In many respects, Royce Fields resembled the ideal recruit for the Minneapolis Police Department: Black, college-educated, with an unshakable desire to serve his community.

But after making it through rounds of interviews several years ago, the Army veteran tired of waiting to hear back from the department and decided to move on. Unwilling to let go of his dream of being in law enforcement, Fields began applying to other local agencies, eventually finding work as a jail deputy for a metro-area sheriff's office.

"Someone has to be willing to persevere, because how are we going to get more officers of color hired if no one perseveres?" Fields said in an interview.

With its future hanging in the balance, the MPD is wishing there were more Royce Fields around as it struggles to recruit the next generation of police officers, men and women it hopes will be more problem-solvers than enforcers.

Some believe the embattled department needs a major overhaul to win back the public's trust in the wake of George Floyd's murder, including hiring more people of color and women. Such changes are necessary, they say, to root out the "warrior" policing culture that teaches cops to see every civilian as a potentially dangerous enemy.

Given the crisis in law enforcement, some observers say that departments need to think harder about who they hire.

"It tends to be that the recruiting and the hiring process seems to be culling out the people who don't meet the criteria, vs. hiring the best people," said Anne Kringen, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. "We don't have enough rigorous research out there to be able to help some agencies do this better."

There are plenty of vacancies to fill in Minneapolis.

Despite the graduation last month of 19 recruits, the department is still down more than 200 officers — nearly one-quarter of its authorized strength last year of 889. Those who've left the ranks either retired, resigned or went on medical leave, mostly for post-traumatic stress disorder. Scores of officers took voluntary buyouts this year, part of a push by the city to cut payroll in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staff shortages come as the department also is the subject of separate state and federal investigations that could drastically reshape its future. City residents, meanwhile, will get a chance this fall to decide whether to adopt a charter amendment that would replace the MPD with a new public safety department that includes police officers, though the city would no longer be required to keep a minimum number.

How many officers the department will end up with also depends on the outcome of two internal studies, one examining patrol officers' workloads and the other looking at the viability of non-law enforcement responses to certain emergencies.

MPD did not respond to the Star Tribune's request for an interview with personnel in charge of recruitment.

A shift in training

Earlier this year, department officials announced a new recruitment push that focuses more on social service experience and residency in the city, saying they're looking for "community-minded individuals." In considering applicants, they will now give greater weight to people who have degrees and experience outside of law enforcement in fields such as social service, mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Officials say the new standards will ensure the police force is "better embedding Minneapolis' values" in its recruitment and hiring practices.

More so than other departments, Minneapolis has taught recruits in the 22-week training academy to recognize their own biases and to de-escalate situations before resorting to force, bringing in groups like the NAACP and the Jewish Community Council to teach officers about their communities and histories.

But some say that those lessons can quickly be forgotten during field training, which critics have long blamed for helping to perpetuate a culture that rewards aggression and too often looks the other way when officers act out of line.

There is no national standard for police hiring, which has created a patchwork of state and local policies governing how much classroom time officers need before they get their badge and gun.

In many states, the basic requirements for becoming a police officer are lower than they are for other professions, according to Jirs Meuris, assistant professor of management and human resources at the University of Wisconsin's school of business.

"You need 1,500 [hours of training] to become a barber, on average — you need years of trade school to become a plumber or electrician," he said.

Minneapolis is hardly alone in its staffing dilemma. A recent survey of nearly 200 U.S. policing agencies found that the rate of retirements at some departments rose 45% compared with the previous year, a dramatic increase that the report's authors blamed on mass protests and calls for reforming or defunding the police, as well as the pandemic.

After Floyd's death, there was broad agreement that the department needed to become more attuned to the community.

But some critics argue that no amount of change, in personnel or policy, is likely to reform a system that seems to tolerate police violence against the city's Black and brown residents. Some of those concerns were raised in a report titled "Enough is Enough," published in 2017 by a coalition of community activists and groups. They made the argument that the "presence of officers with good intentions, recruits who join the force to make things better or even reform-minded chiefs does not actually alter the oppressive behavior of police agencies."

Other critics, who stop short of calling for abolishment, have pushed for allowing civilians to serve on hiring boards. They say that would give departments a better chance of bringing in more community-minded officers.

