To many residents, the death of Troy Hodge, an African American resident, in an encounter with city police June 17 threw into sharp relief the disparities between the Lockport Police Department and the citizens it serves.
During a rally at city hall June 19, several residents pointed out LPD has never had a black officer.
Speakers like Felicia Grooms of South Bristol Avenue said LPD's lack of diversity hurts relations between the force and the city's black community.
"One of the biggest issues is there are no black officers," Grooms said. "There’s nobody who looks like us on the force."
Several demonstrators said they believed racism was the only explanation for LPD's lack of racial diversity. The city has almost 1,400 black and brown residents, close to 7 percent of the overall population, according to the 2017 American Community Survey, while LPD has nearly 50 officers.
“Why aren’t there black officers?” asked Steven Ocestolo of Genesee Street at the meeting.
Ocestolo, 62, recounted several encounters of what he viewed as racial profiling and discriminatory attitudes by LPD officers. Asked if he believed the presence black LPD officers would help prevent such encounters, he said, "Of course it would."
Community Police Aide Mark Sanders said the department has made efforts to recruit black officers, including attending job fairs at local colleges with large non-white populations in criminal justice programs, including the Niagara and Erie county community colleges and Buffalo State College. Sanders added LPD placed an ad in Challenger Community News, a local newspaper geared toward the region's African American community, before LPD's most recent civil service exam.
Still, Sanders said, only one black candidate joined the pool of 75 applicants in taking the LPD civil service exam last September. Sanders said the sole black applicant did not score high enough to be hired, as state law only permits hiring those who place among the top three highest scores.
“I think as a department, we’ve done our due diligence in trying to recruit minority officers," Sanders said. "It’s just in the climate today, it’s been difficult.”
Several speakers at the June 19 rally challenged LPD's stated commitment to officer diversity. Grooms said her brother, whom she declined to name, was a top-scorer on a civil service exam for LPD about 25 years ago, but was passed over for white applicants and ultimately joined the Buffalo Police Department. She said she believes many black and brown candidates feel they won't be fairly considered at LPD.
"They’re not going to get hired because they’re black," Grooms said. "They don’t apply. They apply elsewhere."
Sanders, who is the only black LPD employee, said department leadership has pushed to find minority officers throughout his 15 years in his position.
“Every chief I’ve been under has been desiring to diversify the police department," he said. "It’s been very hard.”
The challenge, Sanders said, is convincing qualified minority candidates to choose LPD over larger municipal, state or federal law enforcement agencies, which have larger budgets. Other applicants hail from neighboring cities, like Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and would prefer to police their hometowns.
"Sometimes they go where the money is, or they want to be a police officer where they’re from," Sanders said.
Sanders added that some comparable police departments, such as North Tonawanda's, also do not have any black officers.
“I don’t think we’re unique from a lot of similar municipalities," Sanders said.
But disparities in Lockport police do not mirror national trends.
A 2013 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found blacks made up 12 percent of sworn personnel in local police departments — a figure only slightly below the 12.5 percent of African Americans identified by the census data for that year (though that number excludes the 2.8 percent of Americans who identified as belonging to two or more races).
Niagara Falls Police Department also has more diversity in its ranks, with black officers making up 10 percent of the force and all non-white officers being about 14 percent. However, those figures lag behind the community's demographics, as the Falls is about 70 percent white and 23 percent black.
Vera Bumpers, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said police across the country, including large and federal agencies, recently have had difficulty finding qualified applicants.
"Most agencies, large and small, are having a challenge recruiting all races," said Bumpers, who is chief of the Houston Metro Transit Authority Police Department. "That has been our recruitment pool. We’re all fishing from the same pond."
Sanders said the national discussions on policing and race, particularly regarding police shootings of unarmed black men, have created a general "stigma" against working in law enforcement.
Bumpers said departments need to counter that stigma by weeding out bad officers and promoting stories of positive police/community interactions.
"We’re fighting social media and what the media is putting out when we see bad situations with a law enforcement officer," Bumpers said. "We need to fight that and say, that’s not what we promote. We do not accept any wrong-doing within the agency."
LPD and city leaders are now trying to determine how to communicate a similar message.
The New York Attorney General is investigating Hodge's death. A 2015 executive order requires the office to investigate deaths of civilians by police in which it's unclear whether the civilian was armed.
Investigators say a knife was recovered at the scene, but have not yet publicly disclosed whether Hodge, 39, brandished it at any point in the encounter. Hodge's cause of death is awaiting the results of a toxicology test.
Hodge's mother, Fatima Hodge, has offered a far different account of the incident than has an attorney representing the four officers involved. Fatima Hodge called 911 late June 16 after growing concerned with Hodge's erratic and paranoid behavior.
Sanders said the incident has spurred some uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race and policing in Lockport.
“We’re trying to be proactive in creating better relations with the community," Sanders said. “We’re trying to be as transparent as possible."