Police departments in the metro suburbs remain mostly white even as people of color have come to represent nearly half — or more — of some communities’ populations.
State estimates project that nonwhites will represent a quarter of Minnesota’s population by 2035. Yet in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, where whites are already less than half the population, the police departments have stayed nearly 90 percent white. The cities are far from outliers among their suburban peers.
Attention to how police reflect their communities has taken on a renewed urgency both in the Twin Cities and nationally, most recently after the Nov. 15 police shooting of Jamar Clark in north Minneapolis.
A recent federal survey of law enforcement agencies around the country found 27 percent of full-time officers to be people of color, but that number was just 11 percent for the 65 Minnesota departments polled. A look at the metro’s suburbs reveals an even deeper divide: A Star Tribune analysis of about two dozen suburban police departments found that 94 percent of their full-time, sworn officers were white.
“It reinforces the notion that in many of our racially diverse communities, police departments operate more like an occupying force than as a group that focuses on protecting and serving,” Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said.
Some police chiefs say the numbers reflect the composition of their applicant pools, highlighting the need to attract junior and high school students to a profession now under the microscope for community relations. But elsewhere in the metro, others have taken steps that they say have diversified their forces in little time.
Struggling to reflect, recruit
Police officers who are ethnic minorities totaled in the single digits at most suburban departments included in recent data, even as their communities have become more comparable to those of Minneapolis (22 percent nonwhite officers, 40 percent nonwhite residents) and St. Paul (17 percent nonwhite officers, 46 percent nonwhite residents).
This is true in cities like Richfield, which is just 59 percent white, but where 40 of its police department’s 43 sworn officers are white. In Fridley, where 39 of its 41 officers are white despite policing a population that is nearly a third nonwhite, its police chief says it’s been a challenge to find minority officers to hire.
“It is extremely difficult for police departments to accurately reflect the demographics of our communities when the applicant pool is not representative of the community,” said Brian Weierke, Fridley’s director of public safety.
How those applicant pools break down is unclear. The state’s licensing agency said it tracks the gender of those issued licenses, but not race. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, citing federal and state reporting requirements, said it also collects data only on officers’ genders.
A presidential task force on community policing recommended this year that all law enforcement agencies begin making demographic information available to the public. The data, the report said, should be collected “so communities can assess the diversity of their departments and do so in a national context.”
Going to take time
Kevin Whitlock, director of the public safety program at St. Cloud State University, recommends reaching out to communities of color by recruiting students before they hit high school. But, he conceded, recent breakdowns in police-community relations may make law enforcement a tough sell to some.
“It’s almost like we’ve just taken two to three steps back,” Whitlock said.
In Burnsville, in the south metro, people of color grew to more than a quarter of the city’s population by 2013, but its police department’s full-time officers stayed 97 percent white. Police Chief Eric Gieseke said the challenge of diversifying goes beyond police departments. “It’s a community issue,” he said.
Gieseke said the department targets kids through programs in the city’s schools and offers to assign officers as mentors — something he said influenced his decision to be a cop while in seventh grade.
“That’s going to take a lot of time, but I think we have to be willing to invest in that,” Gieseke said.
Brooklyn Center is one of six departments in a program that includes having an officer liaison for multicultural communities. Chief Tim Gannon said such efforts can attract minorities to the department’s cadet program, which pays and trains one or two officers at a time until they are eligible for full-time positions. He said the program now has one Hmong cadet and another of East African descent. But Gannon must also contend with the pull of the larger Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments.
“You fight for the resources, you fight for the quality candidates,” Gannon said. “It’s a struggle that we have.”
It can be done
William Blair Anderson became St. Cloud’s first black police chief in 2012, years after being hired by the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office through a minority internship program.
Today, Anderson is tasked with diversifying a department where just six of 97 full-time officers in 2013 were from minority communities.
Soon after he took the reins of the Metro Transit Police Department in 2012, John Harrington said he modified its hiring practices. Written exams put at a disadvantage people for whom English was a second language. Background checks hurt those whose poor credit scores may be the product of trying to be the sole source of a family’s income.
“Let’s look at why we’re eliminating people,” Harrington said. “I don’t want to eliminate people because they don’t fit the suburban norm.”
Harrington said the department’s latest class of 13 new full-time officers brought staffing levels to more than a third people of color, and more than half speak at least two languages.
With continued population shifts on the horizon, a failure to act could have broader consequences later, Anderson added.
Levy-Pounds seems to agree with Harrington’s approach of taking a close look at how departments hire officers.
“It’s going to be difficult if you keep the same hiring policies and practices in place to be prepared for the changing face of America — which is already here,” she said.
Harrington said change is likely to be incremental at suburban departments that don’t hire large groups of officers each year. But, he said, Metro Transit police’s approach still applies throughout the metro.
“I don’t think there’s anything that we did that couldn’t be done by another police organization,” Harrington said.