Some progress

Over the past decade, the percentage of nonwhite male officers has remained more or less the same — hovering around a fifth of the force — even after years of diversity plans, legal action and a federal mediation agreement that called on the department to diversify its ranks. Under the 2003 pact brokered by the U.S. Justice Department, the MPD agreed to a series of reforms to limit officers' use of force, improve training and broaden recruitment to include more women and ethnic minorities. While some of the recommended changes were adopted, others were not.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo have both said that boosting diversity is a top priority.

Some progress has been made. The two most recent recruiting classes have been among the most diverse in the MPD's history, officials say. A class of community service officers who were let go for cost-saving reasons at the height of the pandemic has been hired back. And this month, amid rising violent crime, a City Council subcommittee signed off on an additional $5 million in police funding, a move that if approved by the full council will offset some of the cuts made to MPD funding last year.

But Minneapolis faces a steeper climb than most. A recent internal city report predicts that the police force, like other city departments, is on pace to fall far short of its stated diversity goals in 2022. By next year, the department said it intended to increase the percentage of women to 24.3%, nearly double the 14% it had in January 2018. At the same time, it hopes to increase its allotment of minority officers, from 24% to 38.6% by 2022, to keep up with the city's shifting demographics: Minneapolis' overall population has grown by 5% since 2010, with the number of residents of color increasing by 11% in that span.

For years, MPD leadership and human resources have been at odds over how to fill the department's ranks. Top brass from Arradondo on down have privately expressed frustration with a hiring system they say is meant to weed out recruits harboring racist or sexist views, but is actually making it harder to hire minorities. HR officials counter by accusing the department of lowering its standards too far to meet numbers and achieve diversification.

There was also disagreement within the upper echelons of the department about the best way to bring on new officers. Some leaders, such as then-deputy chief Art Knight, insisted that the MPD needed to do so by having more cadet classes, which tended to be more diverse. He expressed those sentiments in a Star Tribune article, in which he was quoted as saying that if the department continued to employ the same hiring practices, it would only attract the "same old white boys," which led to his demotion.

Knight sued the city last month, alleging that his demotion stemmed from his speaking out about long-standing systemic racism within the department. When he pushed for recruiting more officers of color by expanding the cadet program, the proposal was shot down by white colleagues "under the banner of expediency — a pretext for shunning diversity by some white leaders," according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by the Star Tribune.

"Mr. Knight feels a personal obligation to future generations of Black officers to be vocal about MPD's race-biased recruitment, hiring, discipline, and the overall treatment of Black officers and, importantly, Black community leaders," says the suit, which was served in May but hasn't yet been made public. "In his 28-year career with MPD, he has seen all-white, all-male recruit classes in a field that is already predominantly white and male — especially when the department didn't have the money or will to use legal tools to increase the diversity of its hiring and recruitment candidate pools."

It continued: "Leaders say the conviction of Derek Chauvin is a beginning. But, so long as Black voices like Art Knight's remain silenced, the City will not move forward and will remain stuck at 38th and Chicago."

An attorney for Knight declined to comment on the suit, as did the MPD and the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office.

Knight's frustrations were echoed in a 2019 city audit that found that at least some of the MPD's problems with recruiting people of color and women could be blamed on its slow and often confusing hiring process.

After Arradondo took over as chief four years ago, he decided to replace the department's former psychological evaluator amid concerns that his methods failed to meet state standards and that too many candidates were washing out during the screening process.

The department is now working with Aspen Psychological Consulting LLC, a Black-run firm in St. Louis Park, which the department at the time said had a "demonstrated record of experience working with and understanding diverse populations."

Gerald Moore, a retired MPD commander who once ran the unit responsible for recruitment, said that he noticed a pattern of qualified minority applicants being rejected for seemingly innocuous reasons, such as failing to check the right box on an application; but, he says, because the hiring process lacked transparency, it was difficult to judge whether the process itself was culturally biased.

"When I took over the whole thing, I really wasn't prepared for what I felt was some of the pushback," Moore said.

This story is part of a collaboration with "Frontline," the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064

Twitter: @StribJany