The Maryland Natural Resources Police, which has faced criticism over a lack of diversity for decades, has halted hiring efforts while announcing plans to recruit from historically Black colleges and universities and through Spanish-language radio stations.

The announcement comes less than two months into the administration of Gov. Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor, and amid concerns expressed by Black officers that the agency’s past hiring and promotion practices — particularly under former Gov. Larry Hogan — limited the number of diverse candidates.

The agency, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, has twice been ordered to follow a consent decree to remedy a lack of diversity, said Capt. Steven Muse, a retired DNR officer and president of the department’s Black Officers’ Association.

“There is historical institutional racism as an agency,” Muse said of the police agency, which is responsible for patrolling state parks and waterways, enforcing laws around hunting and fishing, and leading search and rescue efforts.

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In early December, 19 of the department’s 259 officers were Black men, according to figures provided by the Black Officers’ Association. None of the officers were Black women.

”At a conservation agency, Black officers, especially Black female officers, are going to be extinct,” Muse said. “There have been no efforts to diversify the staff.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore meets with reporters after testifying in favor of the Family Prosperity Act on Feb. 16, 2023 during a meeting of the House of Delegates Ways and Means committee in Annapolis. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

A DNR spokesman said that under Moore and the newly appointed secretary of natural resources, Joshua Kurtz, the police agency is planning recruitment efforts to reach a broader swath of candidates.

The agency is “strengthening its hiring and training process to fill all vacancies,” DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz wrote in an email. ”NRP is actively recruiting at more job fairs and community-based events throughout the state, including HBCUs in Maryland and surrounding regions, and conducting radio interviews and advertisements on local Urban and Spanish language radio stations.”

In the future, Bortz added, the department will be “bolstering review of policies and processes to ensure hiring, workforce, and advancement across the entire Department of Natural Resources, including the Natural Resources Police, reflects the diversity of Maryland’s citizens.”

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The Natural Resources Police isn’t the only law enforcement agency facing equity concerns. In February, Moore tapped Lt. Col. Roland Butler, a Maryland State Police veteran, to lead an agency that faces serious issues, many tied to allegations of racism and discrimination within the overwhelmingly white department. Butler is Black and would be the agency’s first Black leader.

Muse said that the first consent decree to integrate the Natural Resources Police came down in 1985. No real progress was made in the ensuing decade, and a second decree came down in 1995, he said. That consent decree is still in effect, he added.

Now Muse and other members of the Black Officers’ Association are raising concerns again about the department’s hiring and promotion practices. They say that the agency adopted a new promotion system in 2017 that made it harder for Black officers to be promoted.

In July 2022, a new state law went into effect requiring that DNR “include advertising that is targeted toward certain underrepresented racial and ethnic communities when advertising for or recruiting new Natural Resources police officers.” The law states that the agency should aim to have its officers reflect the demographics of the state by 2027 and move toward that goal by increasing diversity by 20% each year.

The association interprets the law to mean that DNR should have ceased all hiring and promotions until efforts were implemented to bolster its diversity, Muse said. In February, 13 out of 15 members of a class of recruits hired were white. He and other members of the Black officers group met with Kurtz last week to outline their concerns, Muse said.

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Robert Kersey, a retired NRP deputy superintendent who is Black, said he thought the pause in hiring would help the agency align its hiring with the goal of increasing diversity.

“I think it’s a good-faith effort,” said Kersey. “I think it shows that they’re serious about effecting change in the agency.”

Still, data shows that new recruiting classes remain overwhelmingly white.

In 2022, the class of 15 was composed of nine white men, four white women, one Black man and one Hispanic woman. In 2016, the recruiting class was made up of 27 white men, two white women and one Hispanic man.

The last time a Black woman was part of a recruiting class was in 2018, according to department data. That woman identifies as multiracial.

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Data shows that promotions within the department have also been overwhelmingly white and male.

In 2022, 41 white men and 14 white women were promoted within the department, agency figures show. Other promotions went to two Asian American men, one Black man, a Hispanic woman, one multi-race woman and one multi-race man.

NRP employment figures from 2021 provided to The Banner by the Black Officers’ Association show that of 259 officers, 86.5% were white, 7.3% were Black, and 2.7% were Hispanic. Less than 1% were Asian and less than 1% were American Indian. More than four out of five employees were white.

Bortz did not address whether the agency had received past complaints about the lack of diversity within new classes and promotions.

DNR came under scrutiny last year when the longtime manager of Gunpowder Falls, the state’s largest park, was indicted in connection to the alleged rapes of two young women who had worked at the park. A Baltimore Banner investigation found that numerous employees had raised concerns about the actions of the manager, Michael J. Browning, as well as the park’s assistant manager, but that higher-ups in the parks department appeared to dismiss their complaints. Following the publication of The Banner investigation, the superintendent of the park system, the regional supervisor who oversaw Gunpowder and the assistant manager were all fired. Browning, who has denied the allegations, is scheduled to go on trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court later this month.

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Diversity in hiring, especially when it involves a police department, benefits the community as a whole, according to Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which represents more than 3,000 members of law enforcement.

“Communities need to have officers that look like them and reflect them,” said Goss Andrews, a retired deputy chief of the Detroit Police Department, who spoke generally and not in reference to Maryland’s NRP. “Police departments have to have that as their core values. That must be in their messaging. It’s not just one thing. It’s really a culture shift. That’s what DEI means. It’s looking at it through different races, and cultures.”

She said having a diverse department also allows a department to communicate better with communities. “If you can’t communicate with the community, you can’t protect the community,” she said.

Recruiting is key, according to Goss Andrews.

“You can’t recruit people the way we did 10 years ago. That is not attracting a wide swath,” Goss Andrews said. “You’re really going to have to change to reflect the community you want to recruit from.”

NRP has begun advertising open positions front and center on its website. The agency tweeted on Feb. 28: “The Maryland Natural Resources Police is proud to have diverse officers from various backgrounds and cultures.” A Twitter user commented: “Why don’t you get the best capable for the job instead of what they look like. Affirmative action is discrimination. You should be ashamed.”

The Natural Resources Police did not reveal the exact timeline for the intake process to begin for the 2024 class of recruits. Typically, the training academy for new recruits starts in March with an October graduation.

“It will be this year. The date when that takes place has not been determined,” Bortz said.

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