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Why it’s so difficult to retain a diverse police force

August 15, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is more than two-thirds African-American. But only three of its 53 police officers are black. Jeffrey Brown talks to Tracie Keesee of the UCLA Center for Policing Equity and Malik Aziz of the National Black Police Association to explore why so many communities across the nation face similar racial imbalances, and what can be done to fix it.
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TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the past week in Ferguson, there have been very different police and community reactions. One issue it has highlighted is the problems raised when police forces don’t reflect the racial makeup of their communities.

Jeffrey Brown examines that angle for us tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: The city of Ferguson, with a population of 21,000, is more than two-thirds African-American, but just three of its 53 police officers are black. It’s a factor in other communities across the country as well.

And we explore the issue Tracie Keesee, the co-founder of the UCLA Center for Policing Equity. She’s also a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department. And Commander Malik Aziz, chairman of the national black police association. He is deputy chief of the Dallas Police Department and has 23 years experience in law enforcement.

Tracie Keesee, let me start with you. And I do want to start with a question about today’s news, because there’s still a lot of confusion and even anger over the issue of when the officer involved in the shooting was named and the release of the video of Michael Brown.

What’s your reaction to that today?

TRACIE KEESEE, UCLA Center for Policing Equity: Well, I think there is a couple of things going on here.

First of all, if you want to have the trust of the community, transparency is always going to be key. And the faster you can get information out to the community is going to be helpful.

I think, in addition to that, you have to balance the safety of the officer at the time, before we knew his name, to make sure that they were safe, and he was receiving threats. But I think you also have to that balance, but I think you also have to be mindful of the community that you serve and that they really deserve to hear who is involved in what and what’s going on with in the investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Malik Aziz, is there one protocol to follow in cases like this? Do you think the information, both the name and the video, should have come out sooner?

MALIK AZIZ, National Black Police Association: I definitely believe that the name should have been released early on.

There are certain things you have to keep in mind. You want the officer to be safe. You don’t want another tragedy to follow a seemingly tragedy here that — what occurred in Ferguson. So there are no real policies that govern police departments across the nation, which proves to be the inadequacy of many police departments to develop a protocol for releasing names, and usually it just goes by the atmosphere that has been created.

In this particular case, I think it was exacerbated by the failure to release the names and be open and transparent, as they should have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Tracie Keesee, to this larger issue of the — of police forces that don’t reflect their communities, how serious an issue is it and why do you think it occurs?

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, it’s always going to be a serious situation as far as diversifying organizations, because the pool of folks to choose from in communities of color are often dwindled by whatever hiring practices are put in place in other, you know, departments.

And that’s just a small part of it, though. When you look at what is going on in Ferguson — and I can only speak to myself and my own experience — and the concern that community members have about how they’re going to be treated, the concerns about what does that do to the person that comes on to a police department and they don’t feel comfortable in a police department that is biased or has racist tendency, it’s very hard to recruit from that perspective, and not just once you recruit them, once you retain them.

And what we’re seeing in Ferguson, early on, you saw policy decisions, the decision to bring out heavy armor, the decision to have folks on the street. Those are policy decisions that if you don’t have diversity in the ranks of command staff that can give some insight to decisions being made, oftentimes, this is the result.

So it’s not just about, how do you recruit? You have to have a big pool to recruit from, but you also — also have to be honest with those folks you’re recruiting what that experience inside the organization is going to be for them, especially if there’s only two of you or let alone one of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Malik Aziz, in Ferguson — as we saw in our earlier report Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was brought in to oversee the situation. He’s from the area. He’s black.

It seemed to have helped, at least in the short-term. Is that a kind of solution that you think has promise, or what else needs to be done?

MALIK AZIZ: Well, I applaud them for the decision, but it is just a short-term solution. It’s not a long-term solution.

The long-term solution is for Ferguson and places like Ferguson to actually diversify their police departments. And a 53-person police department in a city that’s 65 percent to 70 percent black, and yet they fail to meet the demographics and reflect or mirror the community in which they serve.

What it appears to be are people who are culturally disconnected which — the communities in which they serve, so, therefore, the result is the response that was given when you have a policy that you’re not open or you’re not transparent. Therefore, you’re not accountable.

If Ferguson, Missouri, actually wants to resolve some of the issues and have a viable solution, then they would look at the policies that govern or surround the admission policies that are seemingly so subjective in places like Ferguson, that they would be able to pull from — tough enough job recruiting, but they would be able to look into the pool of candidates who reside in the city and be able to formulate a recruitment plan to give people jobs in the neighborhoods in which they serve.

And they have failed at that, and many departments fail at that. It doesn’t take the rocket science to look at the numbers and demographics and come to a conclusion that it is dominated by one group, and the group that is the majority on the other — opposite side of the fence. They have no vested interest, equity in the city that they serve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Tracie Keesee, I know you work with police forces around the country. Are there examples where this is done better either through recruitment or through reaching out to the communities to avoid this kind of tension?

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, it depends on the community. If you have a good pool to draw from, there’s always going to be good examples of how you can engage.

And, as I stated before, if the relationship is strong and you have good trust and you have transparency, recruitment is not hard. So it really varies. In some areas, you don’t have that pool to choose from, so you would end up bringing in outsiders, which sometimes helps and sometimes makes the situation worse, especially when you’re not vested in a community, much like Captain Johnson is because he’s from that community.

So is there really one good way to do it? No. There isn’t really one good way to do it. What it requires, though, are command staff and hiring civil service organizations and the community to sit down and decide, what, one, does a good officer look like and how do they serve in an honorable way and have empathy for the community in which they serve?

And I think, going forward, these are part of the conversations that you’re going to start seeing, is, what does this look like? How do we not just recruit? How do we retain? Because, to me, it’s not getting them through the door. It’s retaining them and it’s promoting them and making sure that they have a voice and a say in policy development.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just very briefly, Malik Aziz, do you expect some lessons to be drawn from Ferguson on this wider issue?

MALIK AZIZ: Oh, yes, definitely, because I just believe that there~ are many Johnsons in that neighborhood waiting for an opportunity to serve their community. And they’re not given chances, based on subjective policy.

I think the lessons that will be learned in Ferguson should be used as a microcosm around the United States and places just like it, that this is not how you respond. You respond with transparency. You respond with openness and accountability. And you enable policies that believe in community engagement and a real proactive partnership that would quell incidents like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Malik Aziz, Tracie Keesee, thank you both so much.

TRACIE KEESEE: Thank you.

MALIK AZIZ: Thank you so much for having us.