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Fuel In The Ferguson Fire: Racial Makeup Of Police Force Makes A Difference

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

In the days of protests that have followed the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, one fact has been repeated over and over again: Of the 50 or so police officers on the Ferguson Police Department, just three are African-American.

That means a majority white police force patrols a community that, according to the 2012 census estimates, is two-thirds black. 

"I’ve been trying to increase the diversity of the department since I got here,” Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson said at a press conference on Wednesday. “I did promote the first two African-American supervisors on the police department. It’s a constant struggle to hire and retain personnel. So we’ve tried to improve the quality of life in the police department through training, equipment, pay, things like that.”

But Jackson admitted that he was caught off guard by the explosion of tensions.

“We’ve always had a real good relationship with the neighborhood association,” he said. “Apparently, there’s been this undertow that has now bubbled to the service, and now it’s our priority to fix it, to address what’s wrong.”

Why is diversity so important in policing? Would things be different in Ferguson if the department looked more like the city?

The answer is yes, according Nick Theobald. He’s an associate at Mission Analytics, a government contractor that does policy analysis for social service agencies.

What The Research Shows

As a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2006, Theobald researched “symbolic representation” — the idea that attitudes toward an authority figure can change even if that authority figure takes no action other than being an authority figure.

Theobald used a national survey of individuals who had some kind of interaction by the police, such as being pulled over for a traffic violation. One question asked whether the person considered the police action legitimate.

Theobald wanted to know whether the race of the officer and the race of person stopped contributed to whether the civilian considered the operation legitimate.

“Our results suggest that symbolic representation does in fact occur in the context of citizen encounters with police,” Theobald and his co-author wrote in 2008. “Blacks are more likely to perceive police actions as being legitimate if there were black officers present. Additionally, it appears that white drivers are more likely to perceive police actions as being legitimate if there are only white officers present.”

The nature of policing — the ability to take away rights — makes legitimacy important, Theobald said. It’s especially important when law enforcement has to resort to violence, as they have in Ferguson.

If the residents don't know the officers, and they're only seeing them when they're being harassed, they don't really have a reason to trust them. So, the communication factor is broken down and there's no way you can have a positive interaction when things like this occur.

But appearances alone don’t create trust between the community and police department, said David Sklansky of Stanford University. The internal dynamics of the police department are also important.

"Research suggests that as departments get more diverse, the police are less monolithic in their viewpoints, there’s more debate and discussion inside the department, the department is less likely to have an us versus them mentality toward the community and more likely to build bridges toward the community," he said.

What Those On The Ground Say

Protestors outside the police department in Ferguson agreed that the make-up of a police department can change the way a city views the police.

But they came to different conclusions about the best way to develop that trust.

Diversity is the most important thing, said the blogger who goes by the name Chavo and writes about race. He noted that white Americans in general, including police, don’t understand what it’s like to automatically be considered a threat because of the color of your skin.

“When I have been pulled over by white police officers, they are usually very aggressive, and they do come off as pretty intimidating,” he said.

But 30-year-old Ronnie Notch, an African-American Florissant resident, said he believed that officers who live in the community will understand a community better, regardless if they are black or white.

Notch said, as a kid, he would get baseball cards from the officers patrolling Hanley Hills.

“If the residents don’t know the officers, and they’re only seeing them when they’re being harassed, they don’t really have a reason to trust them. So, the communication factor is broken down and there’s no way you can have a positive interaction when things like this occur,” he said.

Tom Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, said he is working with the Department of Justice to improve community relations.

“I’ve told them, Tell me what to do and we’ll do it,'” he said. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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