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'We need you within our profession': Police departments across the state struggling to hire diverse officers

Chief Eric Winstrom says negative perceptions of police are why many diverse candidates tell him they aren't sure about joining the force.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Police departments around the country, including here in West Michigan, are struggling to recruit new officers right now. And hiring a diverse force is proving to be even tougher.

Right now, the Grand Rapids Police Department has 31 vacancies with a big challenge ahead to fill them.

"Ten, 15 years ago, we were having 1,000 applicants for just a handful of spots," says GRPD Chief Eric Winstrom. "Today, we might we be fortunate to get 100 applicants in a few months period."

And that's out of anyone. For diverse recruits, the number is even smaller.

Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, says it largely stems from highly publicized incidents like the killing of George Floyd.

"That negative incident has had ramifications for almost all departments, not only in Michigan, but across the country," says Stevenson.

Winstrom says those perceptions have been around for years, having witnessed them at protests throughout his career.

"I'm standing shoulder to shoulder with an African American brother or sister of mine that's being called a traitor to their race or worse," he recalls hearing.

And the perceptions are why many diverse candidates tell him they aren't sure about joining the force.

"A lot of the recruits sometimes they look at it, they think, you know, I don't want to work in a profession where I'm not supported," says Winstrom.

But despite the challenge, he calls it an exciting time in policing.

Since being hired earlier this year, Winstrom has stressed his desire for a more diverse staff.

"If you're growing up in a different body, you're having different experiences," says Winstrom. "Having that diverse group of officers on the streets, to see this perspective of individuals that maybe they've kind of walked a mile in their shoes, they grew up in this neighborhood, they can share their perspective with the other officers."

And he encourages people to take a chance on the job.

"Be the change," he says. "Come in here, be the difference, because it's an exciting time. And we're all looking to do better in policing."

Because, as Stevenson says, diversity on the force is how change will be made.

"We need you within our profession, we want you within our profession," urges Stevenson.

You can learn more about joining GRPD on their recruitment website.

Chief Winstrom also encourages those curious to set up a ride along with an officer to see how a day in the life really is.

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