When the St. Paul police department put out a call late last year for licensed officers, Ehdoh Ezekisoe showed up at an informational session ready to join their ranks.

But the St. Paul resident who immigrated from a Thai refugee camp to the United States in 2005 didn’t have the schooling or licensing required to apply for the police academy. St. Paul police Sgt. Pamela Barragan, a member of the department’s community engagement unit, saw potential in Ezekisoe and stayed in touch with him; there’d be an opportunity opening up soon.

On Wednesday, St. Paul police unveiled its first ever Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program aimed at mentoring recruits from diverse backgrounds who face financial, educational and employment hurdles.

“I related a lot to him because I moved [to St. Paul] from Ecuador,” Barragan said. “He doesn’t have a traditional support system.”

For Ezekisoe, 22, who is Karen, it’s a chance to move beyond years of restaurant work and a short stint as a contract carpenter. He’s been working as a security guard since late 2016.

“I want to have a career that I can be proud of,” said Ezekisoe, who plans to apply. “I think I can be a role model.”

Between 20 to 25 participants are expected to enroll in the 2½-year program that starts in April. A combination of private and public funds will help pay the recruits a stipend of $10.50 an hour while they are in class at Century College working toward their law enforcement degree. Senior Cmdr. John Lozoya, head of the community engagement unit, said the stipend is only for classes this summer, and that the department is working with Job Corps to find recruits employment afterward as they continue their education.

Although the program is aimed at diversifying the department and fostering interest among recruits between ages 18-24 from underrepresented groups, anyone of any age who faces financial and educational barriers will be considered, Lozoya said.

Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, a private nonprofit, will also assist recruits with access to educational programs, transportation and employment.

The program was created because traditional recruitment efforts, such as job fairs, weren’t reaching underrepresented communities. Of the department’s sworn staff of 619, about 25 percent are officers of color. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of St. Paul residents are people of color.

“That really wasn’t meeting the needs of our community,” Lozoya said of traditional recruitment efforts. “We are very intentional about recruiting from our own community and surrounding communities.”

Recruits will be expected to volunteer 40 hours per week with the department this summer, and continue working with a St. Paul police mentor throughout their participation, helping with youth programs and outreach, and going on ride-alongs.

The program ultimately aims to act as a pipeline for new hires in St. Paul, but Lozoya expects that some recruits might change their minds and shift out of law enforcement, and completing the program doesn’t guarantee anyone a spot with the department.

The bigger goal, Lozoya and Barragan said, is to create a diverse pool of educated and licensed officers ready to apply for jobs across Minnesota. If more funding is secured, Lozoya said, the department would consider starting another class next year.

“We help each other,” Barragan said. “We rather have diversity across all law enforcement … not just in St. Paul.”

Applications are being accepted through March 31 at www.stpaul.gov/jobs.