Diverse Police Forces Are Not A Panacea For Fatal Police Shootings, Research Suggests

Diverse Police Forces Are Not A Panacea For Fatal Police Shootings, Research Suggests

By Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Amid the firestorm of protests following the shooting of Michael Brown — an unarmed black teen who was killed by a white police officer — have come repeated calls for hiring a more diverse police force.

But a growing body of research suggests that intractable circumstances of economics, culture and geography have more to do with shootings by police than the race of the officers.

According to the research, neglected minority neighborhoods that are poor and prone to violence are a hotbed for such shootings — regardless of the complexion of the police.

And while the number of police shootings can be reduced by better training, disciplinary action, policy and political representation, the broader societal issues that plague violent neighborhoods work against efforts to reduce police shootings.

Former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom recently said at a town hall meeting here that cops are the “face of government” in poor neighborhoods that most people don’t venture into.

“Officers see (communities in need) every day and they become frustrated,” Isom said. “They seem to be the person on the front line trying to solve many of these social and economic problems.”

David Klinger, and other criminologists at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, including Isom, wrote an academic paper about 230 shooting incidents involving 315 St. Louis police officers between 2003 and 2012. Of those, about two-thirds of the shooters were white and one-third were African-American. According to the paper, the distribution was reflective of the police department during that period.

Of the known suspects police were shooting at in those cases, 92 percent of them were African-American. St. Louis is 49 percent black.

According to St. Louis police data for 2012 and 2013, 94 homicide suspects were African-American; two were white; one was Hispanic; and one was Asian.

Of 4,713 inmates sentenced in St. Louis who are in state prison, 598 are white and 4,083 are black.

“Race is not a predominant factor driving shootings,” said Klinger, a former police officer. “It’s violence in the communities.”

Canfield Green apartments — where Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, 28, shot Brown, 18, on Aug. 9 — and neighboring Northwinds Apartments seem to fit this bill. Residents at Northwinds, which has been subsidized by low-income housing funds, must earn no more than 60 percent of median income for the area. People there have complained about crime and lawlessness, as well as mistreatment from police. Most of the residents are black.

Last month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that dozens of police departments across the St. Louis region have fewer black officers on the force by percentage than the ratio of African-Americans in the communities those departments serve.

The same report found that efforts to increase black representation in police departments are hindered by a difficulty of recruiting minority candidates into policing.

Experts say having a more diverse force pays off in many ways, including building trust between the community and police.

And those benefits, say experts like Isom, extend beyond the sole issue of lethal force. Isom also points out that the study on police shootings in St. Louis isn’t conclusive.

“(The report) also doesn’t take into account that these are police officer reports from the police officer’s standpoint,” said Isom, who was recently named director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety. “I am not saying the reports aren’t accurate, but I think there is more research to be done.”

While scholars agree comprehensive data on police shootings in the United States are limited, some said general truths can be gleaned from the work that has been done.

“Two important and controversial factors are race and neighborhood,” said Brad Smith, chairman of the criminal justice program at Wayne State University in Detroit. “African-American and Hispanic citizens are more likely to be shot by the police than whites. Police are more likely to shoot and kill citizens in cities with higher concentrations of segregated and impoverished minority residents and cities with higher rates of violent crime.”

Police, including in Ferguson, often pull over and search a disproportionate number of minorities, which increases potential confrontational encounters, but lethal force is rare in the context of all interactions with police.

Smith said diversity can improve police community relations and the culture of a department, “but when it comes to highly emotional, stressful confrontations, I don’t think it matters anymore.”

Smith, along with University of Wyoming sociology professor Malcolm Holmes are the co-authors of the book Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma. In a letter to the National Journal they wrote that better community relations with a more diverse police department could help ease tension, but not fix the core issues in Ferguson and other places like it.

“The mental processes that make humans acutely apprehensive about people dissimilar to themselves cannot be easily overcome when residential segregation and socioeconomic conditions separate them,” they wrote. “Those structural circumstances are ultimately responsible for creating and reproducing the tensions between police and citizens of color.”

In St. Louis County, black poor are six times as likely as white poor to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

Scholars suggest that the controversial Kerner Commission report done for President Lyndon B. Johnson following civil rights riots that swept the country in 1967 is still applicable today. Report authors then sensed a similar story was being told over and over again, regarding Chicago race riots in 1919, Harlem in 1935 and 1943, and Watts in 1965.

