The recent unrest in Ferguson Missouri has brought a number of controversial issues into the national spotlight. One day after a police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, civil protests erupted, curfews were established and militarized riot squads secured the streets to maintain order. The small town saw peaceful protests quickly deteriorate into riots, violence and looting. The issue raised a number of important topics involving effective community policing, including the racial profile of a police department. Attorney General Eric Holder called for more racial diversity, promising that police departments will be more racially representative of their communities to encourage improved police-community relations. While racial diversity is a positive step in strengthening police-community relations, studies have shown few links between race and police behavior. Instead of focusing on skin color and setting up quota systems that artificially create racial diversity, communities need professional, caring and racially tolerant police forces that respect the racial dynamics of the communities they serve regardless of race or socioeconomic level.
The community of Ferguson is two-thirds black and the police department is over ninety percent white. There are three Black police officers in Ferguson. This is a huge disparity in the racial make-up the police and the citizens they serve and protect. This creates a conflict-oriented battlefield mentality that can lead to civil rights violations and violence. Instead of tanks and sniper rifles, this complex problem could be addressed with strategies as simple as creating
Workforce Development Agencies that focus on recruiting minority police officers. (Kasdan) Active recruitment strategies would also help address another issue. Communities should strive to make policing more attractive to minorities. Many minorities do not consider law enforcement a possible career choice. Many grew up with a negative perception of police. These adversarial relationships need to change if there is any possibility of creating police departments that mirror the changing demographics of the 21st century.
There is already racial diversity is U.S. police departments. African-Americans, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 12 percent of the full-time officers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The primarily white, male police departments of the 1950s have evolved and diversified. Today, there are large numbers of female, gay and minority officers. (Sklansky) However, there is a problem. Departments in large cities are much more diverse than small towns or rural areas. Most of them work in the nation’s largest cities, and smaller communities, such as Ferguson, have much Whiter police forces. Additionally, there is another problem regarding police diversity. The population demographics of the U.S. is rapidly changing. There is increasing Hispanic immigration. Some departments have made more progress than others. It is difficult for any police agency to perfectly reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. This would require a quota system and recruitment strategies that would be impossible to implement. However, communities of all sizes need to recruit professionals that represent, respect and care about the safety and well-being of all citizens.
There is no empirical evidence that racially-balanced police forces actually treat their communities with more respect, fairness or diligence, but police must treat people of
all races fairly, according to the rule of law. There is growing controversy about racial profiling and “stop and frisk” strategies used by the police to target and stop minorities based on the assumption that they are more likely to commit crimes, without respect to constitutional rights. Some recent studies on racial profiling do not substantiate anecdotal evidence on “stop and frisk” or White officer bias against minorities. According to Smith, racial profiling is an issue of national concern, however little empirical research exists on subjects. The study focused on analyzing traffic stop date and found that minority citizens, particularly African Americans were “disproportionately stopped compared with their percentage in the driving-eligible population”. Interestingly, they were not searched more frequently than Whites, who were significantly more likely to be involved in consent searches. Minority drivers were more likely to be issued warnings. Whites were more likely to be ticketed or arrested. Smith conclusions add an interesting dimension to the debate on law enforcement and race. If Smith’s conclusions are correct, Whites should be more concerned with racial profiling. In fact, his study asserts that White officers were no more likely than minority officers to stop, search, or arrest minority drivers (Smith, 2001).
Americans, including many in the government, feel that more racially diverse police forces will reduce the reality or impression of practices like racial profiling. However, many sociological studies go against these commonly accepted beliefs about race and law enforcement. One study (Weitzer, 2000), examined citizen attitudes about the race of police in their communities. They were asked which race of police officer they preferred to be assigned to their neighborhoods. In-depth interviews and findings suggest that “neighborhood context influences residents' views” and that African Americans' evaluations of White and Black officers often
challenge the conventional wisdom. Simply put, many Blacks expressed a preference for White officers to be assigned to their neighborhoods. Many expressed no preference, and the study concluded that there was “considerable support for a policy of deploying racially integrated teams of officers in Black neighborhoods” (Weitzer 23). Instead of focusing on race, the residents of most neighborhoods want friendly, professional and fair officers.
Petrocelli (2003) explored the race and socioeconomic factors that influence police traffic stop, search, and arrest practices in different neighborhoods. The study found that police stop Blacks in high crime areas more than Whites. However, like other studies suggest, they arrest fewer Blacks (Terril, 2003). Looking at policing behavior from a conflict theory lens, Petrocelli analyzed police traffic stop practices. He reached some provocative conclusions. The total number of stops by police was determined solely by the crime rate of the neighborhood and not by race. Furthermore, when observing the percentage of stops that ended in an arrest, both the percentage of Black population and the area crime rate served to decrease the percentage of police stops that ended in an arrest/summons. (Petrocelli). This research contradicts conventional wisdom that police target blacks.
In the last forty years the tension between police and minorities has created a conflict-based relationship around the U.S. It has created explosive situations in large cities like Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, and has recently exploded onto the streets of small town
America in Ferguson Missouri. Positive strategies like community policing, minority recruitment and citizen oversight have created a more transparent policing system. However, negative tactics, like racial profiling, stop and frisk and police militarization have created a battlefield mentality
that has permeated many police forces. Police forces are a part of the community and should proudly represent the neighborhoods they patrol. However, the color of their skin is not as important as – in the famous words of Martin Luther King – the content of their character. Instead of focusing on race, which has not been proven to affect the quality or fairness or policing, police should recruit and train professional, tolerant and caring individuals who want to serve their communities are not interested in carrying out elaborate military exercises. Racial profiling by police departments must be stopped, and imposing a particular racial profile on a police department is equally unproductive. Race in the U.S. is a complex issue, involving sensitive and quickly changing dynamics. Effective policing needs to operate independent of the politicized and emotional issues that involve race. Everyone involved must focus on individuals, and not on racially charged and stereotyped generalizations of groups.
Kasdan, Alexa. "Executive Overviews." MIS Quarterly 23.1 (1999): Harvard Human Rights Commission. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.
Petrocelli, Matthew, Alex R. Piquero, and Michael R. Smith. "Conflict Theory and Racial Profiling: An Empirical Analysis of Police Traffic Stop Data."Journal of Criminal Justice 31.1 (2003): 1-11. Web.
Sklanky, DA. "Not Your Father's Police Department: Making Sense of the New Demographics of Law Enforcement." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 96.3 (2006): n. pag. Web.
Smith, M.r., and M. Petrocelli. "Racial Profiling? A Multivariate Analysis of Police Traffic Stop Data." Police Quarterly 4.1 (2001): 4-27. Web.
Terrill, William, and Michael D. Reisig. "Neighborhood Context and Police Use of Force." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40.3 (2003): 291-321. Web.
Weitzer, Ronald. "White, Black, or Blue Cops? Race and Citizen Assessments of Police Officers." Journal of Criminal Justice 28.4 (2000): 313-24. Web.