Sterling Heights

How Sterling Heights is 'planting seeds' for a more diverse police force

When a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest of over 4,000 in Sterling Heights wrapped up on Saturday, the police assisting with road closures were faced with a difficult situation.

“At the end of the protest we had a group of people who wouldn't leave the roadway, they took a knee and then we didn't know how to proceed because they just wouldn't remove themselves from a major freeway,” says Sterling Heights police chief Dale Dwojakowski.

Scenes from a Black Lives Matter protest in Sterling Heights on Saturday, June 6 on Hall Road. Photo/Andrea*As he and his team were discussing a plan of action, Dwojakowski watched a Black Michigan state police trooper approach the protesters and engage them in a conversation.

“She walked up to this group, who were predominantly African American, she had a conversation with them, she gave one of them a hug, and within five minutes they all walked off the freeway,” Dwojakowski says.

For Dwojakowski, that individual trooper’s ability to defuse the stand-off exemplifies why he has been pushing for more ethnic and racial diversity in his force during the three years he has been leading his department.

“The power of being of a race, of a culture, and having that connection with a community—it’s a power I could never have as a white male police chief,” he says. “In moments of crisis, it’s about credibility.”

The Sterling Heights Police Department (SHPD) is made up of 92% Caucasian officers. Despite more than doubling the number of Black officers in the last five years, SHPD employs just four Black officers, making up 3% of the force. A large contingent of the city’s residents are Chaldean, but only 2% of the force identify as such, an improvement from five years ago when there was just one Chaldean officer. Less than 1% of the force identifies as Latinx and none are American Indian.

In a city where over 20% of the population is part of an ethnic or racial minority, Dwojakowski has been working to change those numbers. Recognized by the city’s Ethnic Community Committee with a Diversity Distinction Award in 2018 for his efforts to ensure his force “reflects the community they serve”, the police chief has been involved in initiatives he hopes will move the needle.

Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski is leading initiatives to create a more diverse police force.

An alternative academy

One of the major initiatives launched to attract a more diverse pool of police applicants is an after-hours training academy. Dwojakowski has been part of the group designing a course at Macomb Community College's Public Service Institute (PSI) aimed at attracting non-traditional students.

“What we see in our local police academies are a lot of young, white males,” says Dwojakowski. “That’s traditionally who is becoming a part of the police academy because they can afford to quit their job, and move in with mom and dad while they attend full-time."

The "extended-session” training option ran from February to December last year as a pilot program and supported classes on evenings and Saturdays. The academy is a much-needed option for those unable to push aside other obligations to commit to the full-time 18-week police academy, according to PSI director Michael Lopez.

"Helping to address the current shortage of qualified police officers that many of the departments face is a priority," says Lopez.

Eight students have finished the new program so far, which will run again starting in August. The biggest difference Dwojakowski noticed when he taught one of the classes was in the age diversity of the students.

“Some were in their 40s, some were in their 30s, and only one or two were in their 20s,” he says. “That in itself is a win, for us. Older people bring a lifetime of experience to law enforcement.”

While the only ethnic minority present in the pilot group was a Chaldean student and an Albanian student, Dwojakowski hopes future classes will draw a wider pool of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The college expects an enrollment of approximately 25 in the second session. 

Roadblocks

Changing the face of a force is not an immediate process. Dwojakowski laments that there will likely be zero openings on his team this year and that there were only two last year. Despite the hurdles though, he says there are “bubbles” in police departments when there’s an opportunity for change.

“Our next bubble is in four years when we are going to have 20 guys walk out the door within twelve months of each other,” he predicts. “We experienced this five years ago when in a three-year period 58 guys retired.”

“So you should really have that plan in place before that moment comes,” he says. “You should already be doing that recruiting, getting people interested in the field of law enforcement, so when that moment comes you can hope for a diverse candidate pool applying for the job.”

“You have to plant those seeds.”

On top of pipeline issues, running an after-hours academy comes at a cost to community colleges, especially in initial stages, and it takes several years to build interest, he added.

“Last year it ran, even though the college probably didn’t make any money on it," he says. "But they did it as a way to say ‘this is the right thing to do, and we’re part of the solution’.”

Federal lawsuit

The SHPD is not immune to accusations of prejudice. On Tuesday, the city was informed of a federal lawsuit that has been filed involving one of the SHPD officers.

In April 2019 a patrolling police officer observed a young, Black male standing under an unlit awning within a shopping plaza located in the Van Dyke area after businesses were closed for the night.

After failing to identify himself, the individual was arrested under suspicion of loitering but, after being released on bond, it was determined that they were an employee of another business located at the other end of the plaza. All charges were subsequently dropped and the department initiated a full investigation and review of its procedures.

The officer involved, who had no prior complaints, was disciplined for failure to immediately engage his microphone and was also ordered to mandatory de-escalation training. Dwojakowski held a personal meeting with the individual and his family to review video footage, clarify arrest procedures, and to apologize for the incident.

Dwojakowski says the SHPD is taking the incident very seriously.

"Foremost, we are thankful there were no physical injuries associated with this incident," he says. "After that detailed review, we are confident it was an isolated incident, and we took several action steps to help address and resolve the situation as swiftly as possible."

"We take our role in community policing, public safety, and earning the public trust very seriously."
A recruitment presentation from the Sterling Heights Police Department.
Credibility in a community

Earning trust and ‘planting seeds’ to encourage a more diverse force is where an education component comes into the SHPD’s initiatives. The department has been focusing heavily on promoting career paths with high school students over the past few years. 

“If the academy is all white males then that is your candidate pool when you open up a job for a Sterling Heights’ officer,” says Dwojakowski.

