A look inside the 1st HBCU police academy

(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.) — To address the lack of diversity in law enforcement, Lincoln University, in Jefferson City, Missouri, has opened the first police academy at a historically Black college or university (HBCU).

Today, 71.5% of U.S. police officers are white and police departments are struggling to recruit new officers and retain veterans, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Retirements nationwide are up 45% in policing, resignations have risen 18% and recruitment is down 5%, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

For law enforcement to better reflect America’s diversity, Lincoln University started the new policing program in January of 2021, graduating its first group of recruits six months later.

“Law enforcement agencies across the nation have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out a way to recruit more minorities. And this has never been tried,” Gary Hill, the co-founder and principal instructor of the program, told ABC News. “I would love to see where we can go from here.”

The majority of Lincoln’s first class are college students. The nine recruits spent 32 hours a week in firearm training and physical conditioning courses. The recruits consist of two Black women, four Black men and three white men.

Hill hopes the success of this academy could change the fate of policing and inspire other HBCUs to follow suit.

College sophomore Ti Aja Fairlee, 21, is the youngest in the class and told “Nightline” she never saw Black women represented among the ranks in law enforcement as a child.

Black women are among the most underrepresented groups in police, making up just 2.7% of the force nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“I am kind of proud of myself actually that I can be the face and the voice for girls like me,” Fairlee said. “Yes, you can do this. Don’t let the race thing stop you from anything. The race thing already pushed us back enough. We’ve just got to push forward and do what we want to do, like, don’t let nobody stop us.”

Fairlee, however, said there’s a lot of pressure in being one of a few.

“That’s where a lot of my doubts came from because I’m like, ‘Can I be a good police officer? I don’t know nobody to look up to,"” she said. “I’ve got to be my own role model, really.”

Tyrese Davis, 22, said the message was clear in Baltimore where he grew up: Don’t become a cop if you’re Black or a person of color.

He’s the first in his family to go to college and pays for tuition and the police academy by working the night shift at a local book factory.

Investing in recruits like Fairlee and Davis is central to Hill’s mission.

“What you all have to do is be the change that you want to see,” Hill said. “You have to be.”

Hill, a 26-year veteran in of law enforcement, also heads up Lincoln University’s police department, where he oversees 22 officers while still taking time to patrol the campus himself.

But close to the chief’s heart is the belief that higher education in police leadership makes for competent and diverse leaders. Hill holds a master’s in administration of criminal justice agencies and is currently working toward a doctorate in criminal justice with an emphasis on homeland security.

“I’m able to see things from different perspectives because of my education,” he said, “and so a lot of us chiefs and sheriffs, and other administrators, see the value in that.”

Hill said he’s inspired by African American Civil War soldiers who pooled their money to help create HBCUs in the 1800s.

“I look back and I say, ‘you know, if they could do it back in 1866, we can do it now,"” Hill said. “Lincoln University is probably one of the most diverse schools in the country. Our population is half Black and half white. And what better place to have an academy or to start one but here?”

Eight members of the inaugural class now work in law enforcement. Lincoln University’s program has also broadened its reach, opening a second training site in St. Louis, Missouri, with 25 recruits currently enrolled.

“I will measure success in three years to see how many of those recruits are still in law enforcement, and the things that they’ve experienced, and how they feel about law enforcement after those three years,” said Hill.

Watch the full story on “Nightline” TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET on ABC.

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