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Wide Ethnic Disparities Between Police and Their Communities

There is a wide disparity nationwide in how police departments align racially and ethnically with the citizens and communities they serve, according to a study released last week by the Brookings Institution.

Other research reaches different conclusions about whether such disparities have any effect on police behavior.

While police forces in cities such as New Orleans closely mirror the racial makeup of their population, in nearby Baton Rouge, the site of a violent ambush shooting that left three officers dead and three injured Sunday, there remains a "a deep demographic divide," the study by Brookings authors Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes found.

The study, which used data gleaned from 2015 research by Governing magazine, outlined communities with the largest and smallest disparities. It comes at a time when cities and police are being urged to address closer community collaboration amid recent deadly shootings in Minneapolis and Dallas, as well as other high-profile police shootings in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore that have led to violent outpourings of anger.

"Bringing local law enforcement into closer demographic alignment with local populations is no small task, nor does it provide a guarantee that tragic confrontations won’t occur," the authors cautioned.

"Still," they wrote, "cities and suburbs characterized by substantial demographic disparities should carefully consider how best to navigate or narrow the experiential divides between police and the communities they seek to protect."

Those cities cited by Brookings with the largest police and community racial disparities were Allentown, Pennsylvania; Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; Syracuse, New York; Rochester, New York; Dayton, Ohio; and Bridgeport, Connecticut in the Northeast. Cities including Stockton, Sacramento, Bakersfield and Riverside, all in California, and Las Vegas led the West. In the latter group, Brookings noted, "Latino representation on the force has not managed to keep pace with the group’s rapid growth in the local population."

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, visible minorities make up 59.3 percent of the population, but just 10.3 percent of the police force. In Hartford, visible minorities comprise 78.4 percent of the city but just 35.3 percent of police. In Baton Rouge — where former Marine and Black supremacist Gavin Eugene Long gunned down six officers, including a black cop named Montrell Jackson — the city's population is 63.5 percent visible minorities while 30.2 percent of police officers are visible minorities.

Several cities across the U.S., however, have closed the gap, hiring a police force that more closely mirrors the population. They include San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, El Paso, Texas and Honolulu, as well as Charleston, South Carolina, Miami, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. McAllen, Texas, a city of about 136,000 located on the state's southern border, most closely aligns with its citizens with a police force that is 95.8 percent visible minorities while the community is 88.4 percent visible minorities, Brookings found.

While the study looked at cities, the authors noted that suburbs were not immune to the disparities. "Most secondary city and suburban police departments, it turns out, exhibit even larger diversity gaps than their nearby big cities," they wrote.

The Brookings study comes as President Barack Obama has urged communities to do a better job bridging the racial divides that have seen police shootings met with violent protests.

Speaking July 10 at a meeting with Spain's prime minister, the president defended concerns of protesters who have taken to the streets in major cities across the country to decry police violence.

"There are legitimate issues that have been raised, and there’s data and evidence to back up the concerns that are being expressed by these protesters. And if police organizations and departments acknowledge that there's a problem, and there’s an issue, then that, too, is going to contribute to real solutions. And, as I said yesterday, that is what’s going to ultimately help make the job of being a cop a lot safer," Obama said, adding, "It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them and that the kind of rancor and suspicion that exists right now is alleviated."

The Brookings study on departmental racial disparity was released just days after Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr.'s study of police shootings at 10 major police departments — Houston, Austin and Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles; Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida, as well as four other counties in the Sunshine State.

It failed to confirm what many anti-police activists have suggested, finding instead that there had been little racial bias in such police shootings, at least in his sample.

Fryer's research, "An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force," was compiled on behalf of the National Bureau of Economic Research and looked at 1,332 police shootings from 2000 to 2015.

It did uncover some bias, finding that black men and women are more likely to be pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, touched or pushed to the ground in encounters with officers.

Wrote Fryer: "In non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities."

He added: "On the most extreme use of force — officer-involved shootings — we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings."