Cities with racially disproportionate police forces should do more to attract minority officers.
Nearly 29 percent of Meriden’s population is Hispanic, but only about 8 percent of its cops are; the city’s black population is almost 10 percent, but African-Americans make up only 4 percent of the police department (CT Mirror, 12-13). While this is not symbolic of a systemic problem, it could contribute toward the type of tension and discord between community and law enforcement evidenced in recent, controversial police actions, such as those on Ferguson, Mo.
In that well-publicized case, Michael Brown, who was black, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white officer. After Brown stole cigarillos from a local store, he was approached by Wilson, who was driving a squad car in search of the robbery suspect. DNA evidence suggests that Brown reached through Wilson’s window for the cop’s gun. Brown fled and Wilson pursued on foot. Ballistics forensics indicate that the suspect was hunched forward, perhaps rushing toward Wilson, when shot.
According to evidence, Brown was uncooperative and aggressive. Would he have reacted differently had the arresting officer been black? Although it wouldn’t necessarily be with greater leniency, it’s possible that minority officers could communicate better with residents of similar racial backgrounds.
Ferguson’s population is about 68 percent African-American, but only 3 of its 53 police officers are black. That is too low a percentage in a multiracial community. Moreover, disproportionate representation may exacerbate mistrust for police that may exist among minority populations. Had Brown treated Wilson with respect rather than apparent hostility, would there have been a shooting? Is hostility entrenched? Civil unrest that exploded in Ferguson may have derived, in part, from years of festering disdain for a police force that did not accurately represent the racial makeup of the city.
So, too, can these stigmas prevent minorities from applying to become cops in the first place. Municipalities nationwide have problems maintaining racially diverse forces. Bridgeport is an example to the contrary, with 43 percent of police being minority. The city recruits heavily, including at local churches and colleges, and events like the Juneteenth and Puerto Rican Day parades. Moreover, officials ask all officers to submit the name of one person they think would make a great officer.
In addition to reaching out into the community, cities may consider programs that plainly spell out the qualifications to become a cop. Some youths falsely believe that past arrests will disqualify someone. In reality, only certain crimes preclude applicants from joining the force. Others may think they lack sufficient schooling, but most Connecticut departments require only a high school diploma or GED.
Managing racial attitudes in and about law enforcement remains an inexact science. During training, recruits typically learn to view suspects uniformly. And in East St. Louis, Mo., which has an all-black force and a nearly completely black population, there are still many complaints about police treatment. There is no obvious solution.
Nevertheless, multicultural communities like Ferguson and Meriden should strive for more-diverse departments — perhaps borrowing from what has worked in Bridgeport: a continued effort to reinforce positive relations between residents and police.