Alden Pellett  /  AP
Detective Aljaray Nails, is still the only black cop on Burlington, Vt.'s 95-person squad. The department's latest effort is to recruit officers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
updated 4/28/2004 5:15:49 PM ET 2004-04-28T21:15:49

Flashing police lights fill the TV screen, a siren wails, and a Vietnamese man appears in the picture.

“The face of Burlington is changing,” he says in his native tongue, the English translation shown in subtitles. The camera cuts to a Bosnian woman. “And the Burlington Police Department is changing with it,” she says, in translation.

The 30-second ad, which aired from March to mid-April, represents the department’s latest effort to recruit officers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds — a particularly difficult task in one of the whitest states in the Union.

Vermont is 96.8 percent white, second only to Maine, according to the 2000 census.
Police officials said it is too early to judge the success of the ad, part of a larger campaign involving members of Burlington’s growing immigrant and minority population. But they admit they face a formidable challenge.

“Being in a majority non-diverse state, I think that it’s going to hamper our efforts to attract qualified candidates of color,” said Detective Aljaray Nails, who in 1993 became the department’s first — and still only — black police officer.

An officer originally from Mexico City is slated to join the 95-member force after completing his police-academy training, and a Vietnamese woman works part time on domestic violence cases.

Out of a total population of roughly 40,000, Burlington has about 700 blacks and 1,000 Asians, according to the census. Almost 1,000 Bosnian immigrants have moved to Burlington and other parts of Chittenden County in recent years, and the city is also a resettlement site for hundreds of Somali Bantu refugees.

The push to hire more minority officers was prompted by the shifting demographics: Police officials say law enforcement works best when officers work in and understand their own neighborhoods.

The dearth of candidates prompted the department to take its message outside of Vermont, buying airtime in Springfield and Lowell, Mass., and Hartford and New London, Conn.
But the approach means Burlington police will have to compete for recruits with other departments that can offer higher salaries.

“The money’s not here,” said Cpl. Steve Dixon, the department’s training coordinator. Police in Burlington are paid around $29,000 to $40,000 a year.

Jim Borow, a retired professor who helps oversee the hiring campaign, said the department also faces cultural challenges in trying to recruit immigrants. Recent immigrants tend to be wary of police; in their home countries, police are often viewed as agents of repression, he said.
“There’s a historical tradition of them never talking to a cop, never volunteering any kind of information — just turning tail whenever anybody with a uniform appeared in the neighborhood,” Borow said.

Since last year, the department has tried to combat these perceptions by asking members of Burlington’s black, Bosnian and Vietnamese populations to serve as recruiters and sound out others in their community about joining the force.

The process has yielded mixed results, said Patrick Brown, an activist who moved to Burlington from Jamaica in 1983. Brown said a few of the people he has spoken with applied for jobs with the police department but either failed the necessary tests or left the area.

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