As the sun set below a multi-colored sky over downtown Grover Beach streets, police Officer Nelida Aceves loaded up her patrol cruiser as she prepared to begin her regular night shift.
Aceves, a senior officer with the Grover Beach Police Department, is one of the city’s four Latino officers in a community where Hispanic residents make up nearly a quarter of the population.
It’s not something Aceves thinks about regularly, but she said on a recent ride-along that being a Hispanic woman in a career field that is locally dominated by white men can present a few challenges — yet also inspire respect.
“I tend to approach things in kind of a different way and men especially seem to treat me with more respect,” she said.
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The Grover Beach Police Department stands out in San Luis Obispo County as the most racially diverse. The department also most closely matches the city’s racial demographics, according to data compiled by The Tribune from the county’s eight law enforcement agencies and the 2010 U.S. census.
“I think, for the most part, our community is very supportive of our department,” said Aceves, the city’s 2014 Officer of the Year.
The topic of race relations and police has been making headlines since the August 2014 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white officer sparked massive protests in Ferguson, Mo.
Since then, federal officials including the head of the Justice Department and the FBI have publically acknowledged cases of police bias in communities with an ethnic and racial disparity between the police and residents.
All local law enforcement officials, community organizations and researchers contacted for this story say it’s a worthy goal to hire officers with an ethnic makeup that most represents the communities they serve.
But San Luis Obispo County still has work to do.
San Luis Obispo County is predominantly white, according to census data, with Caucasians making up about 70 percent of the populace.
Hispanics comprise about 22 percent, Asians-Americans 3.7 percent, African-Americans about 2 percent and Native Americans 1.4 percent.
The breakdown for Hispanic residents varies widely by city, however, ranging from 9.3 percent in Pismo Beach to 34.5 percent in Paso Robles.
All of the county’s seven police departments and the Sheriff’s Office, with the exception of Grover and Pismo Beach, are comprised of between 80 and 90 percent white sworn officers, according to data provided by each agency.
But Grover Beach, one of the smallest departments with 17 full-time officers, has 11 white officers, or about 65 percent of its roster, closely matching the city’s roughly 62 percent white population.
Grover Beach also has four Hispanic officers, or 23.5 percent of its force, in a city which is about 29 percent Hispanic. The department’s two officers who identify as Asian-American comprise 11.7 percent of officers, exceeding the city’s Asian-American population of 4.1 percent.
In addition, Grover Beach police has the largest percentage of Spanish speakers, with four officers, in a community where 17.8 percent of households speak languages other than English at the home, according to 2013 estimated census data.
Pismo Beach police also ranked high in diversity, with 75 percent white officers in a community that is 85 percent white. It is the only local department where white officers did not exceed the city’s white population per capita.
With three Hispanic officers in a department of 20, it also exceeds the city’s 9.3 percent Hispanic population, and with one African-American officer, exceeds the city’s 0.7 percent black population.
Three officers, or 15 percent of the force, speak Spanish. About 10.5 percent households speak languages other than English.
Cities such as San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Arroyo Grande fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with the percentage of white officers far exceeding that of the population.
San Luis Obispo, for example, has 51 white officers — or 85 percent — in a city that is about 79 percent white. The city also nearly meets the city’s Hispanic population of 14.7 percent with seven Hispanic officers.
But if matching the ethnic makeup of a community is a goal, nearly all local departments still have work to do.
Atascadero, for example, which is 76 percent white, has a police force that is 89 percent white. With three Hispanic officers, the department comes in at about 5 percent lower than the city’s Hispanic population of 15.6 percent.
Paso Robles police are about 81 percent white in a city where 59 percent of residents are white. Of its 37 officers, seven — 18.9 percent — identify as Hispanic in a city that is 34.5 percent Hispanic. The department has no black, Asian-American or Native-American officers, and only two officers are certified Spanish speakers, according to the department.
The 157 full-time sworn deputies in the county’s largest law enforcement agency, the Sheriff’s Office, are overwhelmingly white, about 86 percent. The Sheriff’s Office serves unincorporated areas of the county, the demographics of which are not fully reflected in census data.
The Sheriff’s Office does have black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American deputies, though their representation in the Sheriff’s Office is lower than percentages of ethnic minority residents.
But diversity extends beyond race. Women are represented — to an extent — in local policing, accounting for at least 10 percent of officers in five departments.
Morro Bay has the highest percentage of full-time women sworn officers, 31.2 percent, or five of its 16 officers. Four of those preceded Chief Amy Christey, who joined the department in 2012. Christey is one of only 24 female police chiefs in a state with roughly 500 police departments, according to the California Police Chiefs Association.
San Luis Obispo has the highest number of women officers, eight, or 13 percent of the department.
“I think it’s fantastic that we have a lot of female officers,” Christey said. “We all bring different skills and cultures to the job. As diverse as we can be the better.”
In contrast, Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande both have only one female officer, while the Sheriff’s Office has just six out of its 157 full-time sworn deputies. Correctional deputies were not included in those figures.
While local officials say racial and gender diversity in policing is a worthy goal, many say race plays a minor role in hiring.
The reality, some chiefs said, is that fewer people, much less women or ethnic minorities, are applying for local careers in law enforcement.
Recruitment has also been hurt by competition from other agencies, such as the Santa Maria Police Department — which sponsors cadets and pays for their academy attendance — as well as media coverage of police shootings of unarmed minority suspects, some chiefs said.
“We do look at race, but more importantly I look for qualifications,” Grover Beach Chief Copsey said. “I haven’t had to seek out Hispanics, thankfully, but we don’t want to reverse discriminate when hiring either.”
More important than whether the department matches community demographics, Copsey said, is whether there are enough officers who speak Spanish (they have four), and officers who can inspire respect from residents.
“It’s not just race when you’re talking about diversity, there are many ways to be diverse — sex, race, sex (orientation) whatever it might be,” Copsey said. “I think those diversities need to be addressed not just in the police but throughout the city as a whole.”
In Morro Bay, Christey said, “Having a department as rich in culture as (our communities) will only enhance our service delivery. It will also help us with relating to different communities.” Bottom line, however, Christey said, her department is looking for professionals who, despite any cultural differences with members of the community, “can do their jobs.” To do the job requires training in more than firearms and tactical driving.
Deb Annibali, director of law enforcement training at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, said the academy requires cadets to complete several courses in community relations and ethics.
Cadets must complete a course on professionalism, leadership and ethics; community policing; cultural diversity and discrimination awareness; and a section on issues involving use of force.
“We try to get them to understand how important things across the country will affect them as a police officer,” Annibali said. “We teach leadership ethics because we have very strong beliefs in public trust and integrity. We want them to know everything that they do is, and any action they take could be, subject to scrutiny.”
Jacqueline Fredrick, president of the Latino Outreach Council of San Luis Obispo County, has lived in the county for 25 years. Over that time, she said, not only have local agencies hired a larger percentage of minority officers, but there is also a stronger relationship between police and the larger Hispanic community.
“I definitely think it’s improving. There’s a positive desire to learn more about how they can better serve the Hispanic community,” Fredrick said. “But diversity that reflects the makeup of the community — whether it be law enforcement, the judiciary, the DA’s Office — yields confidence within those communities.”