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Mixed data, opinions on the benefits of diversifying police forces

Six weeks after five Dallas police officers were gunned down this summer, a slew of major U.S. cities are stepping up efforts to recruit more minority officers, while new studies and opinions offer a mixed view of whether the efforts are beneficial.

An extensive report published Monday in Stateline noted that police leaders in Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Dallas itself are actively calling for more minorities in their ranks. But few are convinced that the cure to relieving tensions is that simple — and the nation's largest police union disputes some of the social findings.

Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, founding director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told AMI Newswire that while diversification is a worthy goal, it should be only one of several strategies employed by departments.

Jones-Brown pointed to cultural traditions inside police departments that subconsciously build walls between officers and members of the public whom they are sworn to protect.

“There’s a history of policing that involves seeing urban, minority, poor communities as problematic as a whole,” Jones-Brown said. “(New recruits) are indoctrinated into a police culture that has this really long history of seeing certain people in certain communities as criminals. Unfortunately, sometimes officers of color may also sometimes subscribe to that way of thinking.”

But she emphasized that diversification is far from a bad idea.

“It’s important, even just for a better-looking visual,” she said. “I’ve been on ride-alongs where I see a white officer stops a brown person or a black person, and just the image of a white officer standing over a brown civilian — it has the plantation look, the overseer look. So it definitely helps to have many different-looking kinds of officers, particularly in urban, minority, poor communities.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said it isn’t fair to simply blame police for the current tensions. He noted that the FOP — the largest law-enforcement union in the country — has 335,000 members, 30 percent of whom are minorities.

While he supports the basic idea of diversification, Pasco disputes the conclusion that there are biased cultures inside police departments.

“S[ocial] scientists very seldom walk a beat or do in-depth studies of departments,” he told AMI Newswire. “They draw their conclusions based on anecdotes, which isn’t very scientific. There’s no more a culture in policing than in teaching, or reporting. It’s a group of people with an affinity for the same kind of work, and familiar with the stresses and strains in that line of work. So naturally they’re going to be drawn to one another, but it’s not a cult, not a culture. It’s a bond.”

Asked what ideas FOP supports to relieve tensions, Pasco pointed to the recent strife in Baltimore and said police simply need to “police right.”

“Those kind of suppressive tactics have been debunked long ago — and remember, police officers aren’t free agents,” he said. “They do what they’re told or they get fired. So you can’t have a rogue police officer in a well-supervised department.”

Nationally, minority officers have grown from 14.6 percent of U.S. police forces in 1987 to 27.3 percent today, according to federal statistics. That number still trails the overall minority population of 37 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier this summer, the Justice Department weighed in, blistering one of the hot-spot police departments — Baltimore — with a report that noted the city’s police force was 42 percent African-American, compared to an overall city population that's 63 percent black.

But the report also noted another problem: “Most BPD officers are neither originally from Baltimore nor live in the City, and many commute long distances to work at the Department. Indeed, BPD leadership informed us that roughly three-fourths of BPD officers live outside the Baltimore City limits.”

On Capitol Hill, a group of House members has convened an informal, bipartisan group of lawmakers to examine tensions between the police and African-American communities in the wake of the Dallas shootings. The so-called "policing strategies working group" held its first meeting last month in Washington, led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee’s top Democrat.

The group on Monday announced it will meet again on Aug. 29 and 30 in Detroit, marking a seldom-seen interruption of a congressional recess, particularly during an election year. The Detroit meetings will include local community leaders as well as police officials.

Jones-Brown said departments that are having trouble recruiting minority applicants would do well to present themselves to their community as less of an enforcement arm and more of a source of help. She pointed to a “reading police” program in Denver, where officers go into elementary schools and read books with students.

“That kind of humane, early engagement in a community can go a long way to helping people see police in a different light,” she said. “At this point in time, the perception of police as an occupying force is the most detrimental piece of trying to recruit more minorities.”

But Pasco said such ideas are “a little late to the game” because police forces are already employing them. He pointed to FOP programs across the country where officers help donate clothes to the needy, help young children shop for toys, and even a police-run summer camp for kids in Nashville.

“We’re a hundred years old, and we’ve been doing things like that every day,” he said. “We’ve already thought about these things and we’re already doing them.”