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The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer on the majority-white police force in Ferguson, Missouri, set off a wave of protests across the country. It revived a national conversation about race and law enforcement. And at the center of that discussion are the nation’s police officers.
Many African-Americans say they have been unfairly targeted by the police and that the disproportionate number of shooting deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of white police officers proves that cops are biased against blacks. In one recent case in North Charleston, South Carolina, Officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott five times in the back, killing him; Slager initially claimed that Scott grabbed his stun gun, but a video of the shooting that subsequently surfaced indicates otherwise.
“Your typical police officer in the United States is a white male from a lower-middle-class background who is likely not college-educated.”
Criminal Justice Professor, University of Scranton
Some critics believe that much of the problem may stem from the people police departments are hiring. The numbers from the Department of Justice tell part of the story: In the U.S. there are more than 696,000 full-time police officers. The overwhelming majority, 74.7 percent, are white, and 11.9 percent are black. (African-Americans account for 13.2 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.)
Michael Jenkins, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton, says, “Your typical police officer in the United States is a white male from a lower-middle-class background who is likely not college-educated.”
What has become clear is that police departments’ racial and ethnic makeup often doesn’t reflect the communities the officers serve. For example, in Ferguson, 83 percent of the police force is white, while 67 percent of the population is black. And in North Charleston, 80 percent of the police department is white, but 47 percent of residents are African-American.
That racial gap is found in hundreds of communities around the nation and, to a lesser extent, in the City of Sarasota, Florida. A Gulf Coast city with a population of approximately 53,000, it appears to be an affluent community for snowbirds looking to beat Northern winters. Sarasota has beautiful beaches, upscale restaurants, museums and luxury hotels. But as in all cities, there are wealthy neighborhoods, and there’s the poor side of town.
Officer Juan Sanchez, a 15-year veteran of the City of Sarasota Police Department, says, “A lot of folks see Sarasota as this really nice city with good schools, good tax base. But the reality is that a lot of the city is low income.”
Almost a quarter of Sarasota’s residents, 22% percent, live at or below the poverty line, and many of them live in a neighborhood called Newtown. Sgt. Ken Rainey is a white officer who has been in the Sarasota Police Department for nine years, and he says that African-Americans “feel a certain degree of trust inherently with an African-American officer responding to whatever their situation may be, that they might feel a little bit more trust that their situation’s being handled fairly and impartially. Whereas they might not believe that it will be if it’s a white officer responding to the same situation. So it’s a little difficult.”
Until recently, Sarasota’s police department had a troubled relationship with the African-American community in Newtown. Bernadette DiPino is Sarasota’s first female chief of police, and she has been on the job for a little over two years. She says, “Before I arrived in 2012, the Sarasota Police Department had some issues dealing with excessive force, with trust issues within the community … One of the challenges I faced when I first got to the police department was to re-establish relationships with citizens in the community.”
Another of her challenges will be to try to bring more African-Americans into the department. In 1979 just 4 percent of its officers were black, and 95 percent were white. Five years later, the Justice Department concluded an investigation that found that the city’s employment practices had “a discriminatory impact on blacks and women.” Sarasota was ordered to take corrective action, and by 2007, 10 percent of the police force was black. But in 2014 the percentage had fallen to 7.6 percent, with only 12 black officers out of 157 on the force. Sarasota is 15 percent African-American.
College-educated police officers are less likely to use force, are more likely to settle interactions with citizens in ways that make the citizen happier and are also more likely to be open to working with different types of citizens and different types of colleagues.
Criminal Justics Professor, University of Scranton
Sgt. Eric Bolden grew up in Sarasota and has been on the force for 25 years. He says, “Right now, I am the only African-American supervisor in the entire Sarasota Police Department. That says that we have a long way to go. We have no African-Americans in the command staff at all. So just being able to have someone that can relate to the issues that are going on in the African-American community and can be able to, in turn, teach Caucasian officers, you know, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. It’s not a problem,’ and I think we’ll be in a much better position.”
DiPino says it’s her “goal to make sure that we mirror the community for which we are policing. That’s really important for citizens in the community, to see people that look like them. And that in and of itself builds up trust. And so we’re looking to increase the number of African-Americans and Hispanics and also females within our force. But it’s a challenge. There’s a lot of challenges to recruiting individuals to come onto our agency.”
The biggest problem may be finding candidates who want to be police officers. Private sector jobs can pay significantly more than Sarasota’s starting salary for a rookie cop, which can be as low as $18 per hour. To entice more candidates, the department recently lowered its educational requirement and eliminated the need for college credits. Now a 21-year-old rookie cop needs only a high school diploma to start making arrests on the streets of Sarasota.
DiPino says, “There are some people that would criticize that we are looking at lowering the standard from having two years of college to high school or GED. And I don’t think that we’re lowering our standards. I think we’re opening the pool of candidates because what we wan to do is generate the potential for individuals to apply to a police department.”
In fact, just 1 percent of police departments in the U.S. require new officers to have a four-year college degree. The vast majority, 82 percent, require that new officers have at least a high school diploma.
Many experts think that for policing to fundamentally change, departments need to hire better-educated cops. Jenkins says, “College-educated police officers are less likely to use force, are more likely to settle interactions with citizens in ways that make the citizen happier and are also more likely to be open to working with different types of citizens and different types of colleagues.”
But John Decarlo, a former police chief who coordinates a police studies program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has a warning about higher educational standards. He says,
“If we raise the bar, we have to raise the admission criteria. And will we then get people who are willing to do the job? Will we get people who are willing to go into harm’s way? Have guns pointed at them? Work 365 days a year? And do dangerous things?”
Maki Haberfeld, the chairwoman of the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks there’s another problem with the cops we’re hiring. She says, “We’re hiring at a very young age. We know from other sciences that people still develop emotionally, psychologically, even physiologically into their early 20s. So hiring somebody who is 19 years old or 20 years old — it’s just too, too early. And giving them the overwhelming responsibility and the ability to use coercive force is just inappropriate. I think we’re hiring at the age that is not appropriate.”
She agrees with the need for better-educated police officer candidates and asks, “So who am I looking for? I’m looking for people who are 25 years old. I’m looking for people who have academic degrees in a field that is relevant to policing. So I would like to look at people who have degrees in social sciences, whether it’s criminal justice, psychology or theology. If we had higher standards, we would have fewer incidents during which the public would have a legitimate claim about police misconduct. Much fewer.”
One study, which looked at data from Florida’s 43,000 police officers, was striking. Cops with just a high school diploma, 58 percent of the total, were the subject of 75 percent of disciplinary actions. While officers with a bachelor’s degree, 24 percent of the total, were the subject of only 11 percent of disciplinary actions.
There may be another, more subtle reason to maintain higher academic standards for new officers. In 1987, Fredd Atkins was elected Sarasota’s mayor, the first African-American to hold that office. He worked with the NAACP in the 1980s to persuade the Department of Justice to review the police department’s hiring practices. He says, “The implied message that is perceived is that they are lowering the standards so that the chief can hire more minority officers. And that’s not the reality. Hispanics, women, African-Americans are all graduating from colleges. I believe — and the greater community believes — that educated officers are more likely to be more responsible. You know, it’s not like we want to hire people that are less informed or less educated. African-Americans have always been willing to do what it takes to qualify. We always reach the heights of what is needed.”
Hiring older, better-educated cops who look more like the communities they serve may be one way to hedge against a future filled with more Fergusons and North Charlestons. Bolden says, “Without enough African-Americans on the force that can relate and work in this area, I could see us having issues like they had in Ferguson and other places around the country. It’s much better when you have the people … working in your community that look like people that live within the community.”