When White Cops Police Black Communities

If your police force is terrible, more diversity might not help much.

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 13. (Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Aug 19, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

After a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., local cops and St. Louis County police brutally cracked down on protesters. As has been widely reported, of the 53 officers serving on the Ferguson police force, only four are black.

After four consecutive nights of tear gas and rubber bullets, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson—who, like most of Ferguson, is black—created a few moments of real peace and connection with residents when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put him in charge of security in the town.

Since the shooting, some residents have told reporters they would like to see better representation in the police department. If that happened, Ferguson might look a lot like Vicksburg, Miss.

“I cannot imagine having a department so lopsided in terms of the racial breakdown,” Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said of Ferguson's force.

Vicksburg and Ferguson look pretty similar on paper when it comes to racial demographics and population. Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s approximately 21,000 residents are black; in Vicksburg, 67 percent of the 23,000 residents are black. Vicksburg is poorer, with a median income of around $28,000, whereas Ferguson's is $37,000.

But Vicksburg's police department looks nothing like Ferguson's. Armstrong, who is black, said that of the approximately 76 police officers on the force, he believes 52 are black, 23 are white, and one is Asian.

In Armstrong's experience the majority of Vicksburg’s police officers are black because the majority of applicants are black.

“What are you doing to get [white officers] to apply?” Armstrong mused when asked about the demographics of the Ferguson police force. “You’ve got to be doing something.”

So why aren’t there more black officers in Ferguson?

While a police force that reflects the racial demographics of the state might seem natural to Armstrong, it’s not the norm. According to a federal survey of local police departments, the average law enforcement agency in a city roughly the size of Ferguson is 87.5 percent white.

The reality is that while diversity in government would make things more equitable, it's no guarantee against police brutality. Problems in troubled departments go much deeper than the race of officers.

“Diversity alone would not necessarily have changed anything in Ferguson,” said David Harris, a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh and a leading scholar on racial profiling.

A police department that is poorly trained or not well supervised “could be in the same place [Ferguson police] are right now,” Harris said.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson has been criticized for the department’s violent response to protests and for not releasing the name of Brown’s shooter earlier. Since the shooting, Jackson has said that racial diversity was a priority for him. Yet at press conferences and while talking to the media, he often didn’t seem to understand the severity of the incident, the extent of residents’ anger, or the larger context of police violence against the black community.

By contrast, Johnson marched with protesters and said at a church rally, "This is my neighborhood, you are my family, you are my friends, and I am you."

We don’t know much about what things are like in the Ferguson Police Department. But more generally, departments where there is internal racism or discrimination could be bad environments for nonwhite officers. Sometimes officers from historically disadvantaged groups who come into departments like these may feel like they have to overcompensate, Harris said.

“A department that’s somewhat diverse will communicate that everybody is welcome in the department and in community,” he said.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said on Aug. 12 that there's a racial disparity in the Ferguson Police Department because it's hard to recruit black officers. “If we find people who want to go into law enforcement who are African American, we're all over it because we want them to help us bridge the gap,” he told KSDK. “But these young people, they're not interested in law enforcement. There's already this frustration with law enforcement."

The wariness could be the result of historical and contemporary conflicts between law enforcement and the black community. When Tracie Keesee, cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity at University of California, Los Angeles, and a 25-year veteran, told her mother she wanted to be a police officer, “there was a true concern for my safety,” Keesee said on NPR. The belief that something may happen to me—not necessarily from someone from my own community but from something or someone inside of the police department.”

But Armstrong said it's not a matter of one race or another, recruiting good officers is just difficult. The Vicksburg police chief has 76 officers in his department, but he would like 81. “It’s hard to recruit officers, period. White or black,” he said.

“Even if I wanted to have more white people, I would have to look extremely hard in seeking out those individuals,” Armstrong said. “They’re not applying because the majority don’t live here.”