Last month, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown reviewed the police academy’s 21 candidates as they performed agility tests at the department’s training center in North Raleigh.
She saw 15 white men, an African-American man, an Asian man and a Latino woman.
People of color make up about 40 percent of the city’s population but only 16 percent of the police department’s sworn officers. This latest pool of officer candidates won’t change those numbers.
“If I had a crystal ball, or a magic wand, the police department’s racial makeup would look very close or exceed the demographics of Raleigh,” said Deck-Brown, the first African-American woman to serve as chief of the Raleigh Police Department. “Our city is a melting pot. I heard someone call it a ‘salad bowl.’ The police department should reflect the city we serve.”
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Our city is a melting pot. ... The police department should reflect the city we serve.
Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown
This lack of racial diversity in the police department is not unique to Raleigh, either in the Triangle or nationwide. Not one of the region’s three largest police departments employs a police force that reflects the communities and neighborhoods where the officers work, according to a national database created this fall by Governing, an online magazine that covers state and local government.
In Durham, where people of color are nearly 62 percent of the population, they account for only 35 percent of the police department’s sworn officers. In Cary, racial minorities comprise 34 percent of the population but nearly 12 percent of the police department.
The lack of diversity within the ranks of local law enforcement agencies has become a national concern in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., North Charleston, S.C., Charlotte, Baltimore, and, most recently, Chicago following the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police. In May, a task force established by President Barack Obama outlined a series of steps police departments and the federal government could take to strengthen community policing and build trust among residents.
The steps include hiring a more diverse police force, so that people in minority communities are more likely to encounter officers who look like them. Supporters of the idea say African-American officers are more supportive while patrolling in minority neighborhoods and are less suspicious of the people who live there.
The desire to create a police force that reflects the community is nothing new. In 1982, Raleigh officials set out to increase the number of African-American officers after members of the Raleigh Black Law Officers Association signed a petition claiming the department discriminated against blacks in hiring, promotions and transfers. At the time, blacks made up about 27 percent of the city’s population and 16 percent of the police department.
City officials wanted to increase that number to 20 percent by the end of 1983. More than 30 years later, the department has still not reached that goal.
Lonnette Williams, chair of the South Central Citizens Advisory Committee and a longtime resident of Southeast Raleigh, says the dearth of African-Americans in the police department reflects a broader racial disparity in other city departments.
“It’s difficult. People feel alienated and disenfranchised,” said Williams, 68, who is African-American. “People start feeling that people of color really don’t matter in Raleigh. We’re paying taxes, but we don’t have a voice.”
Departments all over the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract applicants, and some of that may be attributed to the current national conversation, combined with some anti-police rhetoric.
Anthony Marsh, Durham’s deputy police chief
Triangle police chiefs cite several factors that make it difficult to recruit minority officers, including a strong anti-law enforcement sentiment in some non-white communities highlighted by recent protests around the country.
“Departments all over the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract applicants, and some of that may be attributed to the current national conversation, combined with some anti-police rhetoric,” said Anthony Marsh, Durham’s deputy police chief, who is African-American. “It is our hope that those with strong feelings about the racial makeup of our department would contribute to helping us create an organization that reflects the diversity of Durham by encouraging young people of color to consider law enforcement as a career choice.”
Even supporters of more diversity say it is just one component of building trust among police and people of color. They note that African-American officers were among those charged with more than misconduct in a fatal incident involving a young black man in Baltimore. The issue is not simply one of race, they say, but is also about the color blue and an internal culture that, if not addressed, will continue to promote police misconduct.
“Clearly, when you are serving a city as diverse as Raleigh, it’s important to have diversity in our organization,” said Deck-Brown. “What’s more important is the training. When someone calls 911 they are not concerned about the race, color or gender of an officer. ... Can he or she get the job done? That’s what matters to the community.”
Margaret Lebron is one of four women in the Raleigh police academy this fall, and the only Latino. On an unseasonably warm November morning, she and the other candidates donned ballistics vests and went through a series of agility tests at the training facility.
Lebron, 24, sucked down Gatorade and wiped sweat off her face after completing a course that included hurdling over a 4-foot-high chain-link fence, crawling under an obstacle, wrestling a 100-pound dummy and doing 22 push-ups.
“Being a girl, they don’t treat you any differently,” said Lebron, who is of Puerto Rican descent and lives in Smithfield. “I think the standards are even higher if you are a girl.”
Lebron isn’t really sure why more women and people of color don’t work in law enforcement. She enrolled at Johnston Community College last year, studying criminal justice and dreaming of a career in forensic evidence. Then she participated in a ride-along program with a Raleigh police officer visiting the JCC campus.
“I fell in love with being a police officer ever since I did that ride along,” she said.
The lone African-American in the recruiting class is Derrick Wells of Fayetteville. He says he was one of five blacks at the academy when the training started – three men and two women.
“Two of them just quit,” Wells said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with race. It’s a mindset.”
Wells, who served in the Army and Coast Guard, said the job appealed to him because he likes helping people and interacting with the community. He said there’s a “stigma” among some African-Americans, who think “only certain races can do certain jobs.”
There’s a lack of police and community interaction with the Asian community.
Dat Nguyen, the only Asian candidate for the Raleigh Police Department
Dat Nguyen, the only Asian candidate, says he moved to Raleigh from Houston last year after his wife landed a job at N.C. State University. Like Wells, he said he wanted to become a police officer because he likes helping people and looks forward to interacting with the community. He also wants to be a role model for young people and “create more diversity in the future.”
“There’s a lack of police and community interaction with the Asian community,” he said.