“This is our basic conclusion,” the report stated. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

In 1982, criminologist Geoff Alpert helped put together a similar analysis about the shooting death of Neville Johnson Jr. by Miami police. After a few days of violent protests, one suspected looter was killed, 25 people were injured, including some police, and dozens of people were arrested. “Today, there are the same issues,” Alpert said, “and that is kind of disturbing.”

While some scholars believe diversity doesn’t influence lethal use of force by police, other measures do, such as training, administrative policy, political representation and the degree to which departments view themselves as military.

Mike White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, studied 1,200 police shootings in Philadelphia between the 1970s and early 1990s. He noticed a significant drop in the numbers once there was a clear use of force policy and officers started getting retrained and sanctioned following inappropriate violence.

David Jacobs, sociology professor emeritus at Ohio State, has looked into political influence on police shootings.

“I suspect that where city elites don’t put pressure on the mayor and the chief police administrator to enforce rules against inappropriate violence, it will recur,” he said.

There are limited studies in the field, but results from a study he participated in found that when there’s a black mayor dependent upon minority votes, police shootings fall.

“Remember that in most cities the police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor and can be fired without much or any due process,” he said.

The mayor of Ferguson doesn’t have this power. The police chief answers to the city manager.

Moline Acres police Officer Ken Blackmon has a street perspective on race and law enforcement. He shared his insights from the front seat of a patrol car last week on Chambers Road, not far from where violence broke out in north St. Louis County after Brown was shot.

Blackmon, 51, who is black, remembers growing up in Detroit following race riots there. His father and grandfather were cops. He has relatives currently working as police officers in Michigan, Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles.

“I’ve been doing this 27 years, so I don’t think the color of my skin is going to reflect how people portray me,” he said. “You are going to have people who like you and hate you. If you treat people with respect, you might get some back.”

There are dividends in that. Going from call to call, he said it’s easy to forget a face. “But they might not forget you,” he said.

Blackmon said he comes from training that puts a premium on how you carry yourself. “A lot of younger cops have the mentality of, ‘I am a police, you are going to do what I say or else,’ ” he said.

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

Why Did Michael Brown Shooting Happen Where It Did?

Why Did Michael Brown Shooting Happen Where It Did?

By Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Long before the nation rested its collective conscience on the protests along West Florissant Avenue, there was a different mobilization going on.

Hundreds of people were moving out of their urban neighborhoods to this north St. Louis County suburb seeking a safe and affordable place to live.

They found it in an isolated corner of Ferguson that was flush with sprawling apartment complexes. Far from Ferguson’s leafy residential streets and quaint downtown, many people didn’t even know the apartments were part of the city until young Michael Brown was shot and killed there Aug. 9.

But the police knew.

After decades of relative calm and stability, the apartments have become a tinderbox for crime. Canfield Green Apartments and the nearby Oakmont and Northwinds complexes are a study of the slow encroachment of poverty and social distress into what had been suburban escapes.

Angela Shaver has witnessed that sea change since she moved into Canfield Green Apartments 20 years ago. The state employee said she raised a prom queen there and sent her off to college.

There used to be a swimming pool. Now, there’s a bullet hole in the door below her.

That shooting, and many others, happened long before all the vigil candles melted in the middle of the street for Brown.

Even as Shaver explained the frequency of gunfire, she was cut off by a sudden blast coming from Northwinds Apartments, a hulking spread with more than 400 low-income units.

Shaver paused to listen. No screams. No more shots. She picked up the interview where she’d left off.

“I hate to say I got used to them,” she said of the gunshots.

Ferguson’s crime and poverty rate is lower than some of the other North County municipalities. But the small southeast corner of the city where the apartments are glows bright red on crime maps.
That area along West Florissant Avenue and just east of it accounted for 18 percent of all serious crimes reported between 2010 and August of 2012, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch analysis of crime data provided by St. Louis County.

The area accounted for 28 percent of all burglaries, 28 percent of all aggravated assaults, 30 percent of all motor vehicle thefts, and 40 percent of all robberies reported in the city of 21,000 people.

It’s a cluster of densely populated complexes that stand apart from the predominantly single-family streets of Ferguson.

On a map, the area sticks out like an appendage, one that was added to Ferguson by annexation. Many of the children who live in the complexes aren’t even part of the Ferguson-Florissant school system.

Adding to that isolation, police have blocked off nearly all access roads to the apartments with concrete barriers, fences, and gates.

The nearly all-white police force has struggled to maintain control and respect from many African-Americans who live there as officers try to clamp down on crime.

There is a common perception that police stop people without reason.

“If you stay here, they basically think you are a thug,” said Gerard Fuller, 19, who is headed to Arkansas Baptist College on a basketball scholarship.

