RACINE — Painters of all ages and races spent the morning and part of the afternoon Saturday with rollers and brushes. They filled in chalked-in letters that formed a special set of words, significant to each painter in some way or another.
“I was looking for a meaningful way to bring a voice,” said Fredricka Hunter of Mount Pleasant, roller in hand.
“I’ve always believed God loves all and we’re all his children,” said Caroline Bonilla of Racine, working alongside Hunter.
As some painters danced to songs played by a DJ such as “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder while working, eventually the words “Black Humanity Now!” appeared on Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Racine County Courthouse, 730 Wisconsin Ave., in bright yellow letters.
Bonilla said she came to support her friend, Scott Terry, and to support the community. Terry organized the project and proposed it to the City of Racine. For extra convincing, he started a change.org petition that received almost 3,170 signatures.
Terry, born and raised in Racine, described this effort as a project of his business, Mahogany Gallery, and the Sentinel Mentors initiative. An artist himself, he’s also a community activist, calling for an end to police brutality against Blacks. Once it was approved by the city, Terry posted information to his personal Facebook page as well as started a Facebook group calling participants to action. The group had a link where volunteers could sign up and the list was capped at 40 for social distancing guidelines.
“They all felt really connected to it and wanted to be a part of it,” Terry said. “People just rallied behind it. Everybody here is making history.”
Terry said painters came from Racine, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties, and states as far as Illinois and Minnesota.
Terry said he chose the phrase “Black Humanity Now!” as opposed to “Black Lives Matter” or another phrase because he wanted something different and unique.
“There’s so much trauma that happens in Racine, trauma that happens right here on this block,” he said, referring to the area where the mural was painted. “Having it painted here can serve as a constant reminder, calling for black humanity. We have a lot of work to do to bring that mindset to Racine.”
The mural did not require city funding. It was sponsored by Aldermen Jeff Coe, Mollie Jones, Edwin Santiago, Jennifer Levie, Maurice Horton, Marcus West, Trevor Jung, Mary Land, Henry Perez, Natalia Taft, Jason Meekma and Melissa Lemke.
The first paint stroke, at 10 a.m. Saturday, was done with the aldermen.
Additionally, Terry created a GoFundMe page for the project and $1,075 was raised, surpassing his $825 goal. Funds were used to purchase safety vests, paint trays, brushes and rollers, extension poles, cleaning supplies, masks, insurance and, of course, paint — enough cans to cover more than 9,000 square feet.
Hunter said the location was powerful for her and she supported the project. “This is amazing. This is for me to live my voice,” she said.
She also wanted to set an example for her daughter and teach her that her voice is powerful, far and just.
“As a person of color, we are often seen historically as being inhumane,” she said. “It’s time to put a spotlight on that; the issue is coming to the forefront.”
Hunter said the overall Black Lives Matter movement means the tide is changing and black people are starting to be valued.
“It’s not negating anyone else,” she said. “We are standing up, saying death is not something that’s palatable. What’s so beautiful is people are standing up nationwide.”
The best part of the mural project was the camaraderie and the atmosphere of love, she said. The group gathered at Smoke’d On The Water, 3 Fifth St., for a celebration after the mural was complete.
In 1992, The Journal Times published a story titled “Cop force still white, male” with the subtitle “Few minorities, women with the department.”
Nearly 30 years later, while more women have joined the Racine Police Department, the number of Black officers has only gone up by one. In total, however, minorities now make up a larger percentage of the force while the department’s total staff has shrunk.
Still, the department’s officers as a whole are not nearly as diverse racially as the population they police.
Racine Police Chief Art Howell, who became the city’s first-ever Black chief in 2012, is conscious of this.
“As we recruit new members under the current environment, significant changes in recruiting will be required. Potential officers will need to be identified at a relatively early age and cultivated within the communities they will eventually police,” Howell said.
While he is retiring at the end of the year, he is working with Racine Unified School District to possibly establish a public safety “pathway” in Racine Unified high schools. Right now, RUSD high schoolers have nine Academy pathways to choose from, ranging from health sciences to culinary arts to computer sciences. Each pathway is intended to help students explore future career paths while still in high school.
Through this pathway, Howell said that 18-year-olds who normally would have aged out of the Explorer Scouts program could “come through the development process” and “be eligible to be hired as RPD cadets” and work through the department until they turn 21, at which point they would be eligible to become a fully certified police officer.
Racine Unified Spokeswoman Stacy Tapp confirmed there is ongoing discussion about a public safety pathway, although it is still “under development.”
The City of Racine’s population is 49.9% White, while its police force is 82.3% White. And 22.8% of the city’s population is black and 23.1% is Hispanic, while 9.1% of Racine Police Department officers are Black and 6.5% are Hispanic.
Although those numbers have shown improvement in terms of diversity, they haven’t changed much. In 1992, there were 16 Black RPD officers out of 205, making up 7.8% of the force. Now, there are 17 Black officers out of 186.
