There’s a lot that remains unknown about the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. But we do know the police force has not adapted to the town’s reversal in racial demographics over recent decades. The St. Louis suburb’s police force is 94 percent white in what is now a largely black community. Similar imbalances can be found in Northeast Ohio, and for some leaders, that’s a cause for concern. ideastream’s Nick Castele reports.
Richmond Heights is an outer-ring suburb that was once mostly white. Over the past 20 years, African-American families have been moving in, as whites leave. The population now is nearly split half and half.
Not so for the police department. (View data on suburban departments below.)
Miesha Headen is in her first year as the city’s mayor.
“With our police department we have 17 full time officers, including the chief, and one part time officer,” Headen says. “Currently we don’t have any officers of color in police department or the fire department."
That’s just one example.
For decades, black families have been moving to Cuyahoga County’s eastern suburbs, but police departments have been slower to reflect that change.
We asked cities with African-American populations of 10 percent or more to provide a demographic breakdown of their sworn police officers. Most responded, and though some departments were much more diverse than others, in all cities we obtained information from, African Americans made up a smaller share of the police force than of the community.
East Cleveland, Maple Heights, Newburgh Heights and North Randall have not yet provided numbers in response to requests.
Mayor Headen says she wants to begin to change that in Richmond Heights. There are two openings on the force now, and the city did what many cities do, she says. It asked applicants to take a civil service test.
“We’ve had roughly right now 35 people sign up to take the civil service examination,” she says. “Of those 35 people, currently only one woman has signed up to take the exam, and no African Americans.”
It’s a similar story in Euclid, a majority-black city policed by a force that’s 89 percent white.
Police Chief Tom Brickman says he wants to recruit more black officers, but so far, African Americans have been underrepresented in the application process.
“We’ve gone out and tried to recruit good candidates from all backgrounds to participate in the testing,” Brickman says. “But we weren’t finding an extremely high number of minority candidates that were interested in becoming police officers, proportionally speaking.”
Lack of enthusiasm among blacks for police work has many roots.
One is history, including past discrimination, says Cleveland police officer Marcus Saffo.
In 1977, a court OKed a consent decree between Cleveland and black police officers, in which the city committed to hiring more minorities on the force. This came after a 1972 court ruling in a discrimination case brought by the officers. The decree was lifted in 1995.
Saffo was president of an African-American law enforcement group called Black Shield. He says he tried to recruit minority applicants and to help coach them to take the test.
Today, more than a third of sworn Cleveland police officers are black or Hispanic, according to numbers provided by the division of police.
Then there’s what happens on the streets today, and the high-profile cases that bring national attention. A recent Pew Research Poll found only 17 percent of African-American respondents had “great confidence” that police will treat them equally.
Marcus Saffo acknowledges that affects recruitment.
“At any point you can go to a group of young blacks, and talk to them about taking information about the police…and they’re not interested,” Saffo says. “They heard about things like Ferguson and the Zimmerman situation, and it turns people bitter toward police officers.”
One police incident he did not mention was the 2012 car chase through Cleveland that ended with mostly white officers firing 137 shots at two unarmed black suspects. It never gained the national traction other shootings have, but it’s left a bad taste in many people’s mouths locally.
On the other hand, Saffo says there are people in Cleveland’s black neighborhoods who appreciate having a black officer to talk with.
He says recruiting is a community effort that takes a lot of work from police departments, groups like churches and elected leaders.
“All of them collectively need to get together and discuss ways of getting these young black men and women interested in this job,” he says. “And if you find a teenage person that’s interested that’s 17, 18, 19, then keep a contact list, send them a letter every now and then, keep them focused.”
And they’ll have to make the case that police work is a stable and welcoming career, says Anthony Jackson.
He runs the police and fire academy at Cuyahoga Community College, and says suburban departments are trying to become more diverse.
“It’s not that these chiefs in these different municipalities don’t want that,” Jackson says. “It’s just having the expertise and resources to do it. That’s where the problem comes in, but it’s not because they don’t want it. Believe me, they want it bad, because they call us, first thing they want to know is how many minorities do you have.”
One average, more than a third of the graduating police class at Tri-C is minority.
Jackson says alumni of the academy are its best recruiters, because applicants trust what they have to say. And good role models can go a long way. Jackson recalls that he wanted to sign up for the Cleveland police in the 1970s after seeing officers help people in need.
“You see people out on the street who may have been victimized or something, and people standing around, nobody wants to help them,” he says. “I wanted to be in a position where people didn’t have to worry about somebody coming to help them.”
|Municipality||% White Officers||% Black Officers||% Hispanic Officers||% White Pop.||% Black Pop.||% Hispanic Pop.1|
Source: Police departments, Census Five-Year American Community Survey
1. Includes Census respondents who marked Hispanic/Latino and another group, including African-American. Black and white population numbers are for respondents who marked black or white alone.
2. Glenwillow, Orange, Bratenahl, Newburgh Heights and Richmond Heights specified that their forces include part-time officers.
3. Oakwood Village provided numbers for auxiliary officers, which weren't counted in this review. Out of Oakwood's six auxiliary officers, five are black.
4. Linndale's numbers include part-time and reserve officers.
Updated Sept. 2 with numbers provided by Newburgh Heights and Sept. 1 with numbers provided by the Solon police.
Correction 12/5/14: This story incorrectly reported that the consent decree with Cleveland was reached in 1972. In fact, the court approved the decree in 1977.