Mass media coverage of the death of black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, often notes that although about two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are black, well under 10% of its police officers are black. Until recently there has been little analysis of why Ferguson has so few black police officers, perhaps leading onlookers to conclude, or at least suspect, that racism may be in play — i.e., that a white power structure is refusing to hire qualified black applicants to fill police positions.
Yesterday into the breach stepped the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with a massive front-page headline about how the racial composition of local police forces in St. Louis is “OUT OF BALANCE” with the racial composition of the communities they serve (PDF of entire front page here), and an article (reported by Doug Moore, Walker Moskop, and Nancy Cambria) with this headline:
Kudos to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for having the courage to print such a politically incorrect headline focusing on the main reason Ferguson and other small communities near St. Louis have so few black police officers. As the article explains, the police departments are eager to hire more black officers, but it’s very difficult for them to do so given that: (1) very few blacks are interested in serving as police officers; (2) of those interested, relatively few of them have the skills to qualify; and (3) nearly all of those who are both qualified to serve and interested in serving have higher-paying opportunities available to them elsewhere, in the police departments of larger cities.
Unfortunately, the courage was only momentary. Although the print edition included the above headline (against, here’s a PDF of the entire front page), on the paper’s website, as of this morning the print edition’s headline has been scrubbed, and replaced with this more politically correct headline: “St. Louis County police forces often don’t reflect communities.”
In case the paper ends up deciding to scrub the article itself, here are some brief excerpts illustrating that the original headline was apt in focusing on the key new information contained in the article (bolding added):
About 67 percent of Ferguson’s residents are African-American, but only 7 percent of the city’s commissioned police officers are black.
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Many reasons for the disparity are given, including difficulty in recruiting black police officers; the lack of interest in policing by minorities; and the changing demographics in North County over the past two decades.
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Maryland Heights Police Chief Bill Carson agreed that there is a stigma associated with police that keeps young blacks away from law enforcement as a career choice. And highly qualified African-American law enforcement officers often have options, and won’t stay with small police departments, he said.
With a lack of applicants from black candidates, it’s hard to build a more diverse department, Carson said.
“Our last hiring process we had 81 applications, and only three were African-American,” Carson said. “So it’s not like we’re passing over a whole bunch of quality minority applicants.” Just one of the city’s 79 police officers is black; the African-American population of the city is about 12 percent.
Other police chiefs shared Carson’s sentiment.
“I talked with some staff members here, and we’re not even sure the last time we had an African-American apply here, and I don’t know what the solution is,” said Overland Police Chief Mike Laws. “I would jump at the chance to hire a qualified African-American candidate.”
Maj. Henry Mansker with the Hazelwood Police Department said his department recruits at job fairs and the St. Louis Black Expo with little success.
In Florissant, where seven of the 92 officers are black, Officer Andy Harmon said his department advertises open positions in the St. Louis American, and sends black officers to career fairs at Harris-Stowe State University and Lincoln University, and to a fair organized by U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay.
“We just don’t see any results from that,” Harmon said.
Local police chiefs say it is hard to compete with larger departments in more affluent communities where pay and benefits are better.
In Breckenridge Hills, for example, the starting salary is $16.51 an hour. Just one of the police department’s 13 full-time officers is black.
Chief Perry Hopkins said his small department would welcome diversity, especially with a growing Hispanic population of about 15 percent, he said.
“Our officers are having encounters with the public where language is a barrier,” Hopkins said.
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“It is difficult for a police department to get a complete balance on diversity,” said [Dan] Isom [the former police chief of St. Louis, who now teaches criminal justice courses at the University of Missouri-St. Louis], who is African-American. “That being said, you should be able to approach something that is at least reasonable.”
But steep challenges stand in the way, and are much more difficult to deal with than getting blacks to fill out applications, he said. As long as education disparities remain and a disproportionate number of blacks are imprisoned, fewer blacks will be able to pass the officer candidate exams or background checks.
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