The Invisible Color Line in U.S. Policing

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US Capitol Police march in honor of slain officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, July 1998. Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

Commentators argue that African Americans in law enforcement can play a primary role in tackling the historic legacy of police racism.

But first they have to get in the door.

Interviews with criminal justice professionals, police chiefs, and current and former police officers suggest that overt and implicit bias in many departments across the country continues to block officers of color from joining police ranks.

And for those who have reached senior management levels, the same bias often undercuts their effectiveness.

“In order for (police) culture to change there has to be inclusion,” Willie L. Williams, Chair of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“But it takes time, commitment, determination―and people who want it. And right now, by not having those people in place to push back those old demons that want to keep policing the same, it’s hard.”

Williams

Willie Williams

Williams, the commander of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Protection Detail, says the white male “good old boys club” can make it very difficult for Black officers to join law enforcement and, if they get in, to succeed.

“No matter how we advance, some people like it the way it was―or the way they feel it’s supposed to be. That’s why we’re still dealing with this stuff now.”

The hurdles to change remain formidable.

Data USA, an online resource for public government data, reports that roughly 12.4 percent of police officers nationally are African American, while 67 percent are white. In addition, Axios reports that only 2 percent of the nation’s law enforcement officers are Asian American while 11 percent are Hispanic, a deficit that hurts efforts to engage communities with a history of language barriers and distrust of the police.

The disparity is especially evident in urban areas.

Michigan, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have police forces that are far whiter than the communities they work, according to a 2020 investigation by The Washington Post.

Evidence around the country documents the stubborn resistance encountered by African-American men and women who want to join the ranks.

In 2019, the Justice Department sued the Baltimore County government, alleging that a written test for police officer recruits was unfairly biased against African-American applicants and that Black applicants failed the test at a greater rate than white applicants, resulting in fewer African Americans being hired as police officers.

In November 2020, Baltimore County reached a settlement with the Justice Department, agreeing to provide $2 million in back pay to eligible claimants and make 20 priority hires for Black applicants who previously took and failed the written exams and, after discontinuing the exam, retain a test developer to create a new exam that does not unfairly disqualify and divert Black applicants from the police department.

‘The Process is Biased’

“People say that blacks don’t want to be cops and aren’t applying, but that’s not true,” said David Fisher, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NBPA.

“If you go to the academy and watch the group of people who set up to do the initial exams it shows you they are applying; but the process is biased.”

fisher

David Fisher

One study of the hiring process in Colorado and Pennslvania found that Black applicants are often disqualified as a result of background checks that turn up minor offense or prior involvement with law enforcement as a result of racial profiling in police stops, while white applicants with similar records were allowed to qualify for employment.

Even a poor credit history can be used to justify rejection.

“After a kid that I knew tested, they told him they can’t take him in because of his (poor) credit,” said Regina Coward-Holman, a 20-year veteran of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“His wife had to have an emergency hysterectomy, and he had about $100,000 in medical bills. It was not like they had bills they didn’t pay for. His wife had an emergency hysterectomy at 30, and the investigator couldn’t even look past that.

“That happens a lot to Black applicants. How many fall through the cracks?”

Holman said she was grilled about drug use before she was hired―but in a way that suggested she was being stereotyped by the investigator.

“When I told him I’d only smoked marijuana once, like my file said, and never again, he basically told me that because I come from the ghetto, everyone from that neighborhood smokes marijuana and that if I didn’t smoke it, I must have sold it.

“He could just not believe that I came from the ghetto and didn’t smoke or sell dope.”

Coward-Holman, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the NBPA, recalled that this line of questioning continued as the investigator accused her of being affiliated with the local gang in her neighborhood, despite her repeated claims to the contrary.

She maintains that such unveiled animosity was only experienced by Black officers.

Coward-Holman

Regina Coward-Holman

“White friends of mine who were tested were never questioned that way. If they answered no, the answer stayed no, and they weren’t antagonized,” said Coward-Holman.

“But another black guy who was from the same neighborhood as me was also tested and went through the same exact thing. Only his was different because his brother was a documented gang member and they just ran him over the coals.

“Even though he was a good guy, they just assumed that he was crap like his brother. It actually took another veteran metro officer to go to bat for him and write a letter to get him on the force.”

In Aurora, Co., white people applying to become police officers are almost four times more likely to be hired than their Black peers, according to an analysis published in The Colorado Sentinel.

