Last week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, chair of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, frankly admitted that public furor over police-involved killings has hampered his ability to recruit black officers.
"In the current environment we're in, policing is not all that positive. Not a day goes by you don't see something negative," Ramsey told the Philadelphia City Council during a budget hearing. "That has an impact on young people."
The quest to diversify police ranks has gained a huge sense of urgency. But Ramsey, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, suggested that the department's percentage of African American recruits has actually declined. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, says that departments nationwide are facing recruiting problems that can hinder attracting new officers of any race.
"We're seeing it all across the country," says Wexler. "We go through these periods where departments are competing with each other for candidates and then, we go through periods where all of a sudden, being a police officer isn't as attractive as it has been in the past. And, quite frankly, I think that's what we're seeing. We're seeing all of the negative images of the police have made it more difficult to hire and recruit candidates into this profession."
Wexler says he knows of no national data measuring police recruitment since Ferguson, so the available accounts are all anecdotal. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department emailed that they are "not experiencing difficulty in recruitment," and St. Louis County Police have said that applications from black candidates surged amid protests there.
Either way, Ferguson conveyed a stark image of an overwhelmingly white police force patrolling a largely black community. And it is far from anomalous. Nationwide, black people are represented in police departments in numbers equivalent to their share in the overall population, according to a USA Today analysis of 2006-2010 Census data (Hispanic and Asian recruitment lag behind). But many black officers are concentrated in a small number of departments, and black members of law enforcement are heavily underrepresented in at least 50 cities with populations of 100,000 or greater, including Cleveland, Richmond, and Buffalo.
But to what extent does diversity, for all the discussion, make a difference when it comes to police conduct? Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, says that research suggests it basically doesn't. "Black police officers are just as likely to use force as white police officers," says Vitale. "In fact there is some indication their behavior toward black suspects is actually worse than that of white officers."
High-profile scandals emanating from departments in major U.S. cities, which often employ a high number of officers of color, lend credence to that argument.
The ranks of New York City police, for example, are fairly diverse. But New York remains a flashpoint for controversies over abusive and intrusive policing, from Eric Garner's death after being placed in a chokehold to widespread criticism of stop-and-frisk.
In Philadelphia, black officers reportedly make up 33 percent of the force versus 42 percent of the city—not an enormous discrepancy (it's a different story among the upper ranks). But the city's frequent police corruption and abuse scandals, including an African American lieutenant caught on video striking a woman at the city's 2012 Puerto Rican Day Parade, touch officers black and white alike.
"So many of the problems that we've been experiencing in the last year are tied to this dramatic expansion of what we're asking police to do," says Vitale. That includes broken windows, the war on drugs, aggressive policing in schools, and acting as a front-line response to crises among the mentally ill. "Every problem now is a policing problem," he says. And that's a big problem.
Police departments, however, often do themselves no favors by emphasizing an aggressive warrior mindset to potential hires, says Vitale, pointing to action-packed recruitment videos.
"The emphasis is totally on SWAT team, and shoot outs, and driving fast and all the militarized equipment, and nothing to talk about problem solving, dealing with the public, diverse skill sets, that can be helpful in policing," says Vitale. "Too many departments have completely emphasized the adventure-seeking aspects of the job, which are actually just a tiny fraction of what most police officers do every day."
Vitale says that a preference in many departments to hire military veterans, which has the advantage of bringing in older, more experienced recruits, may squeeze out other applicants and foment the warrior mentality. Cracking down on police misconduct, regardless of the offending officer's race, may be one way to help dissuade those attracted to policing for the wrong reasons.
"The culture of policing is affected by what happens in a police department when someone does something wrong," says Wexler. "What's it like to work in that police department?...Do they reward good behavior? Do they hold people accountable?"
There are other barriers to recruiting good police officers. A 2010 RAND study found some departments were having trouble competing with the large number of jobs created by the war on terror. There are cultural matters, too: millennials, the researchers found, may be less enthusiastic about the prospect of joining the rank-and-file. "The youngest generation of workers has shown marked preferences toward extrinsic work values, such as prestige, changing tasks, social and cognitive aspects of work, and flexibility," the researchers wrote. "Many of these career expectations cannot be met in law enforcement."
Whatever the reasons, a smaller applicant pool makes it more difficult for departments to maintain high standards. Recently, Wexler points out, New Orleans scrapped a requirement that new officers without two years of military service have at least 60 college credits. The move might grow the department, according to a recent Times-Picayune story, "but research suggests the officers it takes on could be more likely to use force on the job."
"People think a police force should be a microcosm of society. That's not right. That's not correct," says Wexler. "You want a police force to be more selective than a microcosm of society. There are certain people you don't want to be police officers whatever race they are."
Vitale agrees that recruiting good police officers matters, but says that fixing the policy mess should be the priority. So much of the public debate over policing focuses on individual officers or departments, rather than on the lawmakers who decide what the priorities are for law enforcement agencies.
"It does matter who you hire in terms of the long-term trajectory of police," says Vitale. "But that's not really going to address these bigger problems as long as political leaders are instructing the police to wage a war on drugs and a war on the poor."