“So you need to reach [a more diverse range of applicants] before that—in high school.”

“When the high schools have career fairs, you better show up,” he says. “And your recruiters better look like your community: female; in our case Chaldean; African American members.”

Channeling minority groups towards jobs in law enforcement takes serious, dedicated, long-term planning, says Dwojakowski.

“A lot of Chiefs say ‘why do I care, as long as I get a qualified applicant?’, but they should care. It affects all of us, having that diverse workforce. You’d better be out there talking about how great your job is to [minority] candidates while they are in high school and in college.”

“You plant, and you plant, and you plant,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. We are talking 20 years to change the racial and ethnic make-up of a department.”

A Community Outreach and Resident Engagement (CORE) program has been a key strategy for the SHPD, which involves seven neighborhood officers who run events to foster relationships. Hosting a Sikh awareness training for the whole department, sending officers to consult with the Office of Global Michigan Refugee Services, working with the Chaldean Community Foundation, and participating in a Clergy Forum to reach faith-based groups have all helped establish rapport with residents, Dwojakowski said.

The SHPD has also established an LGBTQ liaison position and joined the Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT), which is facilitated by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. The group meets monthly to discuss issues that involve groups at risk for marginalization and advocate for protection.

A personal perspective

Detective Christopher Moreau works with the Sterling Heights Police Department. SHPD Detective Christopher Moreau, who is Black and grew up in Sterling Heights, remembers his first conversation with a police officer. It was during a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program event and it inspired him. 

"I remember being in awe of what an officer represented, and from that moment on law enforcement became one of my dreams."

 

Moreau says he's proud to work in a department that puts diversity work first and that it's key to reducing prejudice in the community.

"Not only does the public feel more comfortable and willing to work with those sworn to protect them when they see themselves reflected in the force, but we as officers can learn from each other," he says.

"Like being in any other situation as a minority, there are some challenges associated with being a POC [person of color] in a predominantly white city," Moreau admits.

"Personally, I’m constantly aware of the way I look and the way I am perceived by the public as a cop, as a detective, and as a person. This awareness, though, is part of my everyday life, not just when I’m at work."

Moreau says that he and his fellow officers have been able to find common ground and talk through any misunderstandings, and he hopes the seeds being planted now will strengthen the force in the long run.

"I’m sure that the community outreach programs, like the CORE program and education initiatives, will have a positive impact on who joins the department in the future because they’re able to expose the community to the wide variety of officers we have in Sterling Heights."

We the People - Michigan representative Lauren Schandevel says initiatives shouldn't stop at diversity representation on police forces.

Is it enough?

Marches in suburban Detroit are heartening, says Lauren Schandevel, Macomb County organizer for We The People - Michigan, because of the segregation that has continued in those areas for more than 50 years after legal segregation formally ended.

“But marches aren't enough, unfortunately,” says Schandevel.

“Suburban police departments—particularly those closest to the 8 Mile border—have a documented history of racial profiling. If suburban residents want to say Black Lives Matter, they must also be willing to challenge a pattern of over-policing and malpractice that puts Black people in their communities at risk.”

Schandevel believes diversity programs such as the Sterling Heights initiatives are an improvement from normal practices, but that cities shouldn't stop there.

“The most effective way to prevent both crime and police violence is by diverting funds from police departments to social programs like housing, education, community development, and health care,” she says.

“Sterling Heights spends almost 35% of its general fund on police—could some of that money be invested elsewhere? This is a question governments and residents alike have to be willing to contend with if they truly want to get at the root of the problem.”

University student Andrea* marched in the Sterling Heights protest and says she believes the best thing for local policing at this point is anti-bias training with an expansion of social services.

“Our police are in a difficult position, where they are supposed to be drug counselors, save overdose victims, police for broken laws, and handle social conflict,” she says. “They aren't trained for these activities and it can't be easy for them either. A jail isn't a rehab. It's not a mental health facility."

No quick fix

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in Sterling Heights on Saturday, June 6 on Hall Road. Photo/Andrea*Creating a more diverse police force also does not guarantee an absence of racism, Dwojakowski warns. Racial prejudice is more complex and is a whole department issue. A Rutgers study found that while African Americans are killed by police more than twice as often as the rest of the population, the use of deadly force is not unique to white police officers.

“There might be some bad apples in the police department, but white officers are no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers,” notes Charles Menifield, lead author of the study.

“The killings are no less racist, but will require a very different set of remedies if we are to change the culture and stop this from happening.”

For Dwojakowski, changing the culture means leaders in the police force being proactive. He has conducted training sessions for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, where he recommends implicit bias training for police, considering who sits on interview panels, and considering who conducts recruiting. The impact, however, is diminished if the CEO of a police department doesn’t believe in the mission, he says.

“Some [chiefs] have been progressive,” he says. “But for some, it just hasn’t been on their radar. Community outreach is equally as important as tactical training.”

But while Dwojakowski was frustrated initially with some of the reactions to diversity work within the field, he says attitudes are shifting. 

“A lot of people even in my agency laughed and said ‘oh here’s the chief with his diversity stuff, that’s the least of our concerns in the police’,” he says. “Now, here we are, and not a single person can say that.”

In the end, it comes down to trust and legitimacy in the community, Dwojakowski says.

“If you behave like an occupying force, regardless of race, you’re going to be seen as such,” he says. “Public trust takes time and effort.”

“It was a good day for democracy,” Dwojakowski says of the march on Saturday. “There were no arrests and I was proud of the protesters and I am proud of the police officers who protected them and their rights.”

“In Sterling Heights we have been doing the right thing. Not just because ‘oh, the protests happened and now I need to be good and watch myself’. We’ve been doing this.”


*Last name withheld
 

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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