SOUTH PORTLAND — The Police Department has rolled out officer recruitment and community outreach efforts that aim to increase the number of minority and female police officers working in the city and develop greater trust within the immigrant and minority populations.

The department drafted the recruitment plan, effective March 2, as part of its first-time application to the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Last month, it held its first meeting with about 25 leaders of the city’s relatively small but growing African, Asian and Hispanic immigrant communities.

The recruitment plan sets a goal to have a police force that reflects the gender, ethnic and racial mix of the available workforce. In a city that’s 52 percent female and about 10 percent nonwhite, according to the U.S. Census, the department’s 54 sworn officers include five women (9 percent) and one Asian man (2 percent).

“We want our department to reflect our community,” said Chief Edward Googins. “It doesn’t and it hasn’t, but we’re trying to change that.”

Googins and his staff face a significant challenge given declining general interest in police jobs across the United States. Still, the department has expanded recruitment efforts in the hope of attracting a larger pool of qualified applicants that may include more women and minorities, since federal law prohibits hiring based on race or gender.

The department has begun advertising on the recruitment website National Minority Update and it has proposed a city ordinance change that would give points in the civil service hiring process to applicants who are fluent in languages beyond English. The department also plans to build stronger relationships with diverse community groups to help encourage potential recruits.

“We want people to know that we are seeking diversity in our ranks,” said Lt. Frank Clark, professional standards and accreditation manager.

CITY POSITIONS LACK DIVERSITY

Concern about the lack of minorities filling city jobs and serving on municipal boards cropped up at Monday’s City Council meeting. Tensions flared over what usually would have been a run-of-the-mill reappointment to the Civil Service Commission, which oversees hirings, promotions and union negotiations in the police and fire departments.

Councilor Brad Fox nominated Deqa Dhalac, an African-American woman who is a human services counselor for the city of Portland, for a seat on the commission instead of Phillip LaRou, a Portland firefighter whom Fox had nominated to the seat nine months ago to fill an unexpired term. LaRou said he wanted to remain on the seven-member commission, but Fox said he wanted to increase diversity on the city’s boards and committees.

Dhalac expressed interest in the Arts & Historic Preservation Committee, and Fox initially considered her for an opening on the Library Advisory Board, but he said he wanted her to have a more powerful position.

After more than an hour of emotional testimony and debate, the council voted 5-2 to reappoint LaRou for a full five-year term. Councilors said LaRou had already demonstrated commitment to the position and brought relevant professional expertise to the commission. They praised Dhalac’s qualifications and encouraged her to seek an appointment to another panel.

It’s unclear how many, if any, minorities serve on city boards or committees, though Fox said none were apparent at a recent recognition night that attracted 70 of 125 residents who serve on various municipal panels. The city doesn’t seek racial or ethnic information from people who volunteer. Women appear to be well represented. Three of seven councilors are women, as are four of seven civil service commissioners.

Among the city’s 297 full-time employees, 70 are women (24 percent), two are African-American (.7 percent), one is Asian (.3 percent) and one is Hispanic (.3 percent), said Don Brewer, the city’s human resources director. Among 50 full-time firefighters, two are women (4 percent) and one is a Hispanic man (2 percent). The list of on-call firefighters includes one woman, two African-American men and one Asian man.

South Portland’s overall population is about 90 percent white, at least 2 percent black or African-American, .3 percent Native American and 3.8 percent Asian, according to the latest Census data.

In December, the City Council set a long-term goal to address diversity among city employees and on municipal boards, but Mayor Tom Blake said the topic likely will be scheduled for an upcoming council workshop.

“I, for one, am not for discrimination of any kind.” Blake said. “I believe in taking the best person possible for the position.”

NATIONAL TREND: REACHING OUT

Stepped-up recruitment and community outreach are part of a national trend to address distrust of police departments in the wake of recent racially charged conflicts in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report last year that said building trust is a “foundational principle” of effective law enforcement.

However, amid the push to diversify their ranks, police departments nationwide are seeing steep declines in the number of applicants overall, which makes filling vacancies difficult regardless of race or gender. A few decades ago, South Portland got 100 to 200 applications each year, Lt. Clark said. Thirty-one people applied last year, a decrease of as much as 85 percent.

“Our standards are strict and the applicant pool keeps shrinking,” Googins said. “By the time I’m looking at eligible candidates, I’ve got a handful of people, and they haven’t gone through background checks yet. Most don’t make it through that.”

The department has two vacancies now, will have another in June, and has 16 other officers who are on the threshold of retirement, Clark said.

IMPROVING THE AGENCY’S PUBLIC PROFILE

Googins and Clark hope that building stronger ties with various community groups – immigrants, senior citizens, young people – will help the department function better overall. But a central goal is to improve the agency’s public profile so that more people want to work there, especially minorities.

Their outreach effort got a warm reception on Feb. 24, when the department hosted an open house that attracted about 25 leaders of the immigrant and minority community, including residents who hail from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Cambodia, China and several Hispanic cultures. Deqa Dhalac, the woman who sought a seat on the Civil Service Commission, was among them.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Dhalac, a Somali immigrant who is studying for a second master’s degree. “We were absolutely surprised to be invited. They were really open and honest and willing to work with the minority community.”

Dhalac said she was disappointed that the City Council rejected her nomination to the Civil Service Commission, but hopes the city will continue to push for greater diversity among its employees and board members.

“We’re looking forward to working with the Police Department in the future to make sure our communities feel safe,” Dhalac said. “That kind of open-arms (approach), that’s how it starts.”