Changing demographics are one challenge for police departments that want to reflect their communities. The U.S. Census Bureau in 1970 didn’t even count Hispanics in the Triangle in 1970, and now they make up a little more than 10 percent of the population of Wake, Durham and Orange counties.
Deck-Brown said 80 percent of the department’s recruiting efforts are geared toward hiring more women and racial minorities. Like its counterparts in Durham and Chapel Hill, it advertises on websites, radio stations and in publications that target people of color, as well as at community and sporting events and at women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue described the efforts as “targeted recruiting.”
“We go as far and as wide as possible, to colleges and community colleges, where people are seeking employment,” Blue said. “That’s coming back into fashion.”
Deck-Brown’s department has formed partnerships with area colleges. The department also looks for potential officers on military bases where retired soldiers may have an easier time working with a similar, paramilitary organization. Recruiters tout the city’s quality of life and its location between the beach and the mountains.
Still, the departments aren’t hitting their goals.
An uptick in the economy means young people have more career choices, Deck-Brown notes, and those interested in law enforcement have more options, including fields such as forensics, analytics and intelligence.
Among African-Americans, police departments must overcome the belief of many young people that police are an oppressive force, one with which they may have had bad experiences themselves. And many of those who are interested get tripped up by background checks, particularly criminal records, and written examinations.
“With our cadet classes, there is some minority representation,” said Durham city councilman Steve Schewel who reviews quarterly reports on recruiting from Chief Jose Lopez. “But a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic candidates are not passing the academic tests and they are not qualifying.”
Schewel said the community should be concerned because the tests are a problem.
“We need to make sure candidates can pass the test,” he said. “This is part of a larger problem for our schools and for our community. Our schools need to be educating people so they’re prepared to pass the tests. That’s a community effort. It’s not just on the teachers.”
Frequent stops erode trust
Durham hired its first African-American police officers in 1944, during a time of tension and unrest that mirrors what’s happening in many cities today.
African-American protests of segregation, police brutality and discrimination in Durham intensified during World War II, and boiled over in 1944 when a white city bus driver shot to death a black soldier who was stationed at nearby Camp Butner. Two hours after the shooting, fire roared through the city’s white-owned warehouse district, causing about a half million dollars in damage. No one was ever arrested.
Before the shooting, African-American leaders were already demanding the city hire black police officers because of instances of police brutality and a rising crime rate in some black neighborhoods. Those demands intensified after the shooting and arson, and police chief H.E. King soon hired the city’s first black officers, Clyde Cox and James B. Samuel, who were assigned to the city’s largest and most prominent black community in Hayti.
The department became fully integrated by the 1970s and since then has had four chiefs of color, three African-Americans and one Hispanic, Lopez, who joined the department in 2007. He points to his Hispanic heritage and a diverse police force as reasons why he thinks racial bias and profiling are not part of his department. Lopez has appeared monthly on a Spanish-language radio call-in program and oversaw the hiring of more Hispanic officers than at any time in the department’s history. There are now 24 Hispanic officers in the department.
But the chief’s critics said his patrol officers’ frequent traffic stops of blacks in high-crime areas eroded residents’ relationship with police, particularly among young African-American males.
According to a study by UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner, blacks accounted for nearly 60 percent of 21,939 traffic stops Durham officers made in 2014, even though blacks make up about 40 percent of the city’s population. An analysis of stops that resulted in a search between 2002 and 2013 shows that black males 19 and younger were nearly two times more likely to be searched after a stop than white males of the same age.
Police officials acknowledged the disparity but maintained it does not reflect bias or racial profiling. They attributed it to a high number of black drivers in high-crime areas where residents are also asking police for more help. The report and issues of bias, along with a rising crime rate, poor police-community relations and low morale led to Lopez’s forced ouster from the department.
In early September, City Manager Tom Bonfield met with Lopez and gave him three choices: to retire with notice, resign or be fired. Lopez, 61, opted to retire at the end of the year.
Durham’s record of traffic stops raised the ire of its residents, but a New York Times story in October showed that in Raleigh, blacks were 2.5 times more likely than whites to be targeted for police stops and searches. That’s a higher ratio than any other city in the state except Charlotte.
Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said the department was “looking into” the report, but he echoed the Durham police leaders. Raleigh police are making more traffic stops in high-crime areas that are predominantly African-American, Sughrue said, and the stops “had nothing to do with race bias or racial profiling.”
Kenneth Edmonds, publisher of the Carolina Times, a weekly, black-owned newspaper in Durham, says when his son reached elementary school in the 1990s, he started talking to him about how to behave if he ever encountered a police officer.
It’s always going to help if you’ve got people of color in the police department.
Kenneth Edmonds, publisher of the Carolina Times, a black-owned weekly newspaper in Durham
Edmonds noted that the lack of diversity in police departments across the country would have never come to light were it not for cell phone videos that captured deadly encounters between the police and African-American men and boys. He likens the cell phone videos to the news footage of the 1960s that made clear the mistreatment civil rights marchers endured at the hands of the police with fire hoses and billy clubs. Edmonds, too, is mindful of old stereotypes that cast African-Americans as “lazy, scheming and treacherous.” He says those stereotypes have been reinforced by elements of hip hop music that glorify gangs and violence. He thinks some police officers believe those images and approach black men with fear. He wanted to ensure his son “got off the side of the road after a police stop and back home alive.”
Edmonds thinks that an officer’s training and an inherent respect for the community is essential to avoiding unnecessary confrontations between police and young black men. But he says having more African-American officers on the streets makes a difference.
“It’s always going to help if you’ve got people of color in the police department,” he said. “People who have a personal connection with the people they’re supposed to deal with.”
News researchers Teresa Leonard and David Raynor contributed to this report.
How police departments stack up
% people of color