Detroit area police struggle to boost minority ranks
Detroit — Class 2019-B graduated last week from the Detroit Police Academy, trading blue training dungarees for Class A navy uniforms — but some are concerned about the number of white officers who’ll soon be patrolling a predominantly black city.
At least 10 of the 19 new officers are white, reflecting a recent trend of more Caucasians joining Detroit’s police force, which is about 55% black, down from 61% in 2015.
Critics say police departments that don’t reflect the demographic makeup of the communities they serve can lose citizens’ trust, and they’re pressuring Metro Detroit police chiefs to hire more minorities.
But police officials and other law enforcement experts insist there’s a shortage of qualified job candidates of any race, and that the pool of minorities seeking police jobs is particularly scarce.
The dearth of minorities joining police departments is caused by historically low unemployment rates among blacks and Hispanics, lower salaries and pensions for public employees, and the bad reputation police have among many African-Americans, law enforcement experts say.
"It's unfair that a lot of police chiefs, both here in Metro Detroit and across the country, are being called racist because there aren't as many minorities on their departments as some would like," said Darnell Blackburn, a black former police officer who is director of "Be The Change," an initiative that aims to attract more minorities to law enforcement.
"I can tell you: I work with a number of departments that are trying to hire minorities, but it's easier said than done," said Blackburn, who also works as a field representative for the Michigan Coalition on Law Enforcement Standards, which sets training standards for the state's police departments.
The issue of minority hiring was raised recently when the "Call 'Em Out Coalition" gave Detroit police Chief James Craig a "Sambo Award." The group's director, African American activist Agnes Hitchcock, told The Detroit News that Craig "lords over a police department that’s only 55% black and dropping, so he deserves that award.”
Craig insisted he's doing everything he can to try to attract more qualified African American candidates to better represent the 83% of Detroit residents who are black — "but we can't just force people to want to be the police," he said.
"This is a concept I've embraced since I got into law enforcement," Craig said. "I was the product of rapid integration of the police department by (former Mayor) Coleman Young when I was hired in 1977, and I thought that was a good thing.
"I understand that it's important for a police department to reflect the community it serves, and we're doing our best to do that," Craig said. "Our first priority is first and foremost to hire the best candidates available, no matter what their race — but at the same time, we do want our department to look like the community."
Sam Riddle, who emceed the March 21 ceremony in which Craig was given the "Sambo Award," questioned the chief's claim that there aren't enough qualified minority candidates.
"You're telling me you can't find enough black people to become police officers in America's blackest city? If you look me in the eye and try to tell me that, I'll call it 'bull----,'" he said.
"The candidates are out there, but you have to go out and recruit them," Riddle said. "You can't sit around and wait for them to come to you. It's not that everyone in the black community is smoking dope and can't pass a drug test. That's an excuse. The police just need to get creative."
Riddle suggested Detroit police conduct outreach programs in the city's schools, and tap recently discharged military veterans to recruit minority candidates — but Detroit police officials said those initiatives are already in place.
"We have a magnet school at (Detroit's University Preparatory Academy) with a specific concentration on law enforcement," First Assistant Chief Lashinda Stair said. "One of our former lieutenants is teaching that curriculum. We do a lot of work in the schools."
Craig added his department also is trying to hire military veterans. "That's a good source of possible candidates," he said. "We're trying to think out of the box."
Stair said Detroit's police department is 56.3% African American, with 37.4% white, 5.1% Hispanic, and 1.2% classified as "other."
"To say we're not trying to hire more African Americans is simply not true," Craig said. "But the lack of candidates isn't just a Detroit problem — it's everywhere."
Also facing criticism: Michigan State Police. Only 11% of state troopers are black, which is a few ticks below Michigan's black population of about 13%.
"We're having trouble hiring people across the board, not just minorities," MSP Lt. Michael Shaw said. "When the economy is good like it is now, we can’t force people to sign up."
Shaw agreed a negative perception about the profession causes many African Americans to pass on police jobs.
"That anti-police sentiment we're seeing isn't helping," he said. "Why would someone want to go into law enforcement when they see it's a profession that's constantly criticized?
"When we go to community meetings and other places trying to recruit minorities, we talk about this issue quite a bit," Shaw said. "We go into elementary schools and stress to people while they're young that this is an honorable profession."
Blackburn added: "There is a disparity among hiring minorities, but the issue isn't that departments don't want to hire them — and even if they don't want to, police chiefs know in these times they have to. But unfortunately, because of the narrative that's out there, there's a false perception that police are going around killing black youths.
"That obviously makes young black men reluctant to become a police officer; they think 'why would I want to be part of something that's racist?' It's an unfair narrative, but we battle it constantly," said Blackburn, who offers workshops in Metro Detroit schools aimed at recruiting minorities to policing jobs.
Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, insisted the perception isn't false.
"There's a general mistrust of police from the black community in Detroit and across the nation, and it's justified," he said. "When you have officers killing young black men at the rate they're doing, that causes a trust issue."
A 2016 Harvard University study of 10 police departments found no racial bias in more than 1,000 officer-involved shootings, although the study also found police are more likely to use other methods of force on black suspects than white ones.
Warren police commissioner William Dwyer said his department hired several minorities last year.
"We put out that we were hiring employed police officers, and there was a line of about 100 officers from across the state who applied," Dwyer said. "Within four months, we hired 20 officers, and 40% of them were minorities. A number of them were African Americans who left Detroit."
Prior to that hiring spree in July 2018, Warren only had two African Americans on its force of more than 200 officers. Michigan's third-largest city is 17% black, according to the U.S. Census.
"It's no secret: Every police department in Michigan is trying everything they can to hire minorities," Dwyer said. "We were successful, I think, because we have a lot of opportunities for advancement here in Warren. So if you want to be on special assignments, undercover or K-9 units, there's a good chance you'll get it here."
Tim Bourgeois, director of the Michigan Coalition on Law Enforcement Standards, said community leaders need to do their part to ensure more African Americans wear the badge.
"The community has a stake in this, so it needs to step up," he said. "We need their help if they want more minorities to become police officers. They need to tell young people that law enforcement is an honorable profession, and that it's necessary for our society to run in a well-ordered way.
"Even if you have disagreements with the police, the best way to change it is to join a department and change things from within," said Bourgeois, a former Kalamazoo Township police chief. "It's in the community's best interest to have qualified minority police officers."