More diversity in the Oberlin police force and officers who are residents — those have been common requests in listening sessions held by city manager Rob Hillard in recent weeks as he prepares to hire a new police chief.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find new recruits at all, let alone a diverse group that hails from Oberlin, according to interim police chief Mike McCloskey.
“We’re facing what a lot of police departments are facing, which is in general, there’s difficulty recruiting people,” McCloskey said. “I don’t know if the interest in the profession has changed or what’s driving it. Maybe it’s negative reporting of some of these high-profile incidents that have happened. Maybe there’s just not the allure of the profession there once was.”
The lack of interest from candidates stands out when crunching the numbers of those of who have taken the Civil Service exam in the past few years.
CIVIL SERVICE EXAM
Like most municipalities, Oberlin uses the exam to create a list of candidates eligible to be hired to the police force, according to McCloskey.
Notice is given that the exam is going to take place — through the city and police department websites, social media, in local newspapers, and by contacting police academies — and candidates then apply.
The exam is a two-part process: a written test and a physical agility test. To be considered on the final list of eligible candidates, both sections must be passed.
The police department is then given a list of the individuals with the top 10 scores on the written exam. The agility test is graded pass or fail.
Just because an applicant passes the test, which requires a 70 percent or higher score, doesn’t mean they are eligible to be hired. Also, just because the department conducts the Civil Service exam it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily hiring at that time, according to McCloskey.
“Sometimes we test yearly, but a list can be extended for two years,” he said. “It varies when we give the test. Just because we give the test, doesn’t necessarily mean we have an immediate opening. Sometimes we just need to refresh the list.”
The results of the written exam are not adjusted for race or sex of the candidate, nor does it say where the candidate lives. Instead, when the police department receives the list of eligible candidates with only information about the candidates’ scores, according to McCloskey.
FEWER PEOPLE TAKING TEST
“I can tell you from my experience that when I was looking to become a police officer, there was a very competitive environment,” McCloskey said. “When I took the test here, in the early ‘90s, there were over 120 people taking the test.”
When the Civil Service exam was given earlier this year, only 25 people applied to take it. Of those 25, only 19 actually took the test, and only 10 people passed.
In 2014, only 11 people took the test, with just four passing the exam.
Since 2009, only 12 people from Oberlin have taken the civil service exam in Oberlin. No Oberlin residents took the exam when it was offered earlier this year.
DIVERSITY IN DEPARTMENT
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that police departments cannot mandate that officers must live in the town where they serve.
McCloskey believes that even if the department could require officers to live in Oberlin, it wouldn’t mean the roster would be any more diverse.
“There are misconceptions regarding hiring locally and obtaining the desired result of diversity in your workforce,” he said. “There are studies that don’t support that there’s any real efficacy there, where having residency requirements equals having a diverse police force.
“In fact, I read a study that was conducted no too long ago that took the 75 largest police departments in the United States who had residency requirements and they found that it didn’t solve the problem. There was still an under-representation of Hispanics, black, Asians in the police force. Whites were still over-represented and minorities were still underrepresented.”
McCloskey understands that having a diverse police force would be beneficial for the community.
“There are definitely benefits to having a diverse workforce. It’s proven that people trust people who resemble them, or come from the same background,” he said. “It could be argued that people who live in town may have a deeper knowledge of the community, or those community ties may help in community policing. Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of pool to draw from here, for whatever reason.”
HIRING FROM OBERLIN
Oberlin has a population of about 8,300 people, according to the 2010 census. More than 2,000 are students at Oberlin College.
“Just what is our applicant pool? It’s probably pretty small, especially when you look at the age demographic that’s generally interested in law enforcement,” McCloskey said. “You have to be 21 years old to take the test. I would say the age group is generally 21 to 35. How many of those people do we have living here?”
Still, residents have stated they would like to see officers who are from Oberlin because they feel they’re more invested in the community. McCloskey doesn’t think that is necessarily the case, though.
“I think we can achieve some of the same things the community desires with people from outside Oberlin,” he said. “In June, it’ll be 22 years that (I have been with the Oberlin PD), the majority of my adult working life has been spent here in Oberlin. Although, I don’t reside here, I have a deep knowledge of the community. I have relationships with a lot of the local people. I don’t think that not living here has affected my ability to be an effective police officer. It’s about the culture of your department.
“If your culture demands your department is engaged with the community, then that’s what you’re going to have, whether they’re from here or not.”
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.