ONCE UPON A DECADE there was a police department in this city that was much whiter than the residents it served. Many times, the residents and the police didn't get along all the well. Experts on police-community relations suggested that more blacks be recruited. They were, and today 49 percent of the officers are black, including the chief. That's the highest total percentage of minority officers on any major-city police department. What's more, those officers get to say where in the city they'd rather work; and in most instances they're assigned to one of their three preferred choices among seven districts in the city. Sound reasonable?
Not everyone thinks so. A report issued by the D.C. auditor says there is a "racial imbalance" in the department: It seems that more black officers have wound up serving the predominantly black districts, while the largest percentage of white officers is working in the predominantly white area west of Rock Creek Park. Never mind that some of those officers made special requests to be where they are because they grew up in those neighborhoods or have lived in them. Presumably we're also supposed to overlook the fact that the auditor, Matthew S. Watson, does not find any "conscious" official discrimination within the department in district or work assignment. He simply finds the "imbalance" to be "unacceptable."
So Mr. Watson recommends that the chief randomly select and transfer officers to and fro until the statistics even out. But as Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson responds, "Without rhyme or reason . . . the report effectively taints the acknowledged, record achievements of this department, and would serve to undermine, at least in the public's view, the department's non-discriminatory employment practices as well as the department's affirmative-action programs."
True, the report does point to some legitimate problems. For example, Mr. Watson says that interviews indicated that some black officers feel uncomfortable in the predominantly white district and sense they don't have an opportunity for advancement there. If so, that is a matter for top officials to fix - not just by reassigning officers but by demanding fair conduct by everyone in that district. Mr. Watson also has found that too many female officers (the department has the second highest percentage of women officers among major-city forces) are assigned to stationhouse duty - and there does seem to be a department-wide discrepancy: Though women represent 10 percent of the officers in the seven districts, they represent 25 percent of the stationhouse personnel. Here again, however, it turns out that those positions are filled out in the main from applications, and that women seem to be requesting those jobs to a greater extent than men.
So how far do you play the numbers game when nobody's claiming racial or sexual discrimination " Should the department constantly shift officers around to ensure that the same percentage of women is in the homicide branch as in the consumer fraud unit? There comes a point of silly returns for all involved, and the auditor's report has surely reached it.