Where Police Don't Mirror Communities and Why It Matters

Minorities are underrepresented in nearly every large law enforcement agency in America. Some police agencies are now looking to change that.
by | August 28, 2015
(David Kidd)

For years, the Irving, Texas, Police Department has worked to become more diverse. Recruiters have traveled to predominately black and Latino colleges across the state, attended cultural events and forged relationships with high schools to pitch students on law enforcement careers. But as the city’s demographics have shifted, the police department remains overwhelmingly white. While 70 percent of city residents are minorities, they accounted for only 17 percent of police officers as of 2013.

Irving, however, is far from alone. A Governing analysis of recently published 2013 personnel data reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds minority groups remain underrepresented, to varying degrees, in nearly all local law enforcement agencies serving at least 100,000 residents. Racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented by a combined 24 percentage points on average when each police department’s sworn officer demographics are compared with Census estimates for the general public. In 35 of the 85 jurisdictions where either blacks, Asians or Hispanics make up the single largest racial or ethnic group, their individual presence in the police department is less than half their share of the population.

Recent events highlighting tensions in predominately minority communities, most notably in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have caused many to call for improving police diversity. Along with orders from local leaders, the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing weighed in, making several recommendations earlier this year. While increasing ranks of minority officers alone won’t solve many of the underlying problems, a litany of factors have slowed progress to addressing an imbalance that dates back generations. 

The longstanding perception of police as an oppressive force has hurt minority recruitment, and some fear it has only worsened due to recent shootings. "Many people in our society see us as not always [standing] up for their best interests, and you certainly see that in recruiting,” said Irving police Lt. John Mitchell.

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the policing profession is mired by a legacy of racism, and many of the best-qualified minority candidates instead take their skills to the private sector. Further compounding matters, young black men are already disproportionately burdened with prior arrests, disqualifying them from police work.

Recent shootings provoking public uproar involved African Americans, so observers most often argue to increase their numbers in law enforcement. There's an even greater disparity for Hispanics, however; underrepresentation averaged nearly 11 percentage points for all agencies reviewed.

“It has puzzled us over the years,” said Andrew Peralta, president of the National Latino Peace Officers Association. “We’ve tried to get people involved at a younger age.”

Demographic Average Underrepresentation
Hispanic -10.8
Black -6.4
Asian -5.2
Other -2.1
Minority Total -24.5
Figures represent percentage-point differences between shares of police officers and a jurisdiction's population

SOURCE: Governing analysis of BJS, Census data. (Methodology)

One possible contributing factor to the disparity: Hispanics, Peralta said, may want nothing to do with cops if they’ve migrated from countries notorious for police corruption. Just convincing them to call police is challenging, so it may take a generation or two before their children view law enforcement as a career.

When Peralta makes recruiting trips to schools for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, not many students raise their hands when he asks if they’re interested in becoming cops, he said. By contrast, white males have historically dominated the ranks of local law enforcement, and their children are more likely to view the profession, which often runs in the family, as a viable career.

Hispanics who are not U.S. citizens are ineligible to apply for most local law enforcement positions. Latinos, who commonly identify with their country of origin more than their shared ethnicity, haven’t coalesced around the issue in the way that blacks have, though.

For some police agencies, it may be hiring practices, rather than recruiting efforts, that are to blame. Earlier this year, the city of Pittsburgh settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that police exercised discriminatory hiring practices. Police diversity also surfaced recently in Philadelphia, where the police department is becoming increasingly white. Critics told the Philadelphia Daily News they believed a state-mandated psychological exam was biased against black applicants.

In other departments that lack diversity, agency officials might not have made hiring minorities much of a priority. “There is a segment of police departments that do not feel it is necessary to have officers of color in order to deliver just policing,” Jones-Brown said.

The issue isn't a new one for law enforcement. Attempts to boost officer diversity began decades ago in many agencies, and minority officer representation climbed to 27 percent in 2013. Efforts, however, have failed to keep pace with the country’s rapidly changing demographics. In fact, the gap between representation of minorities in police departments and the general population has widened slightly over the last 25 years.

Where the disparity is greatest

Major demographic shifts are one common denominator of many police departments where officers least reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of their communities. This is particularly true in parts of Texas, California and the New York metropolitan region.

Of all agencies reviewed, minorities are most underrepresented in Fontana, Calif., a mostly working-class city that's welcomed an influx of Latinos and Asian Americans. According to current agency figures, 28 percent of its 188 full-time officers are minorities, compared to roughly 86 percent of the total population. (See a list of agencies)

One of the few agencies where blacks are slightly overrepresented has also seen its demographics shift, but in the opposite direction. The District of Columbia’s white population jumped significantly in recent years as the black population dipped below 50 percent. About 59 percent of Metropolitan Police Department officers were black as of 2013.

