OGDEN — Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt acknowledges he hasn’t made the strides he’d like in diversifying the city’s police force.
“I’ve already admitted it. I failed,” he said.
Of the force’s 143 officers, he said, 7% are Hispanic and 20% are female. The force had three African American officers, but they’ve recently left, taking new jobs or retiring.
Still, Watt, addressing a gathering Thursday night focused on law enforcement and race, is hopeful. “We’re just going to continue to reach out,” he said, also asking for ideas and input from the public.
He’s hired a former U.S. Army recruiter who’s working on a new recruitment plan, which he hopes helps with diversification. Moreover, Watt said, Ogden isn’t unique in having a tough time diversifying its force. “That’s a problem for law enforcement nationally ... This is a national conversation for police chiefs,” he said.
Thursday’s meeting was the latest in a series of public meetings on race dating to 2016, organized by local advocates for minority communities. Watt was the featured speaker, and he touched on diversification within the force, police contacts with minority groups and more.
A 2017 survey conducted for the police department by Weber State University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, he said, found that 65% of police contacts were with white people, 28% were with Hispanics and 6% were with blacks. While whites account for 62% of the population, and were thus overrepresented by the contacts, Hispanics account for 32% of the population and were underrepresented. The figure for blacks, though, jumped out for Watt — the group represents just 2% of the city’s population and thus were overrepresented in contacts.
“This was problematic for us. The black race and ethnicity has overrepresentation in police contacts,” he said. Determining the cause, he went on, is a challenging task “but we’re going to do that because we’d like to know why.”
Notwithstanding the WSU survey figures, Watt said the police department generally doesn’t track the race of the people who officers interact with. Police gather such data from driver’s licenses when making traffic stops and figures are tracked in the jail, but that, apparently, is it.
“We’re not really tracking ethnicity, per se,” Watt said.
Broadly, Watt said, he sees the city’s diversity as a strength and said the force respects all races. The police department, he noted, doesn’t get involved with immigration enforcement issues, leaving that to federal authorities. That’s been a delicate point for some in the Latino community given talk in the administration of President Donald Trump of cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
Beyond issues of race, Watt touted big drops in crime in Ogden over the years, from a high of some 90 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in the late 1980s to the current rate of around 31 crimes per 1,000. “I think we’re light years beyond what it used to be,” he said.
Late last year, activists pushing for the Ogden Police Department to review when deadly force is authorized by officers attended a series of Ogden City Council meetings to get their message out, also asking for more de-escalation training. Those calls came in the wake of the Aug. 16 shooting death by Ogden police of Jovany Mercado-Bedolla, who was holding a knife and ignored repeated orders to drop the weapon. That didn’t come up at Thursday’s meeting, though.
The meeting was held at the Main Branch library in Ogden and drew around 50 people. Adrienne Andrews, assistant vice president of diversity and chief diversity officer at Weber State University, emceed the event and has helped organize the varied talks on race, aided by Good Company Theater Co-Director Alicia Washington and Monica Hall, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Ogden.