Investigation: Denied applicant spotlights lack of diversity at Virginia Marine Police


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A whistleblower with two decades of state and military law enforcement experience told 10 On Your Side what happened when he applied for a post with the Virginia Marine Police, the law enforcement division of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

When we took a deeper dive, we found essentially no diversity below the surface.

“People of color, we do swim, we do do outdoor sports, we do boat,” said “Tom,” an African American who has worked in state and military law enforcement for nearly 20 years in supervisory, investigative and undercover positions. He applied for a job with the Marine Police twice.

Of about 150 officers statewide, there are currently no African American officers.

“There’s no diversity in that department and I still think they’re going off of very old ways and very old thoughts,” Tom said. “It was a position that fit my interests. I’m an avid outdoorsman. I love being in the water and I love being around the water.”

Despite his resume, Tom didn’t get the job.

“I applied for it, and the bad part about it I was willing to take a pay cut to work for them, just to fulfill that dream.”

10 On Your Side contacted the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management for the data. In the past five years, the percentage of African American officers at VMRC peaked at less than 2%, and currently, it’s zero.

For Hispanic and Latino officers, it’s almost just as abysmal, currently 1.41%. Keep in mind, these two groups make up about 30% of Virginia’s population and 36% in Hampton Roads — where VMRC manages fisheries and habitat.

We reached out to the VMRC with this data and requested an interview with their police chief. They weren’t willing to allow him to speak with us, so we were unable to find out how many minority candidates apply for positions with the Virginia Marine Police. They gave us the following statement:

“The Virginia Marine Resources Commission strives to ensure diversity in the Marine Police Division. Last year, as part of our efforts to increase diversity, we requested the assistance of the Office of the State Inspector General to conduct a full review of our recruitment and hiring practices. This review is ongoing, and we hope that the Inspector General’s conclusions will help us better recruit and hire diverse candidates.”

“It amazes me that they don’t even have diversity to do undercover work,” Tom said.

Thrust into the hot seat of accountability is Janice Underwood, Virginia’s first Chief Diversity Officer. Governor Northam created the cabinet-level post in the wake of his blackface scandal earlier this year.

“I think the (VMRC diversity) stats speak for themselves,” Underwood said during an interview October 8.

Our path to Director Underwood was not a direct course. After numerous emails and phone calls to her office, the VMRC and the Governor’s office, we went to Richmond to ask Northam directly what could be done. His press secretary said he was not available that day, but she did arrange the first on-camera interview with Underwood in her new post.

“As an African-American, of course I can not only sympathize, but I can empathize,” Underwood said, “and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel the pains of discrimination.”

Underwood was ODU’s Director of Diversity before Northam selected her. She couldn’t comment directly on Tom’s situation, but says Virginia needs to overcome institutional and systemic barriers to get its government to better reflect its people.

“We can go back 400 years in terms of our history in Virginia and the first enslaved Africans coming to the English colonies as well as just 50 years ago, Jim Crow.”

“They have to think outside the box. I think that would bring us back up to this century,” Tom said.

Brand new as Diversity Director, Underwood says she will make a difference at VMRC and across state agencies.

“Give me some time and I promise you I can show you measurable results.”

Tom says if VMRC reverses course and ever offers him a position, he’d come on board. For now he’s trying to lend a hand to other minorities.

“Even if I don’t get picked for a job or something like that maybe I can pave the way for other ones.”

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