Diverse public safety work force priority for WyCo

Minorities represent small numbers on the Kansas City Kansas Fire Department and Police Department – a problem Mayor Mark Holland is hoping to rectify in the new year.

Holland became concerned after attending a fire department graduation ceremony in 2013 that had one Hispanic, no African Americans and only one woman in the graduating class of 42 recruits.

Holland asked leaders in the community to meet with him last week at City Hall for the first meeting of the Public Safety Recruitment Task Force.

The Task Force included representatives from El Centro, the Latino Peace Officers Association, the Unified Government County Administrator’s office, the Kansas City Kansas Police, Sheriff and Fire Departments, the Black Police Officers Association, the Wyandotte County School Districts, the Archdiocese, Donnelly College, Kansas City Kansas Community College and appointees from the Unified Government commission.

One of the first questions the task force will address is why minorities are not applying for those jobs.

“These public safety jobs are very high paying. These are jobs that our kids should be clamoring for in our community. If they are not, then we need to ask the question of why not,” said Holland.

A large percentage of the graduating fire fighters in 2013 did not attend high school in Wyandotte County. A fact that Holland has found disturbing.

“We need to look at how we can make sure our citizens can take advantage of these jobs. We have to make sure that our community is connected to public safety and public safety is connected to our community,” said Holland.

John (J.D.) Rios, serves on the KCK Community College Board of Trustees. He insisted that the task force look at the bigger picture when it comes to recruitment.

“It is selling the community. We have a residence requirement. I would ask the group not to have tunnel vision on the job, but this is a bigger issue that can be solved. We need more professionals to reside in Wyandotte County. If we do a better job of marketing our community with our own residents, I would submit that you would have your diverse workforce,” said Rios.

KCK is not the only city facing minority recruitment issues. The Kansas City, Missouri Fire Department (KCMOFD) officials are asking the same questions.

“We have looked at different initiatives to bring minorities on the department, but quite frankly, nobody has been successful in doing that. Right now we are trying different scholarship programs to infuse some capital into the communities where we want to get that skill set out of. We are doing everything we can to encourage minorities to come on the job. Looking at the numbers on the fire department, we should be higher than we are with the number of Latinos, African Americans, and women on the job,” said James Garrett, public information officer for the KCMOFD.

When an applicant applies for a public safety job, if they are selected, their first step towards employment is to take a written test. If they receive a 70 percent score on the test, then they will move on to the physical agility tests.

Applicants that pass the agility tests advance to a preliminary interview with the command staff and then the chief will identify which individuals’ files will go through a thorough background check and a final interview.

The Wyandotte County Sheriff’s department is currently conducting interviews for open positions. Sheriff Don Ash told the task force committee that they began the process with 85 applications.

“52 applications were complete and we had 33 applications that were incomplete. Normally we would not look at the incomplete applications, but I appointed staff members to contact the applicants and see if they were still interested in applying and had them help each person complete their applications. 19 out of the 33 said they were interested,” said Ash.

The department set the test date and mailed out the study guides for the tests to the 71 applicants. On the day of testing, 46 applicants showed up to take the written exam.

“Taking the test were 18 Caucasian, 16 African Americans, 11 Latinos and one Native American. In this group, 9 were women. Forty-two passed the test,” said Ash.

While the Sheriff’s department is leading the way in diversity recruitment, the fire department is having trouble attracting people to apply for EMT, paramedic or fire fighter openings.

“We are having trouble getting minorities to apply. We have to get them to apply so we can have a diverse pool of applicants,” said Fire Chief John Paul Jones.

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, Donnelly College president, asked the task force to pinpoint how and where in the interview process candidates are being dropped. He expressed concern that the guidelines may be too narrow.

“I think we have some real biases along the way, not intended, but we have them,” he said.

One requirement for fire department employment is pre-certification as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician).

“What is the cost for the EMT requirement for the applicant out of pocket? Has it been looked into helping those applicants get certified with a scholarship or tuition reimbursement?” asked Irene Caudillo, CEO of El Centro.

The cost for the EMT certification is about $1,300 for books and tuition.

“We are working on public and private partnerships where we can offer scholarships that will help to cover books and tuition at the community college,” said Jones.

The KCMOFD is hoping to implement a scholarship program and are currently working with the school districts to help seniors in high school receive their EMT certification.

“We are trying to partner with the school districts to reach seniors in high school to get an EMT license. Then we can help them with scholarships to a paramedic program. Every one in the nation has a vast need for paramedics. If we can do this program in our school districts with the minority students, we feel it will help us get our numbers up,” said Garrett.

While Kansas City, Missouri minority numbers are listed as one of the highest in the nation, Garrett said they still have lots of work to do to increase their minority work force.

“We need to educate our students about our jobs. We need to encourage them to consider public safety jobs in the future. Sometimes students don’t feel they are cut out for college, but if we can reach them and assist them with tuition and help them get a degree in the public safety field, it is a win win for us and the community,” he said.

Recently the KCKPD graduated nine recruits. “Our class of nine was made up of 4 white males, 1 white female, 1 Hispanic male, 1 Hispanic female and 2 African Americans. The majority of this group of officers graduated from Wyandotte County high schools,” said Chief Hanson.

Hoping to entice a larger group of applicants to apply to the police department, they have eliminated the college degree requirement.
“We are giving them the opportunity to take college courses while they work and take advantage of the tuition reimbursement program,” said Hanson.

Karen Jones, representing the Black Firefighters Association, expressed concern that many applicants have not been able to pass the psychological test. She hoped that the task force would have answers as to why minorities are not passing the test.

Renee Ramirez, director of Human Resources for the Unified Government, stated, “We have a lot of applicants failing the psych exam on the fire department. The department psychologist puts a series of tests together. It is multiple questions that the applicants answer, the answers are measured and then they meet with the psychologist to discuss their test and it could identify some concerns to look at with the applicants.”

Holland added, “If we are losing a number of minorities in a department due to the psych exam, we need to be aware of that. We know standardized testing like the SAT and the ACT have cultural biases embedded into them and make them more challenging for minorities. We know that psych exams can be culturally bias and we need to make sure the tools we are using are not biased.”

Holland hopes the task force will demonstrate that the city is an equal opportunity employer.

“We need to get the names in the door. I think we have to do a better job of recruiting. We have to demonstrate to the community that our process is clean or we won’t be able to get people to sign up for the process,” said Holland.

The Public Safety Task Force will hold an open meeting in the Commission Chambers at City Hall in January where the public will have an opportunity to speak out on the topic of recruiting minorities for public safety.