When it came to background checks and polygraph examinations, only 11.9 percent of qualified Black applicants moved beyond the background check and polygraph portion of the exams of the process compared to 28 percent for both white and Latino job seekers.

Knowing a friend or family member who has been incarcerated can disproportionately—and negatively―impact Black candidates.

In St. Louis County, Mo., a senior police officer who was involved in hiring, acknowledged that there was no clear method for determining who was unqualified―which allowed racial bias to seep into the process. Candidates who made racist remarks, people he specifically objected to hiring, were hired. Black candidates would be disqualified for things like mismanaging credit cards.

And while the examination of an applicant’s credit can be a valid indicator of a person’s propensity for corruption, the idea being that a person who doesn’t need money isn’t going to be tempted by it, the practice, and other checks in the hiring process like it, are often managed by people who rely on perspectives that are neither neutral nor evidence based.

“If there is a story about my history I need to tell you, I don’t get to tell my story because someone has already passed judgement based on what they classify as a good candidate,” said Fisher.

“Someone can look at you the wrong way and deny you.”

In Philadelphia, Black applicants experience a greater rate of rejection than their white counterparts because of background checks and psychological examinations influenced by racial bias, according to an NBC Philadelphia investigation.

In one instance, an applicant was disqualified for a poor driving record, despite having a valid driver’s license with zero points at the time of her application. She was also considered to have an unreliable work history because she had tried a number of jobs before settling on a career path.

In January 2020, the Philadelphia Police Academy had no Black recruits at all.

The Difference Between Bias and Racism

Addressing and correcting biased hiring practices in policing involves understanding that racial bias and racism can be two separate things, says Dr. Lorie Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and former Director of Research at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

“For many years, in our society, we thought that bias manifested in just one way,” said Fridell, who is now Chief Executive Officer for Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP).

“We thought that it involved ill-intentioned people with animus and hostility towards certain groups of people based on various negative stereotypes,” said Fridell.

“Then social psychologists discovered that people could have stereotypes about groups, and those stereotypes could impact their perceptions and behaviors, producing discriminatory behavior outside of conscious awareness, even in individuals who at the conscious level rejected bias, stereotypes, and prejudice.”

She points out that implicit bias can undermine the choices of even the most well-intentioned decision makers.

“To the extent that there might be hurdles for people of color applying to the agency, it might not be explicit bias (racism) but, in fact, implicit biases that are impacting on some of the decision makers in the agency,” said Fridell.

To tackle the problem, Fridell and FIP created a comprehensive training curriculum for police officers and supervisors. The training involves helping them understand how bias impacts their actions and to find the tools that can control and correct it.

“We’ve talked about bias in policing as if it’s all about racism and explicit bias, and we’ve treated cops as if they’re all racist…but what our training recognizes and highlights is that even cops whose hearts are in the right place, have biases that can impact their perceptions and their behavior.”

Fridell

Lorie Fridell

In a 2019 study, 32 sworn, full-time police officers from multiple mid-sized departments who interacted daily with members of diverse communities were surveyed to test the impact of implicit bias training on their cultural awareness, knowledge and skills.

Twenty-two of the 32 participants reported that implicit-bias training enabled them to be more effective as officers and that the training provided the necessary tools to communicate and interact with diverse cultures positively and effectively.

However, while implicit bias training can be a step in the right direction towards creating a more racially equitable police department, it is not a cure-all.

According to NPR, a study at the New York Police Department (NYPD) that allowed researchers to track the effects of mandatory implicit bias training as it was implemented in 2018 found that although NYPD officers did express more awareness of the concept of implicit bias and greater willingness to try to manage it, when it came to measuring the effects of the job on officers’ actions, specifically when considering minorities, there was no meaningful change.

Fridell acknowledges change won’t happen overnight.

“The immediate outcome we want is managing and recognizing your biases because you can walk out of the classroom and do that,” said Fridell.

“But this cannot be a one-off training. Leaders in the agency, from the chief down to the first-line supervisors, need to reinforce these messages.”

Is Diversity Enough?

However, a growing movement of academics, lawmakers, and activists argue that even departments that may manage to achieve greater diversification and less biased hiring practices would only distract from the larger and more dangerous issues resulting from the outsized role that police play in our society today by handling everything from homelessness and mental illness to housing evictions and traffic violations.

In an op ed for The Crime Report, Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and Jennifer Cobbina, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, argued that communities of color are experiencing the criminalization of racialized poverty, not the implicit bias of a few white police officers.

