When he took over as police chief last year in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, it didn’t take Bill Carson long to see he had a serious diversity problem. Of the department’s 79 sworn officers, just one was Black and one Hispanic.
Carson acted quickly, hoping to hire several minority recruits. He issued a plan that included advertising in the local Black newspaper, outreach to groups like the NAACP and participation in job fairs at area colleges with large minority student bodies.
Of 81 applicants during Carson’s first hiring process as chief, only three were Black and one Hispanic. Of those, he said, one failed the written exam, two had problems at past jobs and the other chose to stay with his current department.
“It’s not like we’re passing over a lot of great minority applicants so that we can hire more White police officers,” says Carson, whose city is 10 percent Black and 8 percent Hispanic. “I think the community feels better about their police department if the police department maybe reflects the makeup of the community – but that’s easier said than done.”
The Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed Black 18-year-old, by a White officer in Ferguson, another St. Louis suburb, has focused attention on the lack of diversity in many police departments across the country. One of the most oft-cited statistics about Ferguson: Of 53 officers in a community that is two-thirds Black, only three are African-American.
But authorities say the reasons behind such numbers are many and often nuanced – and, as Carson learned, the remedies are not always quick or self-evident.
Experts say many departments limit their searches too close to home, often don’t recruit in the right places and set criteria that can disproportionately exclude groups they hope to attract. And across this increasingly polyglot nation, police are not just struggling to attract Blacks and Hispanics, but members of immigrant groups where distrust and fear of authority run deep.
“If you were taught from the time that you could speak, from the time that you could understand speech, that police are to be feared and that they’re part of an occupying force that is there to circumvent the democratic processes and to strip you of your rights, then it’s very difficult for that department to come into your neighborhood and tell you that they respect you and that you should join their team,” says Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of The Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Nationally, Hispanics are underrepresented in the cadet ranks, according to the most recent Census of Law Enforcement Training Academies. And while 87 percent of White candidates graduate, the rate was 82 percent for Hispanics and 81 percent for Blacks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
From 1990 to 2010, Ferguson’s African-American population rose by more than 150 percent.
Chief Tom Jackson says a few Black officers left in recent years for higher-paying jobs, and that the city has tried to recruit more. But amid ongoing state and federal investigations, Ferguson officials have failed to respond to requests from The Associated Press to elaborate on those efforts.
“There’s no way they can say they’ve done enough,” says Charles Henson, who was the first Black president of the Ferguson-Florissant school board.
As a business owner and community leader, Henson served on committees that helped hire the city manager, police chief and other key officials in Ferguson. He remembers discussing minority recruitment for the police force back in the mid-1990s, when the city’s demographics were beginning to shift.
Henson suggested offering a stipend for minority recruits to attend the police academy. He says nothing came of it.
The Rev. Stoney Shaw, who joined Henson in a now-dormant group called People Reaching Out for Unity and Diversity, says city officials do visit area academies and seek out Black officers. But, he says Ferguson is not a rich community, and Black candidates are “a premium in the sense that there are so few.”
“They don’t stay here long,” says Shaw, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ferguson.
UCLA’s Goff says having a police force that mirrors the population is no “panacea.” Others agree.
Changes to make departments more diverse “have not curbed police violence in communities of color” or removed the special challenges of policing disadvantaged neighborhoods, wrote Malcolm D. Holmes and Brad W. Smith, co-authors of “Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma,” in a recent letter to the National Journal.
But the goal of diversity in the ranks is sufficiently prized that it has its own chapter in the Law Enforcement Recruitment Toolkit, published by the U.S. Department of Justice. Still, the authors recognized impediments to achieving that goal.
“Some nonwhites may view policing as a White-dominated and racist profession and may reject the idea of working for the police because they fear being perceived by their peers as selling out,” they wrote.
Part of the problem is that policing “has never been made attractive for people of color,” says Malik Aziz, chairman and executive director of the National Black Police Association.
“When I got into the police department, I went to neighborhoods I had grown up in,” says Aziz, a deputy police chief in Dallas. “When people saw me, even people in my own family had very negative views of the police. I had to change this attitude.”
That’s why departments have to work even harder to entice qualified minorities into the ranks, says Terrence Green.
When Green became police chief in Lexington, South Carolina, eight years ago, he was the only black officer. Today, African-Americans comprise about 14 percent of the 50-person force – slightly higher than their representation in the city’s population.
