Making officers more diverse isn't enough to stop police violence

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won't curb violence

Ferguson police force
(Image credit: (Scott Olson/Getty Images))

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, has inspired nationwide protest and reflection about (among other things) the racial dynamics of police departments and the communities they serve.

A stark statistic — while the community of Ferguson is two-thirds black, the police department is 94 percent white — has been cited far and wide in news coverage and analysis. So have the facts that 86 percent of traffic stops there are suffered by black drivers, as are 93 percent of the resulting arrests.

It's obvious that such a disparity in the racial make-up between police and policed could lead to an us-versus-them mentality that is unproductive, and ultimately dangerous. So chiefs of police and politicians across the country are all thinking about how they can try to remedy the imbalance.

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Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement last week saying that Ferguson "should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities." Thomas Wydra, police chief of Hamden, Connecticut, says he's working to increase diversity in his ranks because, when police officers "look like" the people in the community where they work, "that gives the department legitimacy." Des Moines, Iowa's Police Sergeant Jason Halifax says he and his colleagues are "disappointed" with the lack of diversity in his department, but explains that their efforts to recruit minorities just aren't working.

Back in Ferguson, similar claims are made. Mayor James Knowles III told reporters that the problem is a lack of interest among young black residents. The department would hire minorities if they applied, but "they already have this disconnect with law enforcement." Meanwhile, the problem exacerbates, and reinforces itself with every new generation. "The perception is that if we don't have the diversity, we don't have the understanding," Ferguson Police Chief Jackson told The Wall Street Journal. "And perception is reality."

Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California-Los Angeles, made the rounds on PBS and NPR last week to talk about the huge hurdle that the historical relationship between police departments and communities of color can be to recruitment. (The Center for Policing Equity, incidentally, happened to target nearby St. Louis this past May for a study on racial diversity and racial profiling within its police force.)

Keesee herself is an African-American woman, and a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, now a captain. When Keesee told her mother, who grew up in the South during the Civil Rights movement, that she wanted to join the force, her mother's reaction was one of deep concern for her safety. But, she said, that deeply ingrained historic racial imbalance can't be reversed merely through affirmative action in police recruiting efforts. Departments that try to quickly diversify may face new complications.

Diversity "helps psychologically, and it helps from sometimes a communications standpoint," Keesee told Melissa Block on NPR's All Things Considered on Thursday. "But a lot of times, if you have someone that is not prepared to do that job, there's also a tendency for overcompensation … you have folks that can reflect the community that at times happen to be even more violent than the larger group that most folks are angry at."

There's no way to know whether a more diverse force could have prevented the escalation of tension in Ferguson, or any other situations like it, Keesee said; "it's not that simple."

Research by criminologists in the past has similarly rejected simplistic solutions to police violence and racial tension. In an analysis of 186 "officer-involved shootings" in Riverside County, California, researchers writing for the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior found that white officers were more likely to shoot than non-white officers, but a previous study of police shootings in Chicago for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that black officers were more likely to shoot than white officers. The studies were of different places and different times, so it's impossible to generalize from them.

Brad W. Smith, a researcher from Wayne State University, set out to assess the direct impact of the diversity of departments on police-caused homicides. A difficult task, to be sure. His study, published in the Policy Studies Journal in 2003, found that, while the racial make-up of a community had a measurable impact on the prevalence of police violence there (namely, the larger the black population, the more frequent the violence), the proportion of minority police officers to white police officers in a department "had no significant influence on levels of police violence."

Smith wagers a guess as to why this may be. "The simplest explanation is that increased racial diversity in large municipal police agencies may have no relationship to police-citizen relations and thus police killings," he writes. "Regardless of who is carrying out the police function, police will always be seen as representatives of the larger establishment. As such, tensions between police and citizens may be a function of the police role."

In other words, the color of the uniform may be more significant than the color of the skin. And increasing diversity in police departments — while a good idea for enhancing long-term trust — is no easy fix for the deep-seated tension between police and the policed, and the tragic violence that sometimes erupts as a result.

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