After demonstrations and looting erupted in Ferguson, Mo., in response to the shooting death of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by a white police officer, the city’s police department made matters considerably worse with its over-the-top militarized response. Authorities needed to hit the reset button fast, and Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol was part of that effort.
After relieving Ferguson police, the governor put Johnson in charge. It’s no coincidence a black man was put in command. Johnson’s cadence and tone when speaking, his use of biblical references, convey to the black residents of Ferguson that he is one of them. His job was to restore order, but his standpoint for discharging that duty was understanding, empathy – the very qualities that apparently were heretofore lacking in the Ferguson Police Department.
Meanwhile, law enforcement bodies nationwide ought to be thinking about how to clone him.
Three police officers out of Ferguson’s force of 53 are black, in a town where two-thirds of the residents are African-American. The statistic is all too common. America’s police forces do not look like the communities that they serve. They never have.
The Washington Post analyzed census records and found that more than three-quarters of cities on which data is available have police forces that are disproportionately white.
For decades, the courts have been striking down affirmative action hiring measures, but the NAACP and the Justice Department have been just as effective at rooting out tests used to exclude minority applicants to police academies.
Many, perhaps most, racially skewed police departments acknowledge the problem. Indeed, the failure to attract diverse recruits goes far beyond discrimination against minority applicants. To be an African-American or Latino member of law enforcement opens one up to accusations of being “more blue than black” or “brown” – a traitor to the community, as it were. That attitude has to change.
Another handicap for minority applicants is educational attainment. The deplorable high school graduation rates of Latinos and African-Americans hamper recruitment. So do criminal records. The Washington Post recently pointed out that while about 8 percent of Americans have felony convictions, for black men the national average is more than 33 percent (thanks to the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on minority communities). In some departments, simply having a family member who has been involved in the drug dealing can exclude a candidate.
Making sure people of color are represented in their police forces isn’t a mere question of tokenism. It’s about the police and the community understanding each other. It’s about closing gaps in experience and perception that lead unnecessarily to tragedy and further conflict.
Police and communities of color urgently need to have an honest dialogue. Community members need to acknowledge that policing comes with inherent dangers that the average person doesn’t always recognize. Everyone knows now that Michael Brown wasn’t armed, but did the officer who shot him know it at the time? We don’t know that answer yet.
By the same token, police forces need to acknowledge their own behavior and attitudes that have cultivated community perceptions of hostility, whether or not they believe those views are accurate.
It has to be a two-way conversation, and a frank, genuine one at that. The alternative has been playing out on the streets of Ferguson.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.