Here's where Vanderburgh County sheriff candidates stand on diversity in the office

Jeff Hales (left) and Noah Robinson are vying to become Vanderburgh County's next sheriff.

EVANSVILLE — The Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s office currently has four Black deputies and six women deputies on staff. All six women are white.

Internal demographics provided by the VCSO shows its staff of deputies is about 96% white and nearly 95% male. Confinement officers are similar in race at around 95% white. But with 17 women, the gender disparity shrinks.

For the next sheriff, which both Republican Jeff Hales and Democrat Noah Robinson hope to be, recruitment will be a major aspect of the job.

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Here’s their thoughts on how diversity fits into that process.

Robinson talked to the Courier & Press about diversity issues. Hales did not return multiple requests for comment from the Courier & Press prior to the time of publication. His comments in this story come from the Sept. 20 Evansville Rotary Club forum where a question on diversity and recruitment was asked.

Vanderburg County Sheriff's Office relations with the public

Robinson said there isn’t any one factor that causes the sheriff’s office and many other law enforcement agencies around the country to have lower levels of diversity on their staffs.

Calling it a complex issue, the 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office said historically, and currently, law enforcement is not well thought of in many areas.

“Some of that is deserved,” he said. “Some of that is not deserved.”

Now, when an officer engages in misconduct, there’s a good chance it will be caught by their own body cam or recorded by a bystander, Robinson said. After that it makes its way to the public and has a negative impact on the perception of police.

“We’re our own worst enemy in some respects in our inability to recruit people into the profession,” he said.

This is due to the fact not every law enforcement office − though Robinson said he was not speaking locally about the sheriff’s office − seems to have their deputies or officers “reined in” on matters of behavior and accountability.

He said it would be rare for a Vanderburgh County deputy to be in trouble for behaving improperly, because the office has a strong culture of accountability that wants deputies putting their best foot forward with the public.

“If your agency has a poor reputation you’re going to have a hard time recruiting anyone, and in particular minorities,” he said. “There is a historic distrust of law enforcement in many minority communities. It’s a fact, it’s not some abstract concept, it is a fact.”

Recruiting racially diverse candidates to VCSO

With the help of Black deputies on staff, and other willing members of the office, Robinson hopes to attend neighborhood meetings and work with youth groups that serve the center city.

“Building trust takes time. It takes familiarity,” he said. “But it’s something I’m deeply committed to, and I believe will ultimately result in a sheriff's office that more proportionally resembles the community.”

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Robinson said historically the sheriff’s office has not done all it can do to be present and interact with residents in Vanderburgh County who belong to communities of color.

“If you don’t try to recruit minority candidates then you’re not going to have very good success recruiting minority candidates,” he said. “That to me is basic logic.”

By being present and having people of color in the sheriff uniform, Robinson said it helps the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office be seen as a viable career path.

“You have to be out there actively recruiting and setting the stage for 10, 15 years down the road,” he said. “Otherwise you’re never going to move the needle in the direction you want it to.”

But Robinson said he knows the change won’t happen overnight.

“There are plenty of minorities out there that are imminently qualified to be sheriff deputies,” he said. “But it’s a matter of fact many are simply not considering law enforcement as a viable career path.”

When out at those neighborhood meetings, Robinson said he believes the sheriff’s office would breed trust by allowing the residents to hold them accountable.

“I really enjoy hard questions,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a deputy if I didn’t have thick skin and I certainly wouldn’t be running for office, or sheriff, if I didn’t have the ability to take tough questions and answer truthfully and honestly.”

If there are issues with a member of the sheriff’s office, Robinson said it’s important to have a strong internal review process. Problems cannot be allowed to fester, he said.

This includes doing more to keep deputies trained in bias recognition, Robinson said.

“I don’t believe that we have sheriff deputies that are racist. I do believe we have sheriff deputies potentially that have some unconscious bias,” he said. “There’s zero harm, and so much to be gained, of making folks aware of their own inner biases so they become better police officers.”

During the Sept. 20 candidate forum sponsored by the Evansville Rotary Club, Hales said he would not be type of person to exclude anyone from sheriff’s office.

“But I’m also not going to go out and look for something other than what’s qualified to do the job,” he said.

He said if elected he would take an active role in the recruitment process of both deputies and confinement officers.

“Whoever is qualified to do the job, who applies for the job, who has put in the work to do the job, those are the people who I want on the sheriff’s office,” he said. “Those are the people that I would like to bring on instead of going out and trying to find specific people.”

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Impact of the Vanderburgh County Jail

There are one of two ways the public typically interacts with the sheriff’s department. It either comes during a traffic stop or in the Vanderburgh County Jail, whether as an inmate or a visitor.

Deputies patrol the county, which is a majority white, more often than they patrol within the city of Evansville, which has a larger minority population.

Robinson said this results in the office being seen, but not particularly well-known. The interactions with the public entering the jail as a visitor should be swift and professional, Robinson said.

He said there is some improvement to be made in that regard. For interaction with inmates, Robinson wants to make sure there is consistent training for confinement officers. Training, an increase in pay and more career paths would result in a better work environment, he said.

“When folks are happy to come to work, they’ll provide better service and treat the inmates better, frankly,” Robinson said.

Women in the Vanderburgh sheriff’s office

The sheriff's office has six women deputies and 17 women confinement officers. All are white.

The civilian employees at the sheriff’s office include the most women of any department with 20 of its 21-member staff. Eighteen of those women are white.

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Robinson said the department needs more female deputies. While women may not view law enforcement as a popular career path, it’s important to show women in uniform, he said.

“The only way that you can show folks that we need female deputies, and they’re valued members of our team, is to have our female deputies out there and engaged in recruitment,” he said. “There’s just no substitute for modeling behavior. Females have a role to play in law enforcement and they can do everything a male sheriff deputy can do.”

Targeted recruitment at historically women’s colleges and women’s groups are two ways to do that, he said.

Regarding the culture women members of the sheriff’s office will come in to once recruited, Robinson said law enforcement continues to make progress. But he has heard horror stories from decades past, including a few from VCSO which give him pause, he said.

“I think by now if you haven’t gotten the memo on sexual harassment, you probably ought to be looking for another job,” he said. “It’s not something I will even come close to tolerating.”

Robinson said he has a low forgiveness level for individuals who “sully their uniform” by behaving inappropriately with the public. And he is disturbed by any sheriff deputy or confinement officer who would use their position in the office to harass another employee.

“You have to set the culture of your agency. Culture is set over time, but it comes from setting expectations and holding people accountable,” he said. “There will be no boys club at the sheriff’s office under my tenure, I can promise you that.”

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Noah Robinson, Jeff Hales on Vanderburgh Sheriff's Office diversity