In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed data showing the stark racial imbalance between the United States’ police departments and the towns they represent.
Hundreds of authorities were revealed to have a majority of white officers, often around 30 percent more than within the communities. Minorities on the other hand accounted for only one quarter of forces.
The aftermath of August’s Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown has brought these stats back into the limelight, with the current racial imbalance highlighting the distrust many people have in their police force.
Looking at the post-shooting events taking place it is difficult to dispute the racism element involved in Ferguson.
Neither Brown nor the white officer Darren Wilson had any history of criminal or disciplinary records. But a serious disagreement between eyewitnesses over what actually happened has led to the town’s meltdown. From peaceful protests to looting and open hostility between people and authorities, the reaction has been loud and contemptuous.
The Isolated Incident theory
Despite the number of racially identified cases appearing across the US in recent years, and the BJS data showing this problem is more nationally widespread, many have brushed aside Ferguson as just another random occurrence.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson instructed a team of 11 to evaluate the race riots of previous years, looking at both the causes and the responses. The results, published in the Kerner Commission, show how little has actually changed in nearly 50 years:
The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection–one for Negroes and one for whites.
To many who live in towns like Ferguson, where white officers reportedly destroyed a memorial for Brown, this is not a tale from recent history but rather a story lived everyday. Causes such as Affirmative Action have improved the situation for major cities in the 1970s and 80s, yet smaller, suburban towns have done little to diversify their units.
The BJS shows a massive irregularity between race representation in public sphere and in an area’s police force all across the United States. But what, if anything, can be done to change the current situation?
As with all issues, there are two sides.
On the one…
Sound cases against white police officers for unruly harassment of non-white residents, including deaths at the hands of too-quick-to-shoot cops are well documented and tend to appear in counties where there is a clear divide in racial make up. Sociologist Ronald Weitzer explains this as a “huge image problem” for departments that are “so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population.” Diversity creates credibility.
For West Palm Beach Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen the diversification of the people’s police force was a paramount objective when he took up the post last May: “I noticed there was an issue.
“In order for you to gain the trust of the community and credibility, you need to be able to reflect their makeup.”
People are more trusting when they feel comfortable. Offering a police force so far removed from your own neighbourhood is a sure-fire way to burn bridges.
And on the other…
Isn’t it unjust to assume all local forces are a problem even when there is an imbalance? By insisting so we only further complicate the matter.
Affirmative Action has been used as a balancing tool against the irregular hiring and college admission practices since the Civil Rights Era. Introduced as a tool to benefit minorities, it has often been associated as a measure of quantity and not quality. Companies, colleges and councils make resounding efforts to promote their varied cultures to the public, many of which are seen as forceful quick fixes to an organization’s reputation. And while it isn’t the case in every situation, many employees are hired solely for their race, gender, and sexuality over individual merits as a worker.
Ensuring a department is equipped to handle ethnic groups does not make a police force better. While at first the communities may be happier, it would be just another quick fix to heal a police department’s tarnished reputation rather than build harmony and trust.
The second coming of ‘Separate but Equal’…
Forcefully hiring only racially suitable police officers for communities will see a reverse in progress. All it would accomplish is the alignment of Latinos with only Latinos, African Americans with African Americans, and Caucasians with Caucasians, creating significant alienation within communities. This only highlights differences rather than building respect. But without restructuring, retraining and mending the current authorities across the nation we would inherently breed more corruption.
Racial diversity is a necessity in a police force, or any government body for that matter. Studies by experts claim an ethnically balanced team nurtures trust in the people – the feeling someone will always have your back. However calling for an immediate overhaul of personnel based on their appearance instead of their virtues is impractical. It would see the loss of many officers, regardless of their background, who police by the book.
Diversity would indeed mend the surface tensions, but it would not end the entrenched prejudicial policing. This can only be rooted out with better training, better understanding and choosing quality traits over quantifiable data.