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Nashville's police academy moves to attract a more diverse force


For years, police departments across the country have struggled to recruit more women and people of color. People want officers who actually relate to the communities they serve. And now Nashville, the training academy is making changes to attract a more diverse police force. Samantha Max of member station WPLN prepared this story.

CLIFTON KNIGHT: There you go. Got to have those quick feet through those corners.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: On a sunny day earlier this year, a few dozen applicants hoping to join the Metro Nashville Police Department are waiting in line to sprint through an obstacle course. But no one seems that nervous. They're all too busy laughing at Sergeant Clifton Knight's corny jokes.

KNIGHT: Slow feet don't eat.


MAX: This is not what the agility test was like when Knight joined the department in 2005. He remembers firing a rusty revolver and jumping over a wall so high people cried when they missed. But Knight says there's more to policing than that.

KNIGHT: The public in general, when they think of police, they think of traffic stops, somebody knocking on your door or going to arrest people. We do way more than that.

MAX: Now the test is meant to show that variety and to make sure everyone has a fair chance at getting into the academy.

KNIGHT: It was definitely time for us to look at what we're doing. And we have an administration that's like, yeah, let's look and see what's the right choice.

MAX: Those choices are important at a department where most recruits are white and male. That trend holds true nationwide. A recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that male and white recruits across the country graduate from police academies at higher rates than women and people of color. Researchers say departments may need to make some drastic changes to welcome officers with different backgrounds and perspectives.

TOM MAHONEY: I would hope that every police academy director looks at his or her academy and asks the question, am I providing the best educational environment I can?

MAX: Tom Mahoney is a retired criminal justice professor who spent more than two decades in policing in California. In the 1980s, he researched how police are trained. Back then, Mahoney predicted law enforcement agencies would struggle to recruit and retain officers unless they change their training. He ended his paper with a plea to rethink the authoritarian atmosphere and sent it to every academy director in the state. Not a single one replied. But more than 30 years later, in Nashville, Deputy Chief Kay Lokey is following Mahoney's advice. She calls the recent graduation rates disheartening.

KAY LOKEY: What we were doing in the past wasn't really giving us the results that we wanted.

MAX: Lokey says it's important to hold onto those women and people of color. Multiple studies have found those officers use force less often than their white male colleagues. So MNPD has created a pre-academy to help all kinds of recruits get in shape. Cadets are also assigned mentors now. Plus, the academy is lowering the stress level. Now, most training will feel like a college classroom instead of a military boot camp. Lokey hopes calmer instruction will translate into calmer interactions with the public.

LOKEY: I can teach you to drive a police car. I can teach you to fire a weapon. I can teach you the defensive tactics. But I can't specifically give you critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills. I can't teach you how to communicate or how to have empathy when dealing with the public.

MAX: MNPD has also signed onto a national initiative that aims to fill 30% of police recruit classes with women by 2030. Currently, just about 11% of Nashville officers are women. These changes come as the department is facing allegations of sexual misconduct within its ranks. It's also struggling to build trust with minority communities following a series of shootings by police.

LOKEY: Our goal is to look like the people that we go out and protect and serve.

LORENA RIVERA: I want girls to know it does not matter what you look like. If you want a man's job, you can do it.

MAX: Back at the training academy, Lorena Rivera is catching her breath after a 500-yard run. Today, she's one of just four women taking the agility test along with several dozen men. Rivera is petite with big, brown glasses and a braided ponytail that falls down her narrow back. She wants to help people. And she loves dogs. She's hoping to be a K9 officer.

RIVERA: Mind you, I don't have a military background. I'm not a male. So it's - I've got obstacles, definitely. But I think that's what kind of stops people from hiring me.

MAX: Rivera has tested at other departments before without success.

RIVERA: I've been trying to be a cop for the past three years. Hopefully, this is it.

MAX: Rivera starts tearing up as she imagines getting the phone call to let her know the department wants to hire her. She hopes the Nashville Police Department is finally ready for someone like her.

For NPR news, I'm Samantha Max. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Samantha Max