Agencies with low turnover often can’t keep up with major demographics changes. Consider the Irving Police Department, which reports it typically hires only around a dozen officers a year for a department of just under 350. Departments employing fewer officers generally exhibit somewhat greater disparities in part for this reason.

Number Full-Time Officers Average Underrepresentation Number of Agencies
Less than 200 27.2 82
200 to 499 24.7 100
500 to 1000 23.8 46
1,000+ 19.1 41
Figures represent percentage-point differences between shares of police officers and a jurisdiction's population

SOURCE: Governing analysis of BJS, Census data. (Methodology)

In majority-minority jurisdictions, underrepresentation can grow quite high very quickly. Majority-black Ferguson, which only employed a few black police officers at the time of the Michael Brown shooting, was almost entirely white just a few decades ago.

Disparities are also common among burgeoning Asian communities, several of which had among the largest levels of underrepresentation nationally.  In two majority-Asian cities, Daly City, Calif., and Fremont, Calif., Asians only accounted for approximately 12 percent and 10 percent of sworn officers, respectively.

Asian, Black, Hispanic, White

Although some may perceive the issue to be mostly confined to poorer jurisdictions, the federal data suggests it’s present across the socioeconomic spectrum. Jurisdictions with poverty rates below the national average are characterized by roughly equal levels of minority officer underrepresentation compared to poorer communities.

Jurisdiction Poverty Rate Average Underrepresentation Number of Agencies
Under 15% 25.0 79
15% to 20% 24.1 70
20.1% to 25% 24.8 68
Greater Than 25% 23.7 52
Figures represent percentage-point differences between shares of police officers and a jurisdiction's population

SOURCE: Governing analysis of BJS, Census data. (Methodology)

Although no national standards regarding levels of diversity exist, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies does require accredited agencies to adopt specific steps ensuring their workforce mirrors that of their communities.

Many interviewed for this story also expressed specific concerns about how few racial and ethnic minorities occupy police leadership positions. It’s difficult to assess how individual law enforcement agencies have fared in this area, though, as the federal survey does not publish demographic data for those in supervisory roles.

Ramifications of police diversity

So how much does a deficiency in the racial or ethnic diversity of a police department contribute to an agency’s woes?

Peralta, who also serves as a lieutenant with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said it plays out in day-to-day interactions, with some citizens less likely to trust police. “Once trust is eroded,” he said, “everything deteriorates from there.” It also puts departments at a recruiting disadvantage, he said, because officers are an agency’s best recruiters.

Irving’s Mitchell said language barriers also arise when police are called to a scene and can’t wait for translators to arrive. John Jay College’s Jones-Brown added that some black officers react differently than their white counterparts to certain situations. They may be able to better differentiate, for example, between behavior that is and is not suspicious, she said.

Research examining effects of police demographics on officer-involved shootings and use of force is mixed.

Wayne State University Professor Bradley Smith analyzed data on officer-caused homicides, finding minority representation in larger local departments had no significant influence on police-related killings. A similar study published in Criminal and Justice Behavior, however, examined shootings over a 15-year period in the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, finding non-Hispanic white officers were more likely to be involved in shootings than Hispanic and black officers.

Recent high-profile incidents don't all follow the same narrative, either. In North Charleston, S.C., where a now former police officer was charged with killing an African American man earlier this year, black officer underrepresentation is among the nation’s highest. While in Baltimore, three of the six cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black.

Most contend that it’s the police socialization process -- beginning with training in the academies -- that largely determines officers’ behaviors. Another study published in Crime & Delinquency reported that in predominately black neighborhoods, black officers were more likely to carry out supportive activities, such as providing advice or other assistance, than other officers. However, black officers employed coercive actions more frequently as well. “Enforcement decisions of black officers appear to be shaped by the police socialization process whereas decisions to perform supportive activities in black neighborhoods seem to be shaped by something else,” wrote authors Ivan Sun and Brian Payne.

One of the more often-cited cultural issues departments experience is an “us vs. them” mentality. Accordingly, experts say, if departments don’t address internal cultural issues promoting police misconduct, hiring more minority officers isn’t likely to improve community relations.

Patrick Oliver, who directs a police chief mentoring program for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said minorities are more likely to assimilate into a department’s behaviors if there aren't many on staff because they’re more isolated. In a few predominately white cities, black officers remain nonexistent. Seven police departments reviewed did not count a single black officer among their ranks, despite collectively employing 1,117 sworn officers in 2013.

Residents are more likely to relay feedback, Oliver said, when agencies reflect their communities, and these agencies will generally maintain stronger community relationships as a result. “When segments of the community are not part of the agency, there’s a reason for that and you have to address it,” Oliver said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

How agencies can improve diversity

To boost minority representation, most departments focus on increasing their numbers in initial applicant pools. Irving police, for instance, set a recruiting goal for minorities and women to make up half of entrance exam takers, and they’ve recently reached percentages in the mid-to-high 40s. They’ve also partnered with the local school district, speaking to classes of high school seniors about their hiring process.

