police recruits hired on March 28, two were black women, one white woman and one black man. Out of 13 firefighters hired on April 8, there were two blacks and one Hispanic, all three men.

Gone, it seems, are the days when hundreds would test for the coveted jobs of a firefighter or a police officer. Now it’s just one of many opportunities.

“Typically, law enforcement hasn’t had to recruit in the past. But now we’re competing with Caterpillar, Sears and Chuck E. Cheese. We have to be better at what we do — not just go to job fairs,” Mitchell said. “When you’ve got five large agencies recruiting the same kid, the question is how do we convince that individual to come with us?

Lauss noted his department is collaborating with Peoria Public Schools and Illinois Central College on a dual-credit program. “Students can earn an EMT license while taking two fire science classes. They can earn up to 12 credit hours at ICC,” he said.

With the Peoria City Council set to take up consideration of a minority hiring ordinance on Tuesday, Ali said she was excited about the progress that’s been made with the city since the report was issued last year.

“We’re very pleased that many of the recommendations have already been put in place. There’s still a lot of work to do with (the hiring of) women and minorities in the fire department but the doors have opened,” she said.

Copyright 2016 the Journal Star

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