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There have been renewed calls for police departments to hire more minority officers, a call that has grown louder in the months since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Police departments are more diverse than they were a generation ago. In the 1980s, 1 and 6 cops belonged to an ethnic or racial minority. It's about 1 in 4 now. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the challenge is finding enough recruits to keep that trend going.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The most stubborn diversity problem seems to be in the inner-ring suburbs, places where the population has shifted majority-minority, but are still served mainly by white police - white cops like St. Louis county officer Erich Von Almen. This is him in August patrolling the black suburb of Jennings, right next door to Ferguson.
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ERICH VON ALMEN: We can't get more black officers. We recruit predominantly at black schools, the military and for the life of me, I don't know why - I guess it's not the best paying job. They probably do better in the private sector. That's all I can think of, but I know it's not for the lack of trying.
KASTE: You hear this a lot in America's inner-ring suburbs - departments saying they just can't attract enough minority applicants. Cedric Alexander admits that there's something to this complaint.
CEDRIC ALEXANDER: Many young people today, particularly of color, have far more opportunities to do so many more other things that are available to them than what they had 40 years ago.
KASTE: That's when Alexander got his start in policing. Since then, he's climbed the ladder to become public safety director in DeKalb County, Georgia, and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
ALEXANDER: When I first came on, relationships were certainly much more strained between - or just as strained between communities of color and police at that time. But here's what the difference was. Hey, in order for me to make a change, I got to become part of that. And during my generation, that's what we did.
KASTE: Today, he finds young black people are more likely to dismiss the idea of becoming a cop, but he says that's no excuse to give up on diversity. He says recruiters will just have to try harder to win over young prospects like Andrea Dave.
ANDREA DAVE: We'll see. I mean, if I get hired, I'll take it. If it don't come my way, I really probably won't go out there and get it.
KASTE: As a black woman, Dave is especially in demand right now. But even though she's a criminal justice major at Harris-Stowe State, a historically black university in St. Louis, she doesn't sound very excited about joining a police department.
DAVE: I mean if you get into a white - a majority white police force, you think they're going to be racist. You get in a majority black police force, you think they going to be (unintelligible). It's not really a appealing job anymore like it was when you were younger growing up. Like, ah, I'm going to be a police officer.
KEVIN MINOR: For lack of better words, it's not cool to be the police right now.
KASTE: That's Kevin Minor, a recruiting officer for the St. Louis County Police Department. Experience has taught him that anti-police feelings run strongest when he talks to young people in a group.
MINOR: Good luck cracking that 'cause, you know, everybody's playing their role. You got the class clown, and you got the I-don't-care. You got, I don't like the police. And then you might have some - one of them that's interested in the career field, but they can't say anything because of peer pressure or whatever.
KASTE: The fact that Minor is black doesn't make things easier. He says when he was on crowd control during the Ferguson unrest, black protesters came up to him and called him an Uncle Tom. But those feelings aren't universal in the black community. Benny Newsom is also a criminal justice major in St. Louis, and he says Ferguson didn't sour him on becoming a policeman.
BENNY NEWSOM: I think that it kind of enhanced my urge to actually get - go further in law enforcement.
KASTE: But Newsom doesn't think that diversity by itself will solve the crisis in confidence in the police. Yeah, he says, hiring more black officers might help.
NEWSOM: It would ease the tension up a little bit. But at the same time, they can't be too trigger-happy.
KASTE: Rather than focusing on being a black officer, Newsom talks about wanting to be part of a new generation of American police - a generation he hopes will be more community-oriented and less prone to use force. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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