Behind The Blue Line

Why it’s difficult for minorities to become cops

Mitchell Hartman May 29, 2015
Behind The Blue Line

Why it’s difficult for minorities to become cops

Mitchell Hartman May 29, 2015

Incidents of racial bias by police, harsh treatment of black and Latino civilians by police and police shootings in questionable circumstances are continuing to generate protest and investigation across the U.S.

Many critics of contemporary law enforcement cite the continued dominance of police departments by whites, often in cities that have become majority black and/or Latino, as a significant cause of continued problems between police and the communities they serve.

According to a detailed analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics and local police department data by the New York Times, even after decades of effort to recruit more minorities into policing, some big-city and suburban departments have wide racial imbalances between the race of police officers and residents.

Nationally, African-Americans made up 12 percent of local police forces in 2013, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That percentage has stayed the same since 1997, and it’s 1.2 percent below the black share of U.S. population as a whole, according to census data. Hispanics are also underrepresented by about 5.5 percent nationwide.

Delores Jones-Brown is a former prosecutor who is now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.  

“If you’ve got 12 percent African-American police officers in a community that’s 60, 70 or 80 percent African-American, you’re not doing very well,” she says, adding that minorities are concentrated at the bottom of the police hierarchy in most departments.

“Many of the police personnel who are of color are likely not at a command-staff level,” Jones-Brown says. “And that means they’re not being able to make many decisions about what kinds of policies and practices will be in place.”

One economic development getting in the way of minority recruitment at all levels is the rising African-American middle class, Jones-Brown says.

“African-Americans who are smart enough, college-educated enough or otherwise talented in other areas that pay more money and produce less risk, are taking advantage of those opportunities,” she says.

But being a police officer can be a very good, middle-class job for many. Charles Wilson can attest to this. He’s a 44-year veteran of policing.

“I started my police career in Ohio. I’ve done patrol, I’ve done traffic, I’ve worked narcotics, I’ve worked internal affairs. And I’ve been a police chief,” he says.

Wilson now wears a uniform patrolling a college campus in Providence, Rhode Island, and also serves as chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, with thousands of members and chapters across the Northeastern U.S. Wilson started on the force when he was just out of high school, with a baby on the way.

“I needed a job; the police department was hiring. I took the test, got on the job, and have been crazy ever since I guess,” he says.

Policing can also be lonely at times for officers of color, Wilson says.

“Our numbers in many agencies are in single digits or double-digits,” he says. “The vast majority of the law enforcement community remains the bastion of white officers.”

Getting more black and brown people to wear blue has become a crusade for him.

“It pays well, the benefits are good, there are rarely layoffs,” he says of law enforcement as a career. “And you have the opportunity to truly make a difference in people’s lives.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average starting salary at departments serving 25,000 residents or more nationwide is $45,000. Typically the job does not require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Even if better-educated and more upwardly mobile African-Americans are shunning law enforcement careers, people from less-privileged backgrounds might welcome these good government jobs. But Jones-Brown says many can’t pass the entry test, the credit check or the criminal background check.

“Young men who live in highly policed communities stand very little chance of making it to, say, age 24 without having had some police encounter,” she says. A recent study in the journal Crime and Delinquency found that by age 23, 49 percent of black men and 44 percent of Hispanic men had been arrested, compared to 38 percent of white men.

Molloy College criminology professor John Eterno witnessed this first-hand as a precinct captain in New York City where, he says, cops issued “numerous summonses, stop-and-frisks, and arrests for relatively low-level things like marijuana possession.”

Often these were searches and detentions dictated by the “broken windows” concept of law enforcement that Eterno says has led to heavy-handed and disproportionate policing and arrests in lower-income minority neighborhoods in cities like New York.

“In terms of recruitment for these young minority kids, now that they have a criminal record, it’s much more difficult to get them into law enforcement,” he says.

But relaxing these disqualifying criteria would still leave another recruitment barrier: the stigma of joining the police, Wilson says.

“There is a significant amount of distrust and dissatisfaction with law enforcement,” he says. “People I talk to nowadays say, ‘It ain’t cool to be the ‘po-po.’ ”

Recruitment is a challenge in the Latino community, too.

“Most Hispanics, where they come from, the countries they lived in, they don’t really like the police,” says Ismael Cano, a Mexican-American police officer with nearly a decade on the force in the small city of Pasco, Washington. “They don’t feel like they can trust police and call police to help them.”

Pasco’s demographics have changed in recent decades, as migrant farm workers settled down and took jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and services. Cano himself worked in the fields with his parents through junior high school and was a volunteer reserve officer before joining the Pasco Police Department in 2006. He appears every few weeks on local Spanish-language radio station KRCW to discuss policing and talk it up as a career option for young Latinos.

But then, he says, he’ll meet people at a party: “I’ll get in a group talking to people, and I’m proud of what I do, but they will start walking away, and usually by the end of the party, I end up in a corner by myself, because nobody wanted to talk to me.”

Pasco has had its share of conflict over race and policing lately after an unarmed Latino man, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, was shot to death in February by three officers. Civil rights activists want a bigger Latino presence on the Pasco police force, but police Capt. Ken Roske insists Pasco’s doing pretty well.

“We’ve been praised by other cities for our workforce — it turns out to be about 21 percent Hispanic and/or Spanish-speaking officers,” Roske says. “Not that we want to stop there, and not that we don’t want to keep working and striving forward. We certainly want our department to mirror the community. It’s not as easy to accomplish that.”

Roske says it’s unrealistic to expect Pasco’s police department to match the majority Latino population. Some aren’t legal residents or don’t speak English, both of which would disqualify them from the force.

The city has had success in recruiting by paying a premium to Spanish-speaking officers and recruiting through the Boy Scouts Explorer program.

But police-trainer Michael Coker says departments need to do more. Coker’s a retired black officer from Portsmouth, Virginia, who offers courses all over the country. He says to recruit more minorities, departments have to offer more role models.

When he was in high school, Coker says he worked at the local police department as a clerk-typist, and a young black cadet would drive past him every day. “So he would give me a ride to work. A year later, he became a cop. I became a cadet, because he made it seem so cool. I did a ride-along, got in a car with him, and I was sucked in.”

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