Jun 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

More black police officers, yet the killings persist

Data: 2018 American Community Survey, U.S. Census; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Police reform advocates have pressed for decades for the ranks of law enforcement to better reflect the makeup of their communities — but now the efficacy of those efforts is under fresh scrutiny after George Floyd's killing.

Why it matters: Nationally, over 15% of law enforcement is black — a bigger share than the black U.S. population. But there's no hard evidence that improving diversity alone leads to fewer deadly interactions with the police.

The big picture: Like other changes intended to end police brutality — such as better training and changes to the law — representative police forces are just one step, criminal justice reform advocates say.

  • "Adding black people to a police force is a good start, but there is a deeper issue," Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in an emailed statement to Axios.
  • "We need to evaluate the culture of police departments, we need to look at the conduct of problematic police officers, and we need to ensure that training police officers entails de-escalation tactics," says Johnson.

Driving the news: Nationwide protests against entrenched racism and police brutality have pushed conversations about police reform to the forefront. In some states, the topic of recruiting more black officers is once again bubbling to the surface.

  • The police force in Hennepin County — which includes Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed — has a bigger share of white officers, closely reflecting the county's community, the Washington Post reports.
  • The Minneapolis police department was sued by its current chief in 2007 over racist practices toward residents on black cops within the force. The attorney on that case says the department has since recruited a more diverse force.
  • In Minneapolis, the police used force against black residents seven times more often than on white people in the past five years, the New York Times found.

What they're saying: "Diversifying police departments isn't a magic wand," says David Sklansky, a criminal justice professor at Stanford Law School.

  • "But there is no magic wand in police reform. Diversifying departments should never be the sum total of our police reform agenda, but it should remain an important part."
  • "We're not a monolith — a lot of black officers may get drawn into the policing culture in a negative way," Sonia Pruitt, head of the National Black Police Association tells Axios.

Between the lines: The first permanent black police chief in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was fatally shot in 2014, was Delrish Moss, who took over in 2016. He tells Axios that it's important for black police officers to be prominent in black communities, so there's a cultural understanding of the people it's policing — but that other factors are also important in improving policing.

  • "The message sent down from the top of the department is very critical — saying you won't tolerate certain things," says Moss, who now works as Florida International University's police captain.
  • When he arrived, the Ferguson police department was largely white in a city that was 70% black, Moss says. Now, the department has 21 black officers, per the New York Times, up from four when Brown was killed.

By the numbers: At the local level, police forces are overwhelmingly more white than the communities — notably, in some places where there have been high-profile cases of police brutality.

  • In Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was shot dead by two white officers in 2016, half of the city's population is black — but black cops make up just 33% of its police force, according to 2018 Census data cited by The Advocate.

The backstory: Starting in the 1970s, court-ordered hiring quotas were imposed on police departments across the country, in an effort to end discrimination against non-white and female police applicants.

  • Last year, after nearly 40 years, Baton Rouge was released from an order that required it to hire an equal number of white and black police officers. It was one of the last cities still under a decree.

The bottom line: “We err when we just focus on individual police officers, individual people," Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, told CBS News this week.

  • "The reality is we are talking about a system, a culture of policing that permits aggressive policing of black and brown people."
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