Kara Carlson, Fraser Allan Best and Andrea Jaramillo Valencia

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017

Repercussions: How does lack of diversity affect policing?

Arizona police departments don’t always reflect the racial diversity of the communities they serve, but experts disagree on the degree to which that makes a difference.

More than 70 percent of Americans believe police departments should have a similar racial composition to the communities they serve, according to a poll conducted for “Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform .”

However, some research shows that adding more minority officers to a police force isn’t a panacea to improving community relations and stopping behavior such as racial profiling because there isn’t a strong correlation between officer race and how they treat people. Other studies dispute those findings.

But most experts agree on one thing: Large disparities between a department’s diversity and that of the community can have “symbolic effects” – such as diminishing trust and confidence in police. Experts also say diversity could help overcome language barriers and perception problems.

Ray A. Ybarra Maldonado, a Phoenix-based immigration and civil rights lawyer, said police departments need to recruit more people of color because personal experiences and deeper cultural understanding could help improve relationships with the community.

“It’s not gonna solve the problem,” he said. “It is not the solution to the problem, but there are a lot of benefits that a person of color can bring in any workforce environment.”

While 44 percent of Arizonans are non-white, non-whites are underrepresented among officers in nearly every Arizona police department represented in a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, according to a Cronkite News analysis of the data, the latest available.

That imbalance may be one reason tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve have increased in recent years.

“We have a terrible relationship in Arizona between the police, law enforcement and communities of color,” Ybarra Maldonado said. “People are very leery of the police. They’re actually afraid of the police, and it’s something that we definitely need to work on here in Arizona.”

(Video by Andrea Jaramillo Valencia)

Studies show ‘socialization’ plays larger role in police action

Forty-six percent of Arizona voters believe police treat people differently based on the civilian’s race, according to a 2016 Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News survey .

But some experts say it’s not necessarily the officer’s race that makes a difference during interactions.

John Shjarback, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at El Paso, has researched the link between officer diversity and community relations. He found that simply increasing diversity in a police force did not solve a lot of policing-related problems.

He said research has shown no relationship between an officer’s race and how they treat members of the public.

Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University professor and sociologist specializing in criminology, wrote in an journal article that socialization has more influence on how officers behave.

“It’s really not the race of the officer that makes a difference, but it’s their occupational identity,” he told Cronkite News. He said all police graduates tend to adopt a uniform identity, and all police must enforce the same laws.

However, another recent study that examined uses of force in seven police departments across the country found that white officers used greater force on black suspects than they did on white suspects.

The study, co-authored by Arizona State University Professor William Terrill, suggests possible bias on the part of white officers. However, it “by no means proves it,” according to the university.

“This is not, in any way, to say that police officers are ‘racist,’ but it is to say that race cannot be dismissed,” Terrill said in an ASU news article.

The study acknowledges that increasing diversity is not an end-all solution: “In all, though, hiring more black officers is not a panacea for the ills plaguing police departments serving minority communities.”

Even when a police department does more closely reflect the community, it does not necessarily ease community tension and reduce racial profiling.

In Baltimore, black officers make up 42 percent of the force, well above the national average. Still, a 2016 report by the U.S. Justice Department found the city had widespread problems resulting in people of color disproportionately being stopped, searched and arrested.

The city’s black residents comprise 63 percent of the city, but account for 86 percent of all criminal offenses. The report also found that 44 percent of unjust stops were made in two primarily black neighborhoods, which only housed about 11 percent of Baltimore’s population.

Some examples indicated that even when a police department does more closely reflect the community, it does not necessarily ease community tension and reduce racial profiling. (Photo by Charlene Santiago/Cronkite News)

Some Arizona residents agree with studies indicating officer race makes little difference and say adding more diversity in law enforcement won’t change much – but for different reasons.

Frankie Tso, a Navajo who lives in Flagstaff, was 17 when he had his first encounter with police. He said a Flagstaff officer stopped him as he walked home from a friend’s house and told him he fit the description of someone who stole a 30-pack of beers from Safeway.

“I was scared because I’ve seen videos of people just getting brutalized for like, little stupid things,” Tso said. “I don’t feel safe around the police. Nobody here feels safe around the police.”

White officers make up nearly 88 percent of the Flagstaff Police Department, according to the department’s latest annual report. But for Tso, it doesn’t matter what the officer looks like: He doesn’t trust police.

“A cop is a cop,” Tso said. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s like a black cop, a white cop, a Native cop.”

Experts: ‘Blue’ culture, training, laws need to change

For some officers, stepping into a uniform shifts their loyalties.

Ronald L. Davis, former director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice, said minority officers sometimes fall into the “blue culture.” He said this can negate the improvements hiring more diverse officers may bring.

“You’ll hear the phrase: You’re not black now, you’re a cop that happens to be black,” Davis said.