The law enforcement diversity numbers don’t shock Earl Nelson.
Nearly 80 percent of U.S. police departments are comprised of white, male officers while about 13 percent are African-Americans, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics.
If anyone should understand the void of diversity in police departments, it’s Nelson, an African-American who was promoted to sergeant in the Middletown Division of Police Department, the highest ranking officer in the city’s history, said Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw.
When Nelson, 39, a native of Maysville, Ky., decided he wanted to buck the trend, it came with a high price tag. Nelson, one of four boys, hasn’t spoken to his youngest brother in years.
His brother, who Nelson said had a few “bad run-ins” with police, didn’t approve of Nelson choosing “their side and not my side,” he was told by his brother.
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“It’s almost taboo to be a black police officer because of the history of racism in this country,” Nelson said recently. “It’s almost ingrained in our DNA that we can’t work with the police. Police never have been good for black people. It’s not something we do, especially black men. You don’t go work for them. They’re the bad people. My goal when I became a police officer was to change that. The only way I knew to change it was to do it from within.”
No one is happier about Nelson’s career path than Muterspaw, who believes it’s imperative the racial makeup of his department mirrors the city’s. Middletown’s estimated total population is 48,527, and the estimated total of African-American residents is 5,764, or 19 percent, according to 2016 estimates from the U.S. Census Department.
There are 70 police officers in the Middletown department, and three, or 4 percent, are African-American. Of those officers, 58 are male and 64 are white, according to police records.
Muterspaw said it was important to promote Nelson not because of his skin color, but his job performance. Muterspaw sees Nelson as an “exceptional candidate,” regardless of his background. When Muterspaw was lieutenant, he led a team that investigated the Baltimore Street Gang for several months, and because of Nelson and other officers, arrests and convictions were made.
“Once I got him on the team, he stood out,” the chief said. “I knew right off the bat, ‘This guy’s got it.’ You can’t teach what he’s got. He’s one of the most intelligent people you will ever meet.”
He expects Nelson, who was hired 13 years ago, to continue rising through the ranks.
“A guy like him is the future of our police department,” said Muterspaw, adding Nelson has potential to be police chief. “This is the kind of guy I want leading this place, keeping this city safe when I’m gone.”
Nelson and Holly Owens, one of the department’s 12 female officers, are part of the department’s recruiting team that’s sent out to colleges and job fairs seeking potential police candidates. Their job: Sell the agency and the city, Muterspaw said.
“Diversity is a great thing,” Muterspaw said. “It shows that you’re doing what’s best for our community. It’s important for me to reach all segments of the community and that’s one thing we really try to push here.”
He believes Nelson can serve as a role model to other young African-American residents.
“Sometimes people need to see people who look like them or act like them to feel that they can achieve something,” Muterspaw said. “Not saying that’s true, but that’s how kids feel. That’s the way I was. This country is made up of diversity. Especially in authority, you need to mirror your community.”
When Nelson talks to young African-American students about entering law enforcement, his message: “Don’t be afraid. You can do this job and be successful at this job.”
Growing up in the projects and being raised in a single-parent home, Nelson said he never saw a black police officer. He attended Northern Kentucky University and planned to be a lawyer.
“It didn’t sit well with me getting the bad guys out of trouble,” he said with a laugh.
He then transferred to Tiffin University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice.
Now Nelson understands what Middletown residents, especially black residents, feel when they see an officer in their rear-view mirror. It’s the same way he felt growing up in Kentucky.
“You get a little nervous and think, ‘Am I going to jail today?’” he said. “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong. I’m not saying that’s true, but that’s how you would feel when police got behind you. Even today, even though I’m a cop, I still feel that way when I’m in my personal car driving around and a cop gets behind me.”
There are times, Nelson said, when he pulls over a black motorist, and since they’re both black, the driver expects special treatment.
Nelson’s response: “You still can’t commit crimes. I still have to do my job.”