When he took over as police chief last year in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, it didn’t take Bill Carson long to see he had a serious diversity problem. Of 79 sworn officers, just one was black and one Hispanic, reports the Associated Press. Carson acted quickly, hoping to hire several minority recruits. Of 81 applicants, only three were black and one Hispanic. Of those, one failed the written exam, two had problems at past jobs and the other chose to stay with his current department. “It’s not like we’re passing over a lot of great minority applicants so that we can hire more white police officers,” says Carson, whose city is 10 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.
Last month’s Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson has focused attention on the lack of diversity in many police departments. Experts say many departments limit their searches too close to home, often don’t recruit in the right places and set criteria that can disproportionately exclude groups they hope to attract. Police are not just struggling to attract blacks and Hispanics, but members of immigrant groups where distrust and fear of authority run deep. “If you were taught from the time that you could speak, from the time that you could understand speech, that police are to be feared and that they’re part of an occupying force that is there to circumvent the democratic processes and to strip you of your rights, then it’s very difficult for that department to come into your neighborhood and tell you that they respect you and that you should join their team,” says Phillip Atiba Goff of The Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.