One at a time, with just 20 minutes to sink or shine, the prospective officers filed into the interview room at the Duluth Police Department headquarters for their chance to wow the hiring panel.

Of the roughly 200 people who applied to be a Duluth police officer, these recruits already had passed the city’s written civil service exam, and 60 had moved on to last week’s oral questions.

The process has been the same for years as the city tries to find the best and brightest men and women to serve on the force - people, as the chief says, who will not just protect and serve but who “will add to the quality of life in Duluth.”

This year, though, Duluth police have added some new considerations - including asking questions about how potential officers would respond to situations involving  a “more diverse" population in Duluth. And it wasn’t only police officers and civic leaders asking the questions but also panelists recruited specifically to represent the city’s minority and poor communities.

Several U.S. police departments are reeling from a string of officer-involved shootings and beatings that often involved white police and minority suspects. The Twin Ports saw a white officer accused of wrongly beating a black woman in a scene captured on video.

A national debate has erupted over the character of people who wear the police uniform, with allegations that some police disrespected members of minority communities or a city’s poorest residents - allegations that police appeared to treat minorities as suspects and not citizens.

Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay says he’s trying to address issues of discrimination, classism or disrespect early in the officer selection process.

“We have used community members on hiring panels since the ’90s," Ramsay said. Now “we are making a greater effort to involve panelists from diverse backgrounds and community groups who represent those who have traditionally had negative police relationships.”

Diverse perspectives

That effort includes Ronnie Patterson and Rogier Gregoire, who served on one of two review panels that interviewed police officer applicants last week. Gregoire is a retired educator, a member of the Duluth Human Rights Commission and co-chairman of Duluth’s Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee. Patterson works at downtown Duluth’s CHUM center.

Patterson said he was recruited by Ramsay because of his work at CHUM with some of Duluth’s neediest citizens - people who often have no place to eat or sleep, no money and who may be battling alcoholism or drug abuse or who have been abused.

These often are the people who can have the kind of “negative relationship" with police that Ramsay speaks of.

Serving on the candidate interview panel “was a great experience for me. I’ve never done anything like this before," Patterson said. “I think we brought a little perspective that maybe they didn’t have.”

Gregoire said the questions asked are as important as the answers. But he said it also makes a difference who is asking the questions.

“My primary measure in all of this was whether that person is someone I would want walking up to my car window. … Is that the kind of face I’d want to see staring out from behind that uniform?’’ Gregoire said. “Some of them did extraordinarily well. I was very impressed with the quality of the candidates.”

Patterson and Gregoire’s panel interviewed 29 recruits. But Patterson said a few of the prospects rose to the top.

“I was looking for people who would look me straight in the eye and answer the question, and do it quickly. I wanted to see a spontaneous answer, and a good one, too,’’ Patterson said. “We had three of them that all of us (on the panel) agreed would be great officers. A few others were close, too.

“Those three were people, who, I think, would treat everyone with respect, whether they are an alcoholic or a drug abuser or whoever," Patterson said. “You have to have the right attitude. You can’t teach attitude. … You want (officers) who aren’t going to treat people like a piece of trash.”

Patterson said he sometimes has to deal with anger, despair and threatened violence in his job, and he sees a glimpse of what police have to deal with.

“For the most part, Duluth officers are great at that, great at knowing people’s names on the street … and people know their names. There’s a relationship," Patterson added. “But you have a few bad examples of police behavior around the country, and that gives everyone a bad name.”

On the hiring panel, Patterson and Gregoire were joined by a city human resources official and two cops, Duluth patrol officer Angela Robertson and supervising Patrol Sgt. Tait Erickson.

“I like the fact we have people from the community, from different backgrounds, asking questions. It gives them buy-in to this department. It helps us get better officers," said Erickson, a 19-year police veteran and 13-year member of the Duluth department. “I’m not really surprised that, even though we may have different perspectives, we were pretty much in line with who stood out.”

Each member of the panel graded the verbal answers to five questions, including one that dealt with building relationships with citizens, especially among diverse communities.

Other questions tried to gain insight into the prospective officers’ ethics and integrity, teamwork, their thoughts on community policing and how the recruits had overcome personal difficulties in the past - questions dealing with decision-making and character: Would an officer write a speeding ticket to his lieutenant’s son? How would the officer approach a known group of troublemakers at a street corner? What was the most difficult decision they had made, and what went into it?

“Those are the areas where we really want them (officers) to excel," said Lt. Nick Lukovsky, training officer for the department.

Ramsay, in a training video for review panel members, makes it clear he wants reviewers to look for officers who will “get out of the car’’ and interact with all citizens in the community, officers who will interact with people as equals and treat them with “respect and dignity.”

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