ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Solomon Lewis never let go of his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer, even though he was pulled over once for loud music when his car didn’t have a working radio and he often felt police targeted him for his race.
On Friday, he was among about 100 mostly black men who filled the gym at Hazelwood East Middle School to apply for positions with the St. Louis County Police Department. The department was holding an event to recruit African-American police officers, though anyone could apply.
“If a minority wants to get a job in law enforcement, now would be the time,” said Lewis, 32, who has tried to become a police officer before. “Before the Ferguson thing, this was very hard to get into.”
The turmoil that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson underscored the need to diversify the county police force and area municipal police departments, nearly all of which have low black representation. A scathing report from the U.S. Justice Department earlier this month further amplified the need by highlighting racist practices by the Ferguson Police Department, which is overwhelmingly white.
“Hopefully all of us coming together like this we can change things,” said Darius Lampley, 23, a former Army police officer who lives in St. Charles.
The idea for the minority recruitment effort came from Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, who’s black and has served in the department for 24 years. He turned to members of Missouri’s Black Caucus to help get the word out.
Rep. Alan Green, D-Florissant, sent 14,000 letters to constituents touting the event. Pastors also reached out.
“Often we wait for the community to come to us,” said Doyle. “This time, we thought we’d go to the community.”
The opportunity persuaded Brendan Whitted, 24, to drive about six hours from Peru, Neb., where he earned a degree in criminal justice and works as a security guard. He grew up in Ballwin and wants to be part of the change.
“These are excellent jobs,” he said. “To be able to help out the community I grew up in — I pray I get that opportunity.”
Applicants took a written and physical test. Next week, the department will call those selected for further screening to determine who will be asked to join the police academy.
“Coming here and seeing this is unbelievable,” said Byron Watson, a retired black police officer and a member of the Ferguson Commission, surveying the gym. “I’ll be honest — I didn’t expect to see so many here.”
Police Chief Jon Belmar stopped short of saying how many recruits the department hopes to hire through the effort. His force is about 11 percent black. “It’s hard for me to say at the moment what the percentage will be,” Belmar said. But, “there are people in this room who will become police officers.”
The minority recruitment effort will continue at 10 a.m. Saturday at the middle school, 1865 Dunn Road.
Denny Easterling, 34, a postal worker, took a seat in the bleachers after finishing the physical test — timed push ups and situps.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “Growing up, the police were always after us. But next door to my mom was a police substation.” And the police officer who worked there was someone Easterling looked up to.
“I believe if you give people respect they’ll give it right back to you,” Easterling said.