The recent debacle in Ferguson, Missouri is a case study in why diversity in hiring is important, especially when it comes to public safety. The images coming out of Ferguson in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown look less like an US neighborhood and more like an overseas warzone, with a police force equipped with military weapons and vehicles and a paramilitary approach to match. It is clearly an “us versus them” mentality as citizens frustrated with the situation and state of their community exercise their First Amendment right to free speech. Each botched decision made by local law enforcement to defuse the situation has only escalated the persistent tensions.
A story published by Bloomberg earlier this week quoted one official who blamed the ongoing violent disturbances on the agency’s inexperience and a “chasm in relations between officers and the community.” A chasm is an excellent metaphor to describe the divide. It’s been widely reported that the Ferguson police force’s lack of diversity is egregious. Of the 53 officers on the force, four are Black. And while the town has a population of 67 percent African-Americans, Blacks make-up 86 percent of vehicle stops by police.
Although Missouri Governor Jay Nixon assigned the Highway Patrol and that agency’s Captain Ronald Johnson, an African-American from Ferguson, to take over the command of the city, the images of a compassionate commander were lost in a sea of images illustrating the “Don’t Shoot” mantra of the protest: community members of all ages with both hands raised, the sign of submission to authority and, according to some witnesses, Michael Brown’s posture before six bullets were discharged into his body.
Ferguson will be a case study for all law enforcement, Walt Allen said to me in a recent conversation. Walt has spent his adult life in law enforcement, working undercover for the Justice Department, then leading California’s Youth Authority, and now heading the Rio Honda Police Academy. He said building a police force that reflects the community it is sworn to serve and protect is something that has to be addressed well before there is a problem. Walt, who was at one time one of the highest ranking African-American law enforcement appointees in the state, in his current role as police academy director believes that even at the training level, new recruits need to learn from a diverse faculty.
The lack of racial diversity within the Ferguson Police Department matches the lack of diversity of thought after avoidable mistakes were made in from the release of a video implicating Michael Brown in a “snatch and grab” incident before the shooting to the suppressing paramilitary policing tactics that have only incited more defiance and protests.
Over a decade ago, the staff of our newspaper worked closely with the recruitment team of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on a diversity initiative. Our goal was to attract more African-Americans to apply for jobs in the department. As we engaged in community forums we realized that the historic lack of trust between both groups – the Black community and law enforcement – created roadblocks to hiring that we didn’t anticipate. While we intellectually understood the reasons for the mistrust, we thought the practical need for good paying jobs in our community would take precedence.
During that time we worked closely with Sgt. Shelley Kennedy-Smith, now Chief Deputy Kennedy-Smith, the highest-ranking African-American woman in the agency’s 121-year history. In an interview discussing the diversity recruitment effort we published 10 years ago, she identified the roadblocks in hiring that she has worked an entire career to overcome. Perceptions from both groups have made diversifying local police forces difficult. Unfortunately her observations made over a decade ago, continue to ring true with most agencies across the country. A 2007 Department of Justice survey of local police departments found that national average for all police was 75 percent White. A statistic that we should all find quite troubling and the law enforcement community and our civic leaders across the country should be working to change.
Over the next few weeks we will be talking to local law enforcement leaders as well as working with the Riverside NAACP on a series of community based events to find solutions to this problem and related issues, so that we do not repeat the errors of Ferguson here in the Inland Empire. We look forward to hearing more from all of you as we work together to make our communities even better places to live with opportunity for all.
To subscribe to my weekly blog Rants & Raves visit theievoice.com/category/publishers-note/rants-raves/ or follow me on twitter @mygoldenstate.