Why Fort Worth And Other Big Cities Struggle With Police Diversity | KERA News

Why Fort Worth And Other Big Cities Struggle With Police Diversity

Dec 11, 2019

Like a lot of cities, Fort Worth has been working to recruit and hire a more diverse police force. 

Researchers have found strong support nationwide for the idea that a police department should look like the city it serves, but most departments don't — they're a lot more male, and a lot whiter. 

After a string of controversial policing incidents in recent years involving people of color in Fort Worth and elsewhere damaged trust in police, building a more diverse police force has been seen as a way to restore trust and strengthen ties between officers and the residents they're sworn to protect.

About 40% of Fort Worth residents are white, but 65% of Fort Worth police officers are white. In 2010, nearly 70% of the department was white.

An analysis of the last 10 years of Fort Worth Police Department staffing data shows the department growing more Latino as it becomes less white. Latino representation on the force has grown from 16% to 21%. In 2017, 35% of Fort Worth residents were Latino.

In that same time period, the police force has seen a small decrease in the number of officers who are black, from about 12% to 10%. Black residents represent about 19% of the city's population.

'We're Trying To Make Changes'

Cory Session is vice president of the Innocence Project of Texas and sat on Fort Worth's Task Force on Race and Culture. He said, "If you don't have a police force that is represented or looks like your city, you run into issues — cultural issues, biases."

The race and culture task force was charged with investigating, and recommending strategies to reduce, racial disparities in the city after the 2016 arrest of Jacqueline Craig, a black woman, and her daughters by a white police officer threw the city in the national spotlight.

Among its findings, the task force pointed to even starker disparities among higher-ranking members of the police department. Only 27% of people above the rank of corporal, the first tested rank, are non-white. Just 14% are women.

Session said he often sees bias, stereotypes and a general lack of understanding overshadow police interactions, especially when officers are "looking for a problem." He cautions against painting all cops with a broad brush — he is married to a police officer — but he said a lack of cultural competency among cops is dangerous.

"We all have prejudices, but for a [police] officer, these are life-and-death situations, they can turn on an instant, so you've got to be careful," Session said.

Assistant Fort Worth City Manager Jay Chapa, who oversees the more than 1,600-member police department, said the city is committed to increasing the diversity of its police force. It's a way to engender trust and legitimacy in the department, he said, and improve communication between Fort Worth's diverse communities and its police force.

"We're trying to make changes to improve the situation when it comes to having the police department — and the city as an organization — reflect the community," Chapa said.

The city is reviewing its vetting process to eliminate bias and targeting police recruitment efforts to reach more people of color. There's a volunteer bootcamp to help women train for the physical test, and the city is re-instating a police cadet program to introduce high school and community college students to law enforcement careers.

But Chapa said a strong economy means some well-qualified candidates aren't applying to be cops because there's better pay and easier work outside of policing. Plus, Fort Worth is not alone in focusing on diversity.

"Minority and women candidates are at a premium, and every city's after them. There's competition when it comes to that," he said.

Though law enforcement agencies have grown more diverse nationwide in recent decades, the field still skews whiter and more male than the general population, says Nelson Lim, senior social scientist for the Rand Corporation who studies recruitment.

"Unfortunately, it is extremely common across the whole country," Lim said. "It's not necessarily that it's all about racism or [intentional] discrimination, but it's more subtle. It's more nuanced."

There are two common issues even the best-intentioned departments struggle with, Lim said. The first is propensity: who actually wants to become a police officer? Many young people of color are reluctant to pursue a policing career, he said, and may hold police officers in less esteem.

"So if minority youth and a minority population has a lower propensity to serve as a police officer, then you already start from behind," Lim said.

For those who do apply, Lim said the vetting process can disproportionately sideline people of color and women. Entry tests may be written in a way that offers white people an advantage, more women fail physical tests than men, and background checks can disadvantage people who grew up in communities that are more heavily policed. 

Racial Diversity Alone Is Not Enough

Researchers have found that most Americans say their police departments should be as racially diverse as their cities, though research into the benefits of increasing officer diversity in police departments is mixed.

Women use force less as police officers and communicate more effectively, researchers have consistently found. Studies have shown increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of police forces makes them friendlier and less cynical about their work, and they have fewer misconduct complaints filed against them.

A 2016 report from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points to "decades of research" that shows increased diversity within law enforcement agencies — defined broadly to include sexual orientation, religion, language ability and other categories beyond race and gender — can improve trust in the police and help police departments more effectively protect public safety.

But policing experts say increasing officer diversity alone won't solve issues that upset police-community relations. Researchers found that diverse police departments don't have significantly lower rates of police-caused killings, and a 2004 study found black officers were more likely to use force than white officers.

Manny Ramirez, a police sergeant who heads the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, is a product of the police cadet program, which city leaders shuttered during the recession. He said it's important to give young adults who might be interested a pathway to a policing career. The program is expected to be up and running in February.

While he thinks department diversity does help build community trust, Ramirez cautions that it's no silver bullet.

"We need to look at diversity in our patrol staffing levels, we need to look at how do we incentivize officers to live in the community they serve, how do we make sure that they're comfortable and have time to build bridges with their community," Ramirez said.

Race and Culture Task Force member Cory Session said recruitment should also focus on attracting people committed to serving the public and helping in order to improve police-community relations.

"That's the majority of your calls [as a police officer], so if you thought you were becoming a police officer to fight crime, think again," Session said. "You're a social worker. You're a referee. The majority of your calls are going to be customer service related."

He said increasing diversity on the police force is only part of the recipe for ensuring every Fort Worth resident gets equal justice.

Graphic updated 10:00 a.m. Dec. 13