They contend that hiring more Black police officers has not produced significant improvements in policing or public safety, and that, instead, police functions should be scaled back and replaced with community led initiatives to address specific public safety problems with tools other than policing.

While this is a contentious argument for some, there is broad consensus that greater community engagement is a crucial factor in addressing the legacy of police racism.

North Charleston, S.C. Chief of Police Reginald Burgess believes implicit bias and diversification training can lead to a more racially unbiased police department for both African-American officers and communities, but only when departments and their leaders engage with those communities.

Especially the African-American communities that often trust them the least.

burgess

Reginald Burgess

“Our recruiting comes from the community,” said Burgess. “It’s not a secret that African-American communities have never had a real and true relationship with law enforcement.”

A 2020 Gallup poll found that only 19 percent of Black adults expressed confidence in the police.

“I’ve been a cop for 31 years and I’ve worked under different units, areas, leaderships, chiefs, and mayors,” said Burgess.

“And if I was to take ten African-American men from 35-65, give them a polygraph, and ask them how often did their father, grandfather, or uncles, tell them that being a police officer is an honorable profession, I can tell you as a black man that you’ll get one who raises their hand.

“There are different reasons for that, but in our community, we don’t tell people to aspire to be police officers.”

Burgess, who became North Charleston’s first Black chief of police in 2018, offers his department as an example of what police departments must do to bridge this divide and restore community trust, attract black applicants, and stamp out dangerous racial biases within the ranks of departments overall.

“I made officers go to community events, city club meetings, community cleanups, and churches in challenged communities,” said Burgess.

“I made sure they walked with people, helped them clean, had one-on-one conversations with them and that they constantly immersed themselves in the community. We have 75 civic club meetings per month, we attend every last one.”

Insisting that community involvement results in community aid in both investigations and recruitment, Burgess makes certain that his officers are engaged on every level.  Even when people are dealing with the worst of circumstances.

“When a person dies and we have a homicide, not only do we process it and investigate it, we are with the families and we visit them,” said Burgess.

“We have a homicide review board where we get all the coroners and solicitors and everyone involved to do a wrap-around service for that family. Then, when that family has a funeral, we go to their and provide assistance and an escort.”

In addition, Burgess says that his city’s National Night Out program, an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make neighborhoods safer and more caring, is one of the biggest in the state and that efforts like these create the foundation for successful training in implicit bias, racial equity and impartial policing.

“Our people are constantly given the tools they need for when they enter neighborhoods, cultures, and communities unlike their own,” said Burgess.

A department environment where officers are required to be involved with the community as part of their daily routines not only motivates understanding and empathy among the ranks for the communities they serve, attracting more diverse applicants as a result; it can also reduce the bias quotient in an agency overall, argues Fridell.

“If we have positive interactions with people who are different from us, it can reduce our implicit and explicit biases,” she said.

“We need to broaden our understanding of how bias and prejudice manifest, and that will be very important for the discussion between police and communities about what we do about it.”

Leadership Matters

But while the North Charlotte police department may be an example of what needs to be done and how it can work, it also reflects how implementing practices and policies that improve inclusion and reduce racism depend entirely on a committed police leadership that is supported by an equally committed and involved city and state government.

“In most organizations in the U.S. and our country’s culture, we have two standards: one for someone who is not a minority and one for someone who is,” said Dr. Alex Del Carmen, Associate Dean of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth.

“The way to address that double standard is to empower more minority officers to be in leadership positions. But, even though we’re starting to see a little bit of that over the past few years, many minority leaders feel completely constrained from really having an effect on the organization because everyone above them and around them seems to have a certain kind of expectation.”

Del Carmen, who has spent the last two decades using data and statistical analysis to train and educate thousands of police officers, and every police chief in Texas, on proper policing practices, believes that new minority police leaders often face pressure to conform to a standard way of doing things from not only their departments, but also city officials and politicians who can often cater to private interests or hard-line public opinion over expert assessments of what’s needed for reform.

“The info is being kidnapped by politicians on both sides of the aisle who are trying to provoke rhetoric and an easy fix to a very complex situation.” said Del Carmen.

Del Carmen

Alex Del Carmen

“You get an African-American promoted to chief and their first day on the job they’re reminded what the rules are, what you have to adhere to, and what those around you are going to adhere to.”

In August of 2020, Carmen Best, Seattle’s first African-American police chief resigned from the police department in response to major budget cuts in response to defunding demands from the public despite already low staffing numbers that were made by the city council without her participation or advice.

