In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, a light was shone on the unbelievable lack of racial diversity within the Ferguson police department. It was revealed that while Ferguson’s population is 67% African-American, only three of the town’s 53 full-time police officers are black. The complete disconnect between the racial makeup of the community and the demographics of law enforcement patrolling Ferguson’s streets has been cited as a prime example of the simmering racial tensions in the town that boiled over in the aftermath of Brown’s killing.
However, Ferguson is not an isolated case in the St. Louis area. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story Sunday detailing the lack of diversity that exists in other St. Louis County police departments. The paper requested the racial makeup of 36 police departments in the county. Of the 31 departments that responded to the Post-Dispatch, 30 of them had a lower percentage of black officers when compared to the proportion of black residents in those communities. While 25% of St. Louis County’s residents are African-American, only 10% of the police officers in the county are black.
Of course, the main excuse given by police departments with nearly all-white forces in communities with a large percentage of black residents is that they just aren’t getting many black applicants. Basically, they are saying they’d love to hire more African-American cops. However, the more qualified minority applicants are generally going for jobs with St. Louis City’s police department, or other, larger metro units. They also said that the relatively lower pay that smaller police departments are forced to pay is possibly a deterrent to qualified black applicants.
Whether or not these are legitimate reasons, the fact remains that St. Louis County is utilizing a predominately white police force to police areas with heavy African-American populations. Research shows that 90% of the county’s black population resides in what is known locally as North County. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen with Ferguson, the police departments in that portion of the county, for the most part, are largely white. These departments don’t require the officers to live within the community, so most of the officers live in other towns and cities. Some commute as much as an hour or more each day to the job.
This huge racial disparity in the police departments in the St. Louis area speaks to the impact white flight has had on the region. As more blacks have moved into certain communities, much of the white population has moved further out into other suburban communities, basically creating ‘whitopias.’ At the same time, cops may stay with the same police department, but move away to one of these other communities. This helps widen the divide between local law enforcement and the neighborhoods they patrol. When the majority of a department’s force does not reside in the town, then the sense of community is broken.
Wesley Bell, a professor of criminal justice and a Ferguson resident, brought this up to the Post-Dispatch.
“Policing is going to be more effective when personal relationships are made and (police) have an investment in the community…If the police department in Ferguson was more reflective of the community, people would be more apt to give them the benefit of the doubt that the officer was using his discretion, and race was not an issue.”
This is a very important point. While quite a bit of focus has been centered on the militarized nature of the police and a rush to the use of deadly force to quell potentially dangerous suspects these past few days, one of the biggest underlying issues that has come to the surface in Ferguson and the St. Louis area is the feeling that local law enforcement is not part of the community. There are no real personal relationships between officers and residents. This builds distrust until it reaches a total tipping point, like what we’ve seen in Ferguson over the past two weeks.
It is my belief that what is going on in St. Louis is merely a microcosm of what is happening in this nation. Hopefully, the lid has been blown off, and solutions will be worked on to make law enforcement more about protecting and serving and less about harassing and intimidating. Trust needs to be regained in communities far and wide. Obviously, law enforcement is a difficult and many times thankless job. However, that job can be a lot easier and fulfilling if the local residents aren’t suspicious and fearful of you.
Justin Baragona is the Managing Editor at Politicus Sports as well as Senior Editor at PoliticusUSA. He was a political writer for 411Mania.com before joining PoliticusUSA. Politically, Justin considers himself a liberal but also a realist and pragmatist. Currently, Justin lives in St. Louis, MO and is married. Besides writing, he also runs his own business after spending a number of years in the corporate world. You can follow Justin on Twitter either with his personal handle (@justinbaragona) or the Sports site’s (@PoliticusSports).