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As police departments across the region emphasize diversity in hiring, Manassas Police Chief Doug Keen says his small department is leading the way, pointing to its recently released annual report showing that it has nearly twice the national rate of women sworn officers.

FBI data on police demographics nationwide from 2019 shows that women made up 13% of sworn officers inside departments across the nation. In Manassas, 24 of 101 sworn officers are women. 

Keen told InsideNoVa this has a number of benefits. For one, having women officers as resources for women victims has been shown to be beneficial. As a result, hiring qualified women into the profession is increasingly a priority for departments everywhere. Keen says that having a relatively high proportion of women officers gives Manassas a leg up in recruitment.

“If you have a young woman that’s in middle school or high school and she’s thinking about law enforcement… if she sees a successful woman in law enforcement she sees her mentor,” Keen said. “She knows, ‘Hey, I can be successful in that profession.’”

Studies have also shown that departments often get different use-of-force outcomes with women on the job. According to a Pew survey, female officers are far less likely to use their weapon in the line of duty during their careers. In addition, male officers are more likely to agree that it is “more useful to be aggressive than to be courteous in certain parts” of their jurisdiction.

More Hispanic officers needed

If the goal is to ultimately have a department that looks similar to the community it polices, as Keen says his is, the department still has a ways to go in one area in particular: the hiring of Hispanic officers. In its annual report, the police department reported that 69% of its officers were white, 13% African American and 11% Hispanic. By contrast, the Census Bureau estimates the city’s population is 36.6% Hispanic or Latino.

Keen said that interest in policing as a career is a challenge, but that the department has had some recent success recruiting Hispanic officers who moved from other departments last year after seeing the department’s public outreach following protests last summer. According to Manassas data, the number of Hispanic officers has nearly doubled since 2016.

In response to that unrest over police-community relations last year, both the City Council and police department have said they’d like to get a clearer view of what the city’s residents think of its police force. The expectation is that they’ll get that throughout this year. Appointed in September, the city’s new equity and inclusion task force held its first community input session on Tuesday. Council member Tom Osina said he’s looking forward to seeing what it finds.

Dispatching a challenge

One persistent concern about the department for some is its Spanish-language dispatch options. As of right now, the department often relies on a translating service for those who call and can’t speak English. According to Osina – who lives in the heavily Hispanic Georgetown South neighborhood where construction on the city’s new $49 million public safety facility is underway – many residents will first call someone from the community center to then have their message translated to police.

“There’s a delay in terms of looking up a person that can actually speak Spanish there, and so we have not as many people who would report crime incidents and concerns who are more comfortable speaking Spanish than English making those calls,” Osina said. “Clearly that’s a frustration versus calling the police, and it’s also a frustration for the police along the way.”

Keen said he doesn’t know exactly how many officers are fluent in Spanish, but he said the department tries to keep at least one Spanish-speaker on duty every shift.

“No matter who’s working … days, evenings, nights, we always try to make sure you have a language-skilled person available,” Keen said. “Of course, whether they’re on the leave or they may be in training, that doesn’t always work out. But it does seem very rare that, whether it’s either a dispatcher or an officer, that we don’t have an internal resource that can help us connect with that language.”

When it comes to interacting with Manassas City Public School students – about half of whom are considered English-language learners – Keen says Spanish-language skills are a “high priority” for the department.

Grant approved

Last year, the police department received approval for a Department of Justice grant that would fund two full-time positions dedicated solely to preventing truancy and subsequent juvenile crime. Different from school resource officers who work inside the school buildings, the officers would be based in the community, having what Keen calls “work space” set-ups in the Georgetown South Community Center and Jirani’s Coffeehouse in Old Town. 

The program was delayed due to virtual-only schooling for much of the year, but Keen says the department would like to have the two officers in place by the end of the school year, with one being a Spanish speaker.

They’ll also have unique job descriptions within the department. The officers will be tasked with keeping up with students at risk of missing school, but they’ll also be expected to arrange afterschool programming for students and parents outside of the department’s walls. The officers will work under the department’s community services group, which already includes two Spanish speakers, Keen said. 

“It’s a high priority … finding those applicants, and finding the person that wants to do that job,” Keen said. “That means that they want that particular assignment.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

Reporter

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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