The Missouri State Highway Patrol remains a predominantly white and male law enforcement agency. And efforts to change that reality haven’t made much headway over the last few years.
According to the most recent numbers, 94 percent of Missouri Highway Patrol troopers that are on the road are white. The percentage of minority troopers peaked in 1989 at 10 percent, but is now at 5.71 percent, with 2.6 percent being African-American.
And the Missouri Highway Patrol also lacks gender diversity: 5 percent of its officers on the road are women.
Patrol officials say they want a force that can partner with minorities across the state. That’s especially important as police-involved killings in Ferguson and St. Louis drew national attention, and placed a focus on the strained relationships between police and law enforcement.
“People get the idea that we’re out here writing tickets or we’re going to Ferguson or other (areas of) civil unrest,” said Patrol recruitment director Roger Whittler. “Most of our officers are out there taking a drunk driver off the road every night while we’re sleeping – that’s our bread and butter.”
Reasons behind the numbers
Whittler points to several reasons why the Missouri Highway Patrol is largely white and male.
Whittler said minority and female applicants are more likely to drop out of the Highway Patrol academy before graduation. One possible reason why is that up until this year, he said, the patrol’s mentoring program didn’t require mentors to spend time with recruits in person. It does now.
Whittler also said most African-American recruits prefer to live and work close to their hometowns, which is not guaranteed with the Missouri Highway Patrol.
“We’ve historically seen the need to assign people anywhere in the state, so that has a different impact sometimes on minorities,” he said. “Because a lot of our black populations are located in Kansas City, St. Louis, southeast Missouri.”
That hasn’t been the only obstacle. Whittler said some law enforcement agencies enforced a system of racial segregation throughout the 20th century, which engendered distrust between the police and black residents.
“Historically, law enforcement was the front line in some of the practices in the early civil rights era that maintained the status quo,” he said. “So when we try to improve on equality and inclusiveness, it does take time.”
Jeffrey Mittman with the Missouri chapter of the ACLU said that distrust is reinforced today. He points to police-involved killings in Ferguson and across the country, as well as a yearly report showing Missouri police departments struggling to reduce profiling of black motorists.
“African-Americans are stopped, searched, (and) arrested more often than whites, so what I’m saying is, there is a context of unequal policing,” Mittman said. “We know there are data and studies as well that show that there are biases in individuals, cultural biases, systematic biases, and in organizations.”
Missouri isn’t the only state that’s struggling to diversify its state police agency.
Nearly 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is African-American, while 7 percent of state troopers there are listed as minorities. In Louisiana, nearly a third of the population is black; 16 percent of state troopers are African-American.
Chris Burbank is the former police chief of Salt Lake City and now works for the Center for Policing Equity, which advocates connecting racial minorities and women to careers in law enforcement.
He said instances of police officers killing black people are making it more difficult to get African-Americans to join state law enforcement agencies.
“If you are looking for a job in an organization, you go to (their) web page (and) you look and you see who is in the command structure,” he said. “If that command structure doesn’t represent you as an individual, or you don’t feel that it’s representative of what your values, your belief, (or) your identity is, well you’re not thinking you’re going to get very far in that organization.”
When it comes to hiring women, Burbank said it doesn’t help that most police recruitment videos reinforce gender stereotypes.
“Mostly you see male officers engaged in SWAT, and tactics, and canine, and rescue-type of situations,” he said. “And then they show female officers more in officer-friendly (situations), engaging with the public sort of thing, so we tend to be a little sexist in how we advertise (to women).”
Whittler of the Missouri Highway Patrol said it’ll take time for his agency to put more female and minority state troopers on the road. He said officials with the Highway Patrol are making efforts to reach out to black churches and women’s organizations.
Adolphus Pruitt, who heads the St. Louis NAACP, said the Highway Patrol should set up a training program that gets minorities in high school and college interested in law enforcement. He said a similar program has been held in St. Louis the past two years.
“Those individuals were exposed, from a cultural standpoint, to other black officers who spent a considerable amount of time, their own time, talking with them, helping them prepare for the (police) academy,” Pruitt said.
The Missouri Highway Patrol recently hosted two youth training camps in Poplar Bluff and Dittmer. Both towns are in mostly white rural parts of the state, and the training camps didn’t specifically target African-American communities. But Whittler said the Highway Patrol provided free transportation to participants from majority-black residential areas in metro St. Louis and the Missouri Bootheel.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport