Hitchcock is the city of the future in the mind of Sam Collins III, a well-known member of the community and a longtime resident.
At first glance through the community of about 7,900 residents splayed out largely along state Highway 6, it might be hard to see what Collins is talking about.
But when it comes to having a diverse police department, Hitchcock may, in fact, lead the way.
Leaders in police departments across the country are taking note of the lack of diversity among their ranks, especially after protests erupted nationwide after the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police officers.
In five Galveston County cities reviewed by The Daily News — League City, Galveston, Texas City, La Marque and Hitchcock — the racial makeup of the police departments is whiter than the city population as a whole.
It’s an issue that some departments say they are making efforts to correct.
The La Marque Police Department, for instance, has begun making a concerted effort to encourage Black applicants. The department of some 34 full-time officers, of whom only three are Black, operates in a city where Black residents make up roughly a third of the population of about 17,000, Chief Kirk Jackson said.
It’s not alone, however, according to national experts. Police departments everywhere are just not as diverse as the communities they represent, said Maria B. Velez, an associate professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland.
“In my research, I’ve found that if a department’s demographics are representative of the place it’s representing, then that translates into a variety of good outcomes,” Velez said.
One such positive outcome is departments that reflect the diversity of their communities foster a greater sense of trust, Hitchcock Police Chief Wilmon Smith, one of three Black police chiefs in Galveston County, said.
“When people see an individual that looks like them, then it gives them the OK to relate and talk to this person,” he said. “Those differences and similarities can sometimes play a role in whether or not we get information or bond with a particular person.”
In the smaller, 15-person Hitchcock Police Department, only three officers are white men, Smith said. Four officers are Black men, one is a Black woman, five are white women, one is a Hispanic woman and one is a Hispanic man.
But Smith understands the historical obstacles that departments sometimes face when recruiting diverse officers.
“You look at the African-American community and a lot of the historic issues they’ve had with police, this is not a job that’s first on a lot of their lists,” he said. “A lot of recruiting has to come through outreach. Departments have to be willing to reach out and explain what’s going on, and ask why they don’t apply.”
When Smith first became a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety in 1986, he can remember having conversations with the first Black trooper in the state, who began his career in 1970, he said.
“I was only 16 years removed from the first African American hired in the state,” he said. “There was a time there were so few of us, we all knew each other. Over the years, those numbers are getting better. But I guarantee they’re still horrible.”
Other departments in Galveston County have begun that outreach. In La Marque, for instance, Jackson is working with a group of young activists who spent their childhood in La Marque to address a departmental deficiency in Black officers.
The League City Police Department regularly attends career fairs at historically black colleges in effort to diversify its ranks, officials said.
Galveston County community leaders this week largely praised departments’ efforts to diversify their ranks but also acknowledged that can’t be the only thing police leaders do.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Wayne Hobgood, vice president of the African-American Historic Preservation Committee or 1867 Settlement in Texas City. “It’s not just about policing and hiring diverse police officers. A great thing would be more people specifically from the community.”
If departments, for instance, hire officers from the other side of Houston, they might not understand specific cities and communities in Galveston County, Hobgood argued.
Departments need to work with communities to create solutions outside law enforcement, Hobgood said.
“It’s not just saying, ‘Hey, if we hire anyone Black, that will solve the problems going on in the community,’” said Derrick Lewis II, a youth and college field organizer for the NAACP. “It’s deeper than that. It’s really looking at and thinking about how to do police reform.”
Collins agreed. Department diversity needs to be the first of many steps, he said.
“It’s not just looking like the community,” he said. “Some minority officers are harder on their communities than white officers. We want the right temperament.”
Smith doesn’t want people to get too caught up in the numbers, he said. Ultimately, police departments are trying to diversify their ranks with quality officers.
“I want to make sure that in recruiting, we are recruiting quality applicants,” he said.
La Marque has had some difficulties filling open positions with Black officers over the years, Jackson said. Civil service laws require the department to only consider applicants who have taken a certain test, he said.
It’s not just law enforcement. Many different industries have similar issues recruiting diverse candidates, Velez said.
It’s time police departments have tough conversations about how to proceed, she said.
“These are pipeline issues,” she said. “We face it in academia as well — why are there not more people of color? They’ll say there aren’t any applications. But then what are you doing, what’s the system doing, earlier on that’s producing a lack of applications?”