“You’ve got to go out and fish for those people,” Green says. But it wasn’t easy.
Green went to the area’s historically Black colleges but found “the last thing they want to do is go to college to be a cop.”
He shifted to schools that offered criminal justice degrees. Even there, he found most Black students wanted jobs on the state or federal levels.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department has stepped up its recruitment of minorities in recent years, reaching out as far as Puerto Rico.
In 2011, the department sent recruiters there but many applicants didn’t pass the entry-level written test because it was in English. Still, three officers were hired and a fourth will begin in October, and so the effort was considered a success, says Capt. Stella Patterson, the department’s recruitment director.
Since 2012, the department has hired 25 Hispanic police officers, including 10 women. Patterson says the biggest obstacle is convincing Hispanic women that law enforcement can be a career. “It’s not a profession that’s culturally accepted,” she says, adding that the department has tried to make Hispanic female officers highly visible so others can say “yes, we can do that job.”
The department also offers a 5 percent pay increase to officers who speak Spanish, Laotian or Vietnamese. And it has tried to attract more Black candidates, sending recruiters to historically Black colleges and running ads in Black publications featuring the police chief, who is Black.
Many communities go to great lengths to serve immigrant minorities.
In Minneapolis, the police department has about a half-dozen east African officers to work with the city’s large Somali community. Department spokesman John Elder says in this case, the force is also combatting “the stigma” attached to law enforcement in another country.
“They are among our best recruiting tools,” he says. “These are people respected in the community. These are people seen to be carrying the message and the voice of the Somali community.”
Over in St. Paul, Sgt. Paul Paulos says the department has liaisons for the Somali and Karen – a Burmese ethnic minority – communities. Officers have attended a Hmong soccer tournament and, also for kids, held the department’s first East African Police Academy, staging mock investigations and taking fingerprints.
“It’s a thing to let the kids know that we’re OK,” he says. “I think it’s very important to start at a young age … It’s a long-term recruitment. It’s nothing done overnight.”
Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, says one obstacle in recruiting minorities is the intense competition from the private sector. Also, some police benefits and pensions aren’t as good as they once were, so the jobs can be less appealing for everyone, he says.
But some departments have made great strides.
In Miami, where riots followed the 1980 acquittal of officers in the death of a Black motorist, officials vowed to overhaul the department’s complexion. Since then, the number of sworn Black officers has more than doubled to around 20 percent and the number of Hispanics has skyrocketed from 7.5 percent to nearly 58 percent, according to recent staffing figures from the Miami-Dade Police Department.
In Maryland Heights, Carson has detached his only Black officer to the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy as an instructor, in hopes he can identify qualified minority officers who might be lured to his city. He is also re-evaluating the department’s written exam “to determine if we’re losing quality applicants because of that test in any way.”
But even in departments fully committed to diversity, change will likely come slowly.
“Policing is a profession where people don’t tend to retire before their time,” says Goff. “If you’re limited in the number of slots that you have to fill, then it’s going to take a long time for the department to diversify.”
In Ferguson, Chief Jackson met recently with Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
“He’s receptive and he wants to do what’s good and better for that department in that community,” says Alexander, public safety director in DeKalb County, Georgia. But Alexander says it’s not just a matter of “rush through the community and pass out applications to be a police officer.” He says mending the rifts will take “patience and time.”
Among the strategies Alexander and others suggest is starting an Explorer program in the local schools. Open to youths 14 and up, the national program offers classes, field internships, ride-alongs and scholarships. Many graduates go on to careers in law enforcement.
That’s Jeremiah Ricketts’ plan.
Growing up in central Florida, Jeremiah, who is Black, recalls encountering police when his mother was pulled over while driving. “They used to give me stickers and they would give me coloring books and the toy badges,” he says.
The Ocala Police Department was so impressed with Jeremiah that they allowed him to join Explorer Post 962 when he was just 12. Now 16, he is the post commander, with a rank of colonel.
He’s gotten some flak from peers and even family members over his career choice. But there’s nothing he’d rather do.
“I really like helping people,” he says. “The police department brings me a sense of security.”
When he graduates on a fast track next spring, he hopes it will be with an associate’s degree in criminal justice and a place in the police academy. If he passes all the training and tests, he could be sworn in when he turns 19.
Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C.; Cohen reported from Chicago.