Watching cadets try to navigate the intentionally slippery skid-pan course at the California Highway Patrol Academy, Sergeant Norman Vandermeyde is well aware of the slippery slope many in the community see him on as the recruitment director for this statewide police force.
“I always say look in the mirror. That’s who you’re competing against. So you need to be physically fit, sound mind, mentally ready, so a sound mind and good character. If you have those things and you’re willing to serve the community then we have a job for you,” said Vandermeyde.
Each CHP testing cycle about 6,200 people turn in applications, thinking the CHP is the job for them, but by the time that penned interest needs to be backed up with 24 push-ups in a minute, 31 sit-ups in a minute, a 300 meter run in 70 seconds and a mile-and-a-half run done in 13 minutes and 35 seconds something happens.
“Immediately, the first weekend, we’ll lose about 50 percent of those people because they just don’t show up, so that’s automatic disqualification,” said Vandermeyde.
Though the CHP asks applicants their ethnic background, Vandermede says his agency doesn’t track that interest by race throughout the initial process so recruiters don’t know why or how diversity is dropping off – just that much of it may have disappeared once a cadet class is officially formed.
Right now the CHP as a whole is about 69 percent white.
For 28-year-old Cabri Griffin, there was no question in his mind about making it from applicant to cadet to officer, despite the rigors of the physical and written requirements.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa. Finally, I got here,’ and then it starts all over again,” he said with a laugh. “It’s definitely a hard process just to get here and then it’s way harder once you get here. We have a lot of classes and we have a test almost every week, and if you don’t pass, you get one more chance and you’re out.”
As just one of four African-American cadets selected for the latest class of officer-hopefuls, Griffin stands out.
His class is 43.7 percent Caucasian, the class behind him 57 percent so.
Griffin’s also not your average cadet-off-the couch who just decided one day to join the CHP.
He spent seven years working as a 911 dispatcher for his hometown police department in Los Angeles.
It was a long courtship with a life in law enforcement he finally felt was worthy of marriage.
“Just making those split decisions is a lot more complicated than a lot of people know about,” he said.
Good preparation for the the kind of decisions he’ll have to make out on patrol, the kind of prep he feels could help others understand what it means to serve.
Griffin also stands out because of something he did as a kid with the LAPD.
“If I had never gotten into the Explorer program, I would probably never be an officer or a cadet right now because all you get to see is them coming and taking people away, writing tickets,” Griffin said. “So, without people knowing exactly what the police do and being able to trust them, calling them when they need them, then why would you want to be one of those people.”
For the CHP, the Explorers program is supposed to function like a junior cadet class, a recruitment pipeline.
In fact, like Griffin, 27 other current cadets were explorers with some agency.
There are 44 such posts with the CHP statewide, but the one that would serve Griffin’s neighborhood?
“That’s been defunct for years,” said Sgt. Vandermeyde. “It’s a struggle. You need to get officers that are willing to volunteer their time to do extra duties than what’s required of them.”
Four CHP Explorer programs statewide aren’t operational – a missed opportunity to capture the diversity this agency says it wants.
And with all the energy hundreds in the Sacramento Valley recently put into protesting how they feel many law officers treat minorities combined with what cameras have captured, the issue’s been aired at repeated forums.
“You just talk about something and nothing changes. It’s about diversifying the police force,” was one comment offered at a forum on the Ferguson crisis hosted by the Sacramento Branch of the NAACP back in August.
But what steps has the community done on its own to change the complexion of the CHP?
“We’re starting a program called ‘Know your Rights,'” said Stephen Webb, president of the Sacramento Branch of the NAACP. “To bring in different dialogue on what do I need to get into law enforcement. A lot of us don’t know. If you have any blemishes on there..that could keep you out.”
When asked why no effort was started right after the forums, perhaps in time to reach those who may have applied to the CHP class following Griffin’s, it’s taken dialogue since the late summer to develop what his group is slated to debut.
Vandermede and Griffin agree that in the end, a job on the force is about an individual deciding to do what they feel is right and step-up when others step back.
“It’s a select few who actually think that way. And if you don’t get them to apply, it’s going to be less and less police officers and then higher crime and more victims and nobody to come and help,” said Griffin.
On Feb 28, the CHP is hosting a free seminar on the grounds of its West Sacramento Academy to introduce people to the agency.
It’s open to all, but there will be a big emphasis on what women can achieve on the force.
The NAACP intends to start its new program encouraging law enforcement application around the same time.