Police in Jersey City, N.J., opened up a recruiting center last year in one of the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, offering information on law enforcement careers and police exam prep courses. Other departments have sought hiring of legal immigrants with work permits or green card holders. The Nashville Police Department is lobbying the state legislature to allow for the hiring of legal immigrants honorably discharged from military service as it is currently barred from doing so.

Oliver said agencies must set specific, measurable goals for improving diversity and follow a strategic plan to make it happen. Departments may also benefit from developing relationships with police advisory boards, church groups and other community organizations, he said.

Earlier this year, President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing recommended agencies build workforces encompassing a range of diverse backgrounds to strengthen community relations. A report called for the creation of a federal initiative to help police agencies achieve better diversity and tying discretionary federal funding to such efforts. More flexible staffing models could further help agencies attract and retain employees, according to the task force report.

Law enforcement leaders further stressed that departments should broaden diversity efforts to attract more women and people of different cultural backgrounds and life experiences as well.

Agencies most successful often recruit in minority neighborhoods and tend to involve officers in the recruitment process, said former Greenville, N.C., police chief Hassan Aden, who oversees research and training for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Agencies enjoying good reputations in the law enforcement profession and in their communities also benefit from larger, more diverse applicant pools.

While departments should make hiring minority officers a priority, it alone won’t solve many of their problems, Aden said. Departments must have proper training and protocols in place, and they can't ignore any cultural issues promoting misconduct. It’s for these reasons that a diverse force is viewed only as one key component of a much larger effort needed to mend fractured relationships with communities.

“If you behave like an occupying force, regardless of their race, you’re going to be seen as such,” Aden said. “Trust and legitimacy is the bottom line.”

View demographic data for each local law enforcement agency.

Police Departments Where Minorities Are Most Underrepresented

Minority groups, in aggregate, were most underrepresented in the following jurisdictions with at least 100,000 residents as of 2013:

Agency Difference Minority % of Police Minority % of Population
Fontana Police Department (CA) 60 25.6% 85.6%
Edison Township Police Department (NJ) 55.1 8.5% 63.6%
Irving Police Department (TX) 53.4 16.7% 70.1%
Grand Prairie Police Department (TX) 51.4 21.1% 72.5%
Daly City Police Department (CA) 50.8 36.7% 87.5%
Allentown Police Department (PA) 49 10.3% 59.3%
Hartford Police Department (CT) 48.8 35.3% 84.1%
Fremont Police Department (CA) 47.6 28.1% 75.7%
Elizabeth Police Department (NJ) 47.3 37.4% 84.7%
West Covina Police Department (CA) 46.8 39.3% 86.1%
Ontario Police Department (CA) 46.7 36.0% 82.7%
Carrollton Police Department (TX) 46.3 9.8% 56.1%
Stockton Police Department (CA) 45.5 32.9% 78.4%
Salinas Police Department (CA) 44.9 39.9% 84.8%
Rialto Police Department (CA) 44.6 43.8% 88.4%
Beaumont Police Department (TX) 43.7 22.1% 65.8%
Garden Grove Police Department (CA) 43.5 34.6% 78.1%
San Bernardino Police Department (CA) 43.1 39.0% 82.1%
North Charleston Police Department (SC) 42.9 19.2% 62.1%
Jersey City Police Department (NJ) 42.6 35.7% 78.3%
SOURCE: Governing analysis of BJS, Census data.

Methodology

Governing analyzed police personnel data for 269 departments serving as primary local law enforcement agencies for areas with populations exceeding 100,000. Most were city departments, although some county police departments and metropolitan area agencies were also included. Data was obtained from the 2013 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Reported figures in the survey only reflect full-time sworn officers. These were compared with demographic estimates for the total population of corresponding communities from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2013 American Community Survey. Census population estimates for some smaller municipalities within larger jurisdictions reviewed were subtracted if they had their own police departments. Officers categorized with an unknown race in the LEMAS survey were excluded from all calculations. All references to white demographic groups refer to non-Hispanic whites.

Excluded Agencies: Most, but not all, law enforcement agencies participate in the LEMAS survey. Some participating agencies did not report race and ethnicity personnel totals. These include police departments for Carlsbad, Calif.; Lawton, Okla.; Killeen, Texas; Maui County, Hawaii; Mesquite, Texas; Murrieta, Calif.; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Sparks, Nev.; Redding, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and Roseville, Calif. The Boulder, Colo., and Huntington Beach, Calif., police departments did not classify more than 20 percent of sworn personnel. Some police departments not responsible for policing approximately 10 percent or more of a locality’s residents were also excluded if comparable demographic data were unavailable.