August 1, 2021 23:34

Departments search for diversity

Women and people of color remain underrepresented in law enforcement

A lot of cops can point to childhood events that motivated them to pursue a career in law enforcement. Typically, it was some kind of positive interaction with an officer, but not for Veronica McKinney. She remembers how police reacted to a call that her brother had run away and was acting strangely. McKinney told the Springfield News-Leader that officers assumed her brother was intoxicated instead of realizing the diabetic was suffering from low blood sugar, which should have prompted them to seek medical care. Instead her brother died. That fateful response motivated then 8-year-old McKinney to seek change.

“I wanted to prevent those things from occurring, help to facilitate better decision-making,” she told the newspaper this summer.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown years later also motivated McKinney to switch career paths from clinical psychology to law enforcement. Upon graduating from the academy in 2015, she became the first Black female officer in the ranks of the Springfield Police Department in Missouri.

According to the newspaper, Springfield P.D. employs 40 women and only 27 minorities out of a force of 338 sworn individuals. In other words, 92% of the department personnel is white, which is an even greater representation than the 88% of the city’s citizens. 

“I think it’s important to mirror your community. People want to see people who look like them in a uniform,” Police Chief Paul Williams said.

Numerous studies indicate benefits associated with more diverse police ranks. For example, a University of Maryland criminologist concluded crime rates in predominantly minority neighborhoods trend down when government officials and the police force reflect community demographics. Other research suggests female cops are less likely to engage in force and communicate more effectively. Statistically speaking, diverse departments incur fewer misconduct complaints.

Agencies, however, struggle to recruit people of color, which has many in the profession concerned. Williams instituted a more robust recruiting campaign 10 years ago, which barely shifted staff demographics from 95% to 92% white, although the number of women joining the force doubled during that time.

According to 2016 statistics from the Justice Department, the latest year available, one in four officers nationwide was Black or Hispanic. One in five of first-line supervisors was a person of color. On a national basis, these percentages appear close to the overall population: 12.4%–13.4% Black and 17%–18.3% Latino. However, diversity varies greatly from community to community. Large urban agencies have greater diversity, while smaller law enforcement organizations tend to be predominantly staffed by whites despite a community’s racial profile. In Hartford, Connecticut, Blacks compose more than one-third of the city’s population, but less than 12% of the police force. To the southeast, Latinos account for 35% of Danbury’s population, but only 9% of its cops.

And even in cities where the rank and file has greater ethnic and gender representation, department leadership may not. Over the last decade, the percentage of Latinos in the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department rose from 16% to 21% in a city where 35% of residents are Latino. However, only slightly more than one-fourth of individuals above the rank of corporal are non-white, and less than 15% are women, as reported by Texas Public Radio (TPR).

There are many reasons why departments have difficulty recruiting more minorities. For one thing, competition for the available talent pool toughens during strong economic periods. Not only are various agencies vying for the candidates, but so are other industries.

“Minority and women candidates are at a premium, and every city’s after them. There’s competition when it comes to that,” Assistant Fort Worth City Manager Jay Chapa told TPR.

Nelson Lim, a Rand Corporation senior social scientist studying recruitment, also asserts traditional testing and vetting for recruits may have implicit biases that favor whites over minorities. 

“Unfortunately, it is extremely common across the whole country,” he stated on TPR. “It’s not necessarily that it’s all about racism or [intentional] discrimination, but it’s more subtle. It’s more nuanced.”

Even though she still belongs to a highly underrepresented group within the Springfield P.D., McKinney remains proud of the fact she’s included in the 2015 graduating class photo.

“It brings me joy to think that another Black female will get to look at that wall and see, ‘Oh, there’s someone who looks like me,’” she said.


As seen in the October issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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