The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where minority communities still have overwhelmingly white police

Police officers keep watch while demonstrators protest the death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 12, 2014. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

There is something unsettling about the scenes this week out of Ferguson, Mo., that goes beyond the rare sight of military equipment on city streets or the disproportionate deployment of it. In so many of these images, the unarmed residents are black. But almost all of the officers facing them are white.

The fatal police shooting Saturday of an unarmed black teen that set off these confrontations in a St. Louis suburb has raised questions not just about the conduct of one officer, but the makeup of an entire police force. How could a community that's two-thirds black have a police force that's almost entirely white? How could such divisions ubiquitous in the 1960s persist in 2014?

Across the country, this racial imbalance is not rare. Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement called attention to the under-representation of minorities in police departments, the pattern is still widespread. More than three quarters of cities on which the Census Bureau has collected data have a police presence that's disproportionately white relative to the local population. Meanwhile, in more than 40 percent of cities, blacks are under-represented among police officers, a Washington Post analysis of Census data revealed.

While the pattern is widespread, broad variations exist. The charts below show which cities have the greatest and smallest disparities between population and police.

These numbers are more encompassing than a mere count of officers in a municipal police department. From the point of view of residents in each community, they reflect the larger police presence one might encounter.

The center line in each chart represents equality — or how we might expect a police force to look if it perfectly reflected the demographics of the city it serves. Non-Hispanic white representation in most cities is above this line; in other words, the share of white police officers in Memphis or Charlotte is higher than the share of whites living in those cities. If we count cities within five percentage points of that line as having relative equality, just one in 10 cities and towns in America meets that standard.

If we look at the data from the perspective of black officers, about 45 percent of cities and towns meet this definition of equality. That number, though, is largely driven by cities with few or no black officers but also very small black populations. Remove cities where less than 5 percent of the population is black, and 72 percent of all such places — 446 in total — have police forces where blacks are under-represented. In the 609 communities where Hispanics make up at least 5 percent of the population, they are under-represented among police as well in 66 percent of places.

Even the best intentions by police departments won't automatically create perfect equality because city demographics shift over time — in some places more rapidly than others. The Department of Justice, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits against discriminatory local agencies since the 1970s, has historically looked at demographic data like this, along with hiring and recruiting practices.

It is striking on the above charts, however, that many of America's biggest cities are hovering more closely around equality than others. These are the same cities where fierce battles were fought and federal lawsuits waged over unequal hiring practices after 1972, when amendments to the Civil Rights Act extended protection from discrimination to state and local government employers.

"Politicians realized that they couldn’t have an all-white police force in a city with a substantial minority population," says Richard Ugelow, who worked on such lawsuits in the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ for 29 years. "That changed the culture of the police departments and the willingness of law enforcement, police and fire departments to become more diverse. You see that in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, in these large cities. They want to have a diverse workforce. You don’t have those same pressures in these smaller communities."

The public outcry and federal pressure that made such inequality so visible in Chicago — prompting dramatic change there — hasn't historically extended to places like Ferguson, a suburb of 21,000 with 53 commissioned police officers. "It's hard for the government to bring a lawsuit," Ugelow says, "against a police force of 100 people."

The above charts show many places with either all-white or no-black police forces. Many of them are smaller cities, such as Niagara Falls, N.Y., where 20 percent of the population is black but all 250 police are white, according to the data. In Florissant, Mo., a quarter of the population is black, but none of the 25 police are.

Some seemingly unequal communities have also experienced demographic shifts that have exacerbated the imbalance between the police presence and the population. Ferguson is an example of such a place: In 1990, the city was almost three-quarters white. By 2010, it was two-thirds black. Its police force today may in some ways be a legacy of the makeup and policies of an earlier moment of time.

Ugelow doubts that the picture above is the result of intentional discrimination today — "blacks need not apply." But some of the same historic practices and applicant tests that effectively excluded minorities may still exist in departments that never updated their policies. During the recession, small-town police agencies that have had to cut resources may have trimmed the HR staffs and recruitment programs that address this issue. Ugelow also worries that, since the Bush Administration, the DOJ has eased up on its civil rights litigation.

Historically, the issue of inequality in police departments has focused on the relationship between blacks and whites. But as the country's Hispanic population continues to grow, communities have to take into account demographic patterns that encompass more than white and black. In San Antonio, for instance, blacks and whites only account for one-third of the local population, and a slightly higher proportion of the police; Hispanics make up 63 percent of the population, and 58 percent of the police.

As a note, the data above draws from a special 2010 Census count of workers in 755 cities and towns, including every place with a population of at least 50,000 at that time. Once a decade, the Census creates this employment file for federal agencies that monitor employment practices and enforce civil rights laws. The data include the number and demographics of police officers — counting police and sheriff's patrol officers, and transit and railroad police — working in each city. The data do not include detectives, security guards or parking enforcement officers.

This post has been updated to include further data about black and Hispanic police representation.