ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Akron, Ohio, today's the deadline to apply to join the police force. The city has worked especially hard to attract African-American applicants this year. The task is considered crucial, and even more difficult in the wake of recent high-profile police shootings in Cleveland and in Ferguson, Missouri. M.L. Schultze, of member station KSU, reports on Akron's recruitment drive.
(SOUNDBITE OF AKRON POLICE RECRUITMENT VIDEO)
M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Two years ago, the Akron police recruiting video began with pulsing music and an image of police in helmets and camouflage - assault rifles ready. This year, the most prominent video demonstrates how to prepare for the physical test to be hired. It features a woman. The change goes beyond video. The recruiting team from this mid-sized Ohio city is more diverse in just about every way - younger, more women, more African-Americans.
CAROL HILL: We're trying to have the department mirror the community that we work in.
SCHULTZE: Carol Hill is the daughter of a Cleveland cop. She has 19 years on the Akron force. Before that, she was a social worker - good training, she says.
HILL: We're out there in the community trying to help people, help resolve problems. Maybe we can refer a family somewhere, somebody might need some food or they might need clothes for their kids.
SCHULTZE: Hill and the five other recruiters have been to Pittsburgh and Detroit, to military bases, Cleveland's Latino centers, Akron's inner-city churches and the mall to chat up prospects.
TREVA MATHEWS: Yeah, you guys both fill out the application.
SCHULTZE: Treva Mathews is 24, African-American, and though she has only 14 months on the force, supremely confident, even in what she acknowledges is a climate of suspicion among parts of the African-American and policing communities. When she's at the recruiting table, more black men and women stop to talk.
MATHEWS: I give other black female and black males, I guess, an outlook on saying hey, I can do it, too, if somebody's already there.
SCHULTZE: Take Florika Sheeler. She's 21, the minimum age to apply. She's in college and an Akron resident, both worth extra points on the civil service test.
FLORIKA SHEELER: I like the field. I can help keep Akron safe for the most part. I have a little girl. I want her to be in a safe city.
SCHULTZE: The national debate over police tactics has had its impact here. After all, Cleveland, where police are under investigation for shooting a 12-year-old boy to death, is just 30 miles north. Michelle Blakely found out how much of an impact from her 4-year-old's day care teacher. She'd asked the children what police officers do.
MICHELLE BLAKELY: These are like 4 - 3 or 4-year-olds. And then, like, a lot of the responses that they had of - it was tied to blood, it was tied to killing people.
SCHULTZE: Michelle and her husband explained to their daughter that's not the norm. But she says the misperception is keeping some good people from signing up.
Donald Clayton is the lone African-American in a class of about 20 training to become police officers. His stepfather is retiring from the Akron force, and Clayton hopes to be one of his successors.
DONALD CLAYTON: You hear talk amongst the African-American community about oh, this, that and the other as far as law enforcement. Well, lead by example. You know, if you feel that change needs to come, step up and do it, you know?
SCHULTZE: Akron's police department is 80 percent white. Its overall population is more than 30 percent black. Willie Derricott runs the Legends barbershop on Akron's west side. His customers include cops, and he wouldn't discourage anyone from signing up. Still, he says tensions between white police and black communities elsewhere were bound to resonate here.
WILLIE DERRICOTT: How could it not? We're all mindful of the police. And if you've had a run-in with the police, 9 times out of 10, it's not going to be very good.
SCHULTZE: Increasing the odds of a good experience for both police and the public is one goal in recruiting the class of 2015 for the Akron Police Department. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze.
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