In a recent first-time national interview, during which he openly discussed the tragic shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of a troubled white cop, Cleveland’s black police chief, Calvin Williams, strangely snapped back at the notion of more black cops.
“Diversity is always at the forefront of what I’m trying to do in this city,” said Williams, responding to a question from 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker about the fact that majority-black Cleveland is patrolled by a majority-white police force. “But if you come from the premise that only an African American can police other African Americans, then we’re all doomed to failure.”
But the problem with Williams’ answer is that, yeah, Cleveland and many other places like it do need more black cops.
Of course, Chief Williams is correct on one point: More black police officers is not a panacea. As Stanford’s David Slanksy observes in a 2006 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology study: “Black officers shoot just as often as white officers … arrest just as often as white officers … are often prejudiced against black citizens.”
But similar studies suggest that, when done correctly, aggressive diversity hiring can be a powerful tool in restoring community confidence in their police departments. Ultimately, confidence is half the battle, especially when considering 52 percent of blacks express less confidence or “just some” in police, rather than the 71 percent of whites who express a “great deal” or “fair amount,” according to the Pew Research Center.
Slansky even admits, with diverse policing being very recent in American history, “the demographics of law enforcement have already altered dramatically, and the consequences are profound … a department that recruits, retains and promotes a significant number of black officers may find the credibility of its entire force enhanced in black neighborhoods.”
FiveThirtyEight’s Batya Ungar-Sargon also examines this correlation, citing significant progress in cities like Los Angeles, and Savannah and Atlanta in Georgia, to argue that the “experience of police departments around the country suggests a diverse police force is better able to serve its community than a nondiverse one.”
Basically, it’s better to hire black cops than to not hire them. Because it’s impossible to advocate “community policing”—a distorted euphemism long used by police departments to lock in federal funding—when your officers don’t reflect or live in the communities they patrol. Ferguson, Mo., is a perfect case study in the failure of the preferred white-cops-patrol-black-hood model. Officer Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s unindicted killer, didn’t live in Ferguson: He made a 31-minute commute from Crestwood, Mo., a 93 percent white, conservative community.
It’s the same story with Cleveland Police Department rookie Timothy Loehmann, the white police officer who shot Tamir—and made a 20-minute commute from 93 percent white Parma, Ohio, each day to very black Cleveland. Loehmann, near-fired by a suburban police department for being mentally unfit, wasn’t even the best cop Cleveland could recruit.
To illustrate the racial disparity, Cleveland is more than 53 percent black. Yet an August 2014 analysis by the Northeast Ohio Media Group—eerily prescient on the eve of Tamir’s death—showed that only 27 percent of the city’s police officers are African American (a percentage point less than the last 2008 Cleveland State University study).
Nationally, that’s pretty much the norm. This essential New York Times interactive analysis shows how police departments in most major cities are 30 times whiter “than the communities they serve.”
The racial disparity in police hiring creates an unaddressed and potentially volatile situation where the national law-enforcement system is 75 percent white in a nation that’s just 62 percent white demographically, according to the most recent and comprehensive Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.
That’s troubling in a nation expected to reach people-of-color-majority status by 2044.
Policing, at its philosophical core, is a rather noble profession. Much respect to the individuals who join their local police force as a way to protect the neighborhoods in which they live or grew up.
And it’s not as if these are undesirable, bottom-of-the-pile gigs. They are among the best-paid and most rewarding jobs to have. The average salary for a rookie cop or deputy sheriff is nearly $53,000, compared with $42,000 for other professions. If you make it to chief, you can score an average $70,000—and big-city chiefs in places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles easily boast six figures. Yet Antioch University’s Patrick Oliver found in his authoritative 2013 dissertation on black police chiefs that only 1.7 percent of local law-enforcement commissioners are African American. Wonder why?
The tendency to fill coveted well-paying police jobs with white applicants could explain one reason police agencies won’t aggressively recruit black candidates. Years of institutional racism, obviously, provide the other explanation, along with elected officials fearful of powerful, white-dominated police unions.
As new movements grapple with ways to eliminate the needless killing of unarmed black people by white police, a loud national campaign to recruit more, qualified black cops might be one easily implementable step in the right direction. Putting stringent diversity-hiring conditions on Justice Department “community policing” grants might be another.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.