Percentage of African-Americans in U.S. Police Departments Remains Flat Since 2007

Ben Kesling and Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2015

The percentage of African-Americans in U.S. police departments has remained flat since before the recession, even as police hiring of other minorities has increased, according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey released Thursday.

A lack of black officers, especially in communities with large African-American populations, has been cited frequently in the wake of police-involved deaths of black residents that sparked riots in cities from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore in the past year.

Black officers make up just 12% of all local police officers, the survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed. The overall U.S. black population is 13.2%, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.


The survey by the bureau, part of the U.S. Justice Department, is the first of its kind since 2007 and measures data gathered through 2013. The report didn’t break down minority numbers or percentages by individual departments, but officials said they would release more detailed data in the coming weeks.

The survey shows that the total number of sworn police officers at more than 12,000 local departments across the U.S. in 2013 was 477,000.

About 58,000 black officers were working in the U.S. in 2013, compared to about 55,000 in 2007, but the percentage of black officers as a share of the total number of police remained flat at about 12%.

Experts say distrust of police by African-Americans and the inability of many young blacks to pass police background checks and application tests have made it hard for departments to recruit more black officers.

Nelson Lim, a researcher at the Rand Corp., saw those factors at work when he consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department. He said the Los Angeles force–which was under a federal consent decree to diversify and was legally allowed to use race as a factor in hiring–still couldn’t achieve its goals.

“That’s how hard it is,” he said. “It starts out with supply. The first issue is whether minorities and women want to be cops.” said Mr. Lim, who added blacks may ask themselves “’Why would I want to join an organization that is known for not being friendly to people like me?’”

The survey showed that the total percentage of minority officers nationally has increased, rising to 27.3% in 2013 compared to 25.3% in 2007, thanks to an increase in the numbers of both Hispanic and Asian officers. The percentage of Hispanic officers alone rose from 10.3% in 2007 to 11.6% in 2013, almost matching the percentage of black officers nationwide.

Black candidates face several hurdles, including written tests that may not be culturally neutral or are simply outdated, the experts say. Extensive background checks, credit checks and mental-health checks also tend to reduce black recruits, since poverty and its attendant problems hit blacks more than whites and other ethnic groups, according to Ms. Kringen.


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