In an interview with NPR, Best said that she believed that the city council was putting her in a position to fail. Not including a 30-year veteran officer like herself in the conversation about funding made clear to her how difficult it was going to be to make change in an environment that seemed more interested in politics than policy.

When former Minneapolis chief of police Janee Harteau tried to implement changes to police culture and training during her tenure there she claimed to have received pushback from unions that have more sway over police conduct then chiefs do.

And in Iowa, local police reform efforts are being hampered by lawmakers and the governor interested in earning political points by promoting tough-on-crime provisions that will only continue the problem.

“Either you play by the other folks’ rules or you simply have to leave the job in frustration because you couldn’t change enough,” said Del Carmen.

“It can’t just be a requirement on the entity to change when everything else stays the same.”

Without city, county, and state leadership and management invested alongside a forward thinking chief and department, Del Carmen warns that any supposed reforms can often turn out to be little more than PR stunts or half measures that fail to deliver the training and attract the diversity needed to engage a community with some degree of credibility.

“Cities have to focus on increasing the budget for recruitment, increasing the number of people of color in the recruitment effort, and be able to truly understand scientifically what makes a difference in their rhetoric and statements when they reach out to minority members,” said Del Carmen.

“But part of the challenge that policing has is that their departments budgets for recruitment are incredibly limited. Sometimes they have huge cities that may have only one person in place to recruit for the entire police department.

“And then typically who they put in place is a nonminority.”

According to GoLawEnforcement.com, an online law enforcement resource center, 70 percent of the police agencies nationwide have no specific recruiting team to deal with the lengthy recruitment process.

And a report from the RAND corporation found that, in California, 74 percent of the local law enforcement agencies allocate less than $5,000 for recruitment on an annual basis and about half have no recruitment budget at all.

And while some mid to large departments in places like Miami, Seattle, and New Jersey may be able to invest millions to launch new recruitment programs. But for smaller departments employing a hundred people or less, which according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics make up the majority of policing organizations in the country, the ability to diversify efficiently, much less institute effective bias training programs, is simply not affordable.

“I live in Texas and 90 percent of law enforcement in Texas is very small with limited budgets,” said Del Carmen.

“They don’t have the money or the access to minority communities to be able to do any of that.”

Del Carmen believes that changing these circumstances and providing the resources that these smaller departments require to evolve will require both federal assistance and the patience to understand that change does not come overnight.

Real Change Requires Funding

“The only way to create change is with financial incentives, leadership-related initiatives out of D.C. that will propagate to all the agencies in the U.S. We need some sort of national organization or entity that will provide monetary rewards and help municipalities to engage in serious, honest dialogue on implicit bias and the empowerment of minority law enforcement.”

According to CNBC, In 2015, local governments paid for more than two-thirds of police spending. The federal government came second at 20.4 percent, followed by state governments at 11 percent.

Most federal spending comes from two major grants from the Department of Justice: the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which funneled $304 million in 2019 to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, and The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne JAG), providing $435 million to law enforcement across the country each year.

However, while both grants represent a substantial amount of funding for policing efforts, with roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country there is still not enough to go around.

The historic lack of federal oversight is what led to municipalities and counties implementing a wide range of questionable policies, from stop-and-frisk efforts to the use of deadly force, critics say.

Federal aid has primarily gone towards changes to tactics and procedures that favor crime control over constitutional and equitable policing methods.

And without the incentives of federal funding to take more responsibility over policing, state officials have been vulnerable to the kind of police lobbying and political calculations that regularly impede change.

Del Carmen believes that reorienting federal aid to serve as an incentive for departments that embrace diversification efforts in recruiting, community engagement initiatives, and bias training programs could pave the way for change.

“The data shows there’s a positive correlation between a diversified police force and its ability to fight crime, prevent crime, and address victims and their needs. That’s where the science lies and there should be a huge effort to do that,” said Del Carmen.

“The climate is right for this kind of change, but we have to have that leadership component from D.C.”

Editor’s Note: The future of American policing was a focus of the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. See tapes of the panel discussions, in which some of the individuals quoted here spoke.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer and editor of TCR’s Justice Digest. In Part 3 of this series, he will examine the growing challenge to traditional reform efforts in policing. from those who say change can only come by decreasing the outsized role of police in our society and replacing them with community initiatives and social services. He welcomes comments from readers.

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