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Connecticut Town Boosts Local Applicants To Diversify Its Police Force

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While more than 60 percent of Bridgeport, Conn.'s residents identify as black or Hispanic, the city's police department is majority white. So officials changed the written test and Bridgeport residents got a 15 percent bonus on their scores.

David Dunn runs hiring for the city of Bridgeport, Conn., where he was born and raised, and, for years, there's been a consistent complaint.

"Certainly for the last decade there has been a good deal of criticism from the community [and] a number of community-based organizations that our police department was not reflective of the community as a whole."

So, a couple of years back, the city decided to see if it could successfully get more Bridgeport residents on the force. It changed the written test to give residents a boost. When it came to the oral interviews, the city included community members on the panels.

But the biggest change came after the testing was done. Bridgeport residents got a 15 percent bonus on their scores. The result was obvious. Of the top 150 candidates, 80 percent came from the city. The hope is that a local officer may be a better officer.

Lisa Mastronunzio, who works with Dunn and helped reshape the testing, is thrilled.

"Because it's representative of our community, it's people who care about our community, versus coming in from another — and I'm not knocking that," she says. "But there's something to be said for people who live here and are proud of being here and who will maybe — maybe — work harder and care more."

It's not clear whether local cops do make better cops. Before teaching, John DeCarlo, a professor at the University of New Haven, spent 34 years as a cop — and eventually a chief — in Branford, Conn. He says putting a premium on local officers can be good for community relations and politics, but it could also mean that Bridgeport is lowering the bar.

"What they're doing is a social experiment," he says. "We don't know if it works. We don't know if it's very successful. So it's innovative, and there is certainly nothing wrong with innovating in police work."

But, at least by the numbers, the experiment worked. The city recently held a graduation for the first class to come out of this new resident-focused process. Of the 29 new officers, 26 are Bridgeport residents, and 22 identified as non-white.

The ceremony was a party.

One by one, new police officers made their way to the front of the auditorium stage and got their badges pinned by their parents, their children, their siblings. Mayor Joe Ganim shook each hand.

"Not only are they bright and fit men and women, but they look like you, they talk like you and most of them are from the city of Bridgeport. So I'm very proud of this class," he said.

Jonathan Simmons is one of those new officers. He's 23. He's black. He's always wanted to be a Bridgeport cop, and he hopes his presence will send a good message.

"People that are anti-police that I know, with them seeing me as a police officer now, it gives them a positive look, saying, 'OK, if Jonathan's a police officer, I know all police officers aren't the same.' "

As it looks to the hire the next class of officers, the city worries that it will only get harder to find residents who both want to be cops and whose backgrounds don't disqualify them. But George Mintz, president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP branch, says that means everyone needs to work harder.

"The bigger picture of having police officers from the community on the police force — it helps to spread the message to young people in the community that they can grow up and be part of the police force," he says.

And Mintz says that may be the best long-term strategy to get Bridgeport's police department to look like Bridgeport.

Copyright 2016 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

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