When police departments don’t look like the cities they’re meant to protect


Police officers patrol a street in Ferguson, Missouri August 11, 2014. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson where the working-class, majority-black population has been clashing with law enforcement for the last three days has 53 commissioned police officers.

According to the city’s police chief, three of them are black.

These numbers matter not just for the terrible optics of white officers clutching tear gas canisters opposite black residents shouting back. They speak to a fundamental problem rooted deep in history and driving the perception of injustice in Ferguson today: This community isn’t represented in its own institutions of power.

For many decades, this was true in cities all over the country. Blacks were systematically excluded from good government jobs, civil service roles and their most visible ranks on police and fire forces — first through outright discrimination, then through more devious means. Police and fire departments in particular found all kinds of ways to block minorities, inviting lawsuits and the repeated scrutiny of the Department of Justice.

They required that applicants take cognitive tests wholly unrelated to the work of police and firemen. Or they never solicited applications at all, passing jobs instead on to people who were part of the personal and family networks of men already in the department. Or they required applicants to demonstrate know-how with technical equipment they'd never seen before because they didn't have friends on the force.

Lyndon Johnson's Kerner Commission following the race riots of the 1960s diagnosed this very problem as one contributor to the era's urban unrest. Cities, the commission recommended, needed to actively recruit blacks to their police forces. The dual premise here seems fairly self-evident now: It's harder to police a community when the police force doesn't reflect it. And it's harder for residents to trust the intentions and outcomes of a justice system that doesn't reflect them.

And yet, such scenarios still exist in many places, including Ferguson. Last year, the Urban Institute and Todd Gardner, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies, compiled a brilliant historic dataset comparing the demographics of U.S. cities to the makeup of the civil servants who serve them. Historically, from Cleveland to Birmingham to San Jose, we see minorities underrepresented in higher-paying, more powerful public sector jobs like police officer, while they're overrepresented in low-wage government jobs like janitor.

These patterns have narrowed since the 1960s, but in some cities, particularly in the Midwest, minorities actually appear to be falling behind again. This graph from that analysis shows that high-wage local government jobs (at right) in the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas were disproportionately held by whites 60 years ago. As you can see below, a ratio above one indicates groups that are overrepresented in local government jobs relative to their share of the general population locally:

This data, based on American Community Survey microdata that's not publicly available, combines all local government jobs, including teachers, lawyers, secretaries and agency heads. Police officers aren't identified separately in the analysis, but they're counted as high-earning jobs. You can see what the picture looks like more locally to metropolitan St. Louis below (you can look up other individual metros here):


Metropolitan St. Louis. Courtesy of the Urban Institute

Non-whites in metropolitan St. Louis have been far overrepresented in low-paying civil service jobs. And their representation among high-paying ones has fallen well below what we might expect given the demographics of the local community.

These trends help explain why blacks repeatedly show greater distrust of public institutions like police departments and court systems, as my colleague Aaron Blake wrote yesterday. Recent Pew Research data, for example, suggest that 70 percent of blacks feel that they are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police (only 37 percent of whites agree with this). A 2013 Gallup poll found that just 38 percent of blacks say they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police (for whites, the number is 60 percent).

"It's sad," someone commented to me yesterday about Ferguson, "that we don't see this kind of community anger every time a child dies" — as if there were some equivalence between one black teen shooting another, and one black teen shot by a law enforcement officer. This misses the deeper grievance. Ferguson isn't merely reacting to the shooting of Michael Brown; it's reacting to the shooting of Michael Brown by someone who represents an institution of power that's supposed to protect the public.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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