In 1992, the Racine County Sheriff’s Office — the county’s largest law enforcement agency in terms of staffing — was not actively seeking out hiring deputies of color. At the time, all but six of its 165 officers were white: three were Black, three were Hispanic.
That’s turned around in the past 18 years, but the staff is still predominantly White.
The Racine County Sheriff’s Office has 25 Black officers, making up 10% of the department 27 Latinx officers, also making up about 10% of the force. There are also two American Indian deputies, representing less than 1% of the RCSO’s sworn officers.
The county’s population as a whole is 71.4% White, 12% Black, 13.6% Latinx, 1.3% Asian/Pacific Islander and 0.7% American Indian.
“I’m very proud of my diverse team,” Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said in a message to The Journal Times. “We have a well respected organization made up of wonderful professional employees who work hard every day all in the spirit of public service. I believe that is what draws applicants to want to work here. Simply put, we hire the best and most qualified candidates irrespective of their sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, political views, etc.”
Also in 1992, there were eight women on the Racine Police Department and 15 women with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office. Now those numbers have grown to 26 women with the RPD, making up 14% of the force; and 45 women with the RCSO, making up 17% of the Sheriff’s Office’s staff.
‘A conscious effort’
Howell told The Journal Times that immediately after becoming chief he “made a conscious effort to find the best prospects for new officers, with a keen awareness of demographics that were underrepresented.”
The chief has repeatedly said throughout his tenure how policing has changed in the wake of high profile officer-involved deaths like Michael Brown Jr. and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, and particularly the local officer-involved deaths of young black men Donte Shannon and Ty’Rese West.
Particularly, the growing anti-police vitriol nationwide has made it tougher to police a community and to also find new recruits.
Capt. Justin Miller of the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, who is White, said recruiting officers in general has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement agencies, with the number of applicants overall declining. The same holds true in Racine and nationwide.
When it comes to diversity, people of color still consistently apply for law enforcement jobs less often than White people. One of the reasons for this, according to a report from Governing.com, is the “longstanding perception of police as an oppressive force has hurt minority recruitment, and some fear it has only worsened due to recent shootings.”
Lt. Horace Staples, who is Black, has worked for the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department for 25 years and has served in nearly every role in the agency from patrol deputy to public information officer to administration. He is currently the county’s director of emergency management.
Staples said he thinks one barrier to minority hiring at the sheriff’s department in Kenosha County specifically is that Black and Latino job candidates may be concerned about working in western Kenosha County, where deputies concentrate patrol and which is far less diverse than the city along Lake Michigan.
“There is a lot of apprehension to join a sheriff’s department that does have a lot of rural area to cover,” Staples said, saying that he and other Black officers sometimes face racism while out on calls. “A lot of it comes from not being educated. Lots of times that might be (a resident’s) only encounter of a person of color. For the most part, people are people and if you just treat them with respect and dignity sometimes you get respect back.”
For those racists that deputies encounter, he said, handling those calls regardless is part of the job. “We are in the job that we have to protect and serve everyone, we don’t get to pick and choose.”
Isaac Wallner is a 30-year-old lifelong Kenosha resident who has led recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But is also considering applying to work in law enforcement.
“To hate on all police officers, it’s not OK. They need to be here to help protect us. Yes, they need to do it right, but there are police officers who are out there taking a lot of heat,” Wallner said. “It’s not that police officers are bad, there are just bad people who are police officers...
“There’s a major separation between the police department and the minority community because of the systematic racism,” Wallner, who currently works as a truck driver, continued. “I feel that due to that, they’re not going to have many people of color that are going to go and apply for those jobs — because of the fear they have, and the chip on their shoulder, rightfully so.”
Anti-police as well as racist stigmas can combine to create problems generation over generation, leading to people of color consistently being less likely to want to be part of law enforcement.
But statistics from colleges show that could be changing.
Many officers in Racine County law enforcement agencies were educated at Gateway Technical College. And if enrollment there is any indication, local Black and Hispanic students are showing strong interest in law enforcement careers.
Of students in the criminal justice program at Gateway, 14% are Black and 26.6% are Latino, showing a higher concentration of minority students in the criminal justice program than in Gateway’s overall student population.
The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department is also working to encourage its detention staff, who work in the county jail and Kenosha County Detention Center, to apply as deputies.
“We don’t have any problem recruiting minorities for detentions,” Capt. Miller, of the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, said. “We have a part-time track (in detentions) where people can get part-time jobs while they go to college. they can really dip their toe in law enforcement and say: ‘Is that for me?’”
Staples said he often gives the same advice to people of color who want to see a change in the way law enforcement operates: Join up. “If you really want to change something you feel strongly about, you have to change it from within.”
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RACINE POLICE DEPARTMENT
RACINE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
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