Police departments strive for cultural sensitivity, inside and outside | St. Louis Public Radio

Police departments strive for cultural sensitivity, inside and outside

May 10, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2010 - On a recent Tuesday afternoon, rows of St. Louis Police Academy recruits wearing blue T-shirts tucked into their cargo pants took notes and asked questions as Maria Teresa Maldonado introduced them to Casa de Salud, the new community health and wellness center for Hispanic immigrants.

Maldonado, who is vice chair of Casa de Salud, laid out the basics of the largely volunteer-run center that treats basic illnesses and injuries, refers patients to other health-care providers and offers a range of classes on health and fitness.

Standing with Maldonado at the front of the room was Lt. Mike Muxo, director of the St. Louis Police Academy and a fellow Puerto Rican. His message to the cadets, some of whom will come into regular contact with Hispanic residents once they are officers: "Think of this center as another resource you can direct people toward."

Maldonado's presentation was part of the academy's diversity training, which includes guest speakers representing religious and ethnic minorities.

Diversity is a word that's easily thrown around inside the walls of a police academy. But Muxo knows that when it comes to backing up the talk, all eyes are on the building next door. That's where officials at St. Louis Police Department headquarters make decisions about hiring and promotion, and where Col. Dan Isom, the city's chief of police, monitors the makeup of his police force.

According to data provided by the St. Louis Police Department, of the 1,343 police officers on staff, 55 percent are white males, 27 percent are black males, 9 percent are white females, 6 percent are black females, 2 percent are Asian, Hispanic or Native American males and less than 1 percent are Asian, Hispanic or Native American females.

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THE CASE FOR POLICE DIVERSITY

So, why does diversity matter? Sure, it's nice to say that your staff represents a cross section of society, but what are the practical reasons to have a range of black, white and Hispanic officers?

Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of crime and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said any large organization that serves the public should try to reflect the community it serves. It's particularly important for police, he said, "because they deal with the public often with respect to difficult questions of guilt and innocence, which makes it essential for the public to attribute legitimacy to the police department and have trust in them. Those goals are furthered when the department looks like the public."

Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer and now a program associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said it's important to have a police force that mirrors the population.

"It gives you a better chance to establish some level of trust that may not be there otherwise," said Hudson, who at the ACLU works on ways to improve police-community relations. "Having people of multiple religions, ethnicities and races ultimately makes for a stronger department that is more responsible to the community, and the community is more likely to be responsive to the police."

Isom said he agrees with that assessment. "When staffing different departments, especially patrol, we're conscious of the fact that we need to have a mix of people," Isom said. "Certainly there is some comfort in having people in an organization who look like you."

Added Eddie Simmons Jr., president of the Ethical Society of Police, a group of more than 200 black St. Louis Police officers: "When I call police, I'm not calling for a black officer or a white officer, but I'm saying that this man can relate to me better because he's like me [racially or ethnically]. It's just the way it works."

Mike Guzy, a spokesman for the St. Louis Sheriff's Department, a former St. Louis Police officer and a columnist for the Beacon, said it's often a matter of countering the perception of police homogeneity.

"If you have an all-black neighborhood and an all-white police, there could be that feeling of a lack of trust," Guzy said. "It's certainly easier to get community cooperation and get information from the community, which is vital to solving crime, if there's that element of trust. One way that happens is when people say, 'You kind of look like us.' That's not the only factor, and many diligent officers can develop cross-racial and cross-culture ties with the people they serve, but it helps to have a racial mix."

Added Muxo: "If you are raised a particular way, you can be more sympathetic to person's plight while still enforcing the law. You understand the family makeup and some of the subtle cultural nuances differently than someone who hasn't been exposed to that culture."

All of this raises the question of whether race influences officer behavior. The limited research available shows it doesn't, according to the seminal book "Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing," from the National Research Council of National Academies. 

The authors note that the small body of relevant studies shows "no credible evidence that officers of different racial or ethnic backgrounds perform differently during interactions with citizens simply because of race or ethnicity. ... The received wisdom is that whatever effect race may exert on behavior is overwhelmed by the unifying effects of occupational socialization."

The research does show that officers of different races have different knowledge about their neighborhoods, but these differences don't translate into significantly different patterns of behavior.

A national study of police from the late 1970s to the early 1990s cited in the book found that in large cities with a substantial number of minority officers, there were more arrest of whites but not minorities. In cities with predominantly white officers, there were more arrests of nonwhites but not whites.

The authors say that although most research suggests that an officer's race doesn't have a significant influence on police behavior, "this issue should be explored more fully by considering different contexts in which the officer's race might matter."

Then there's the question about what kind of staff composition is realistic. Maldonado, who is past chair of the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis, said law enforcement agencies should be measured by whether the ethnic and racial makeup of their staff matches up with census data for a community.

Rosenfeld said police departments are, in his experience, committed to equal opportunity, "which should result in reasonably diverse workforces. But I don't think anyone says there should be an exact correspondence between the police and the area they serve."

Muxo agreed that it's not necessarily about aiming to exactly mirror the population at large. "As a police agency, you try to have a diverse staff, but sometimes issues prevent you from getting a 1:1 ratio."

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Police Diversity Training

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Diversity in the police force is important, but it doesn't guarantee in and of itself that police officers can and will relate to diverse members of their community in a sensitive manner.  In St. Louis' police academy and as a part of in-service training, officers get instruction on issues such as racial profiling and handling potentially explosive situations in which race or ethnicity factor in a dispute.

The Richmond Heights Police Department, for instance, requires racial profiling sensitivity training as well as annual classes on bias profiling that covers religion, sex and age.

Still, the ACLU's Hudson said he's still concerned that the annual training on racial profiling is not enough and that rank-and-file police may see racial sensitivity training as a politically correct liability measure. "That totally misses the mark," he said, "because it's a fundamental training that deals with treating people equally."

Aftab Ahmad is a trainer who works with a range of law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, on how to approach Arab Americans and American Muslims in an investigation. He explains how the religious beliefs or cultural practices of, say, a Muslim woman might prevent her from allowing a male officer to frisk her or from allowing police to come into her home if her husband isn't there.

Ahmad went through U.S. Department of Justice training to be certified to teach people in law enforcement how to train their own employees. He is also a member of the Islamic Speakers Bureau, established in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to combat what it describes as misconceptions about Islam.

Departments with Muslims on staff are at an advantage when it comes to dealing with that population, Ahmad said. "Am I saying you must have a Muslim police officer so he or she can do security watches on mosques? Of course not. But why shouldn't there be a Muslim police presence? They would have a better understanding of the cultural norms and might be able to do training within their department." 

That sentiment is echoed by Muxo, who sees cultural sensitivity across ethnic and cutural borders as essential to good policing: "The more exposure [police trainees] have to the Bosnian community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community, to people in the lowest socioeconomic strata, the more likely they'll be well-adjusted whenever they are in a situation when they are with those groups."