The Brown shooting dug into that nerve. The response seems to have as much to do with socio-economic factors as it does opinions about race relations and police brutality in communities across the country that have struggled to integrate.

In St. Louis County alone, African-American poor are six times as likely as white poor to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

The apartment complexes located on the fringe of Ferguson — the self-proclaimed “Community of Choice” — give a glimpse of what that looks like.

The eruption of looting and violent protests and the national attention it drew give a glimpse of the implications.

Ferguson is one of St. Louis County’s older suburbs, dating to the late 1850s, when a farmer named William B. Ferguson donated land for a station platform on what was then the North Missouri Railroad. It was a whistle stop on the road to the farming village of Florissant.

By 1894, when Ferguson became a city, it had about 1,000 residents, and had become a commuting suburb for families who could afford to escape the noise and soot of St. Louis. It would go on to have periods of exponential growth.

In the 1960s, Ferguson annexed the land where Brown would be shot. He was walking back home to his grandmother’s apartment in the Northwinds complex.

Maine-based Eagle Point Companies bought Northwinds in 2005 and poured $12.5 million into refurbishing the complex, thanks in part to low-income housing credits. Part of the deal was that to be eligible to live there, residents can earn no more than 60 percent of the median income in the area.

Northwinds is one of 31 affordable housing properties like it that Eagle Point owns across the United States.

Laura Burns, president of the company, said she thought crime is under control at Northwinds, but she acknowledged residents tend to be nomadic.

“We have a lot of turnover,” she said. “Some of our residents unfortunately are not in a position to pay the rent for whatever reason.”

Making matters worse in the eyes of some apartment residents, police have closed off nearly all access points with concrete barriers and fencing.

About a year ago, a gate went up on the main thoroughfare that’s typically only open during the school year so buses can head to Koch Elementary School.

When closed, hundreds of residents have just one way in and out.

“The city required us to put that gate in,” said Burns, of Eagle Point. Stopping the traffic, she was told, would benefit the city and the police department.

Rochele Jackson, 54, a Northwinds resident, viewed it a different way.

“I am wondering if it is for safety or just to cage us in,” said Jackson, who works on a cleaning crew at Washington University.

Canfield Green was mostly white when Kevin Edwards and his family moved in 12 years ago. It has since been filled mostly with African-Americans.

Edwards, 50, who is black, gives credit to the complex’s owners for maintaining the property.

“They keep it nice,” he said of neatly trimmed lawns and shrubs.

He says Canfield residents are no different than anyone else. “People here get up in the morning and go to work, try to pay their bills, and raise families,” he said.

But the complex attracts a bad element. People with open warrants cruise the sidewalks. And that draws in police.

His son Neal, a student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, said he was walking on Canfield last year toward West Florissant. The site is about a block east of the Brown shooting scene when Ferguson police pulled up. An officer grabbed him by the shoulders, slammed him against the squad car, and cuffed him, he said.

The officer was hunting a suspect in a red hoodie. Neal’s was deep burgundy. He was released five minutes later, without apology.

Kevin Edwards thought back to the incident when he learned of the Brown shooting. “That could have been (my son) lying out there.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton brought down the house last week when he yelled to a packed audience: “You’ve got issues in this city!”

According to arrest data tracked by the attorney general’s office, there were a total of 5,384 traffic stops in Ferguson in 2013. Of those, 686 were white, 4,632 were black. Police were nearly two times as likely to search blacks than whites, even though whites had a higher hit rate for contraband.

The city’s demographics have been quickly changing. In 2000, Ferguson was 52 percent African-American and 45 percent white. Today, it’s 67 percent black and 29 percent white.

Only three of its 53 police officers are white.

Police Chief Thomas Jackson said there have been obstacles in the way of recruiting a more diverse department.

“It’s been issues like pay and just the job pool,” he said. “Everybody is competing for good quality police officers of all races. We just need to continue to make ourselves more competitive.”

When darkness falls, life inside Jeanisha Hill’s Northwinds apartment revolves around staying low. She said she pulls a mattress to the floor for her children to sleep on because it feels safer below the window ledge.

A feeling of lawlessness came with the lease. But since Brown’s shooting, the disorder has become even more stifling. She thought about taking her daughter to join volunteers who cleaned up West Florissant Avenue last week.

“It was too scary to do that,” said Hill, 33.

She believes those shooting guns day and night will get bolder.She doesn’t see anything changing even after the protests eventually end.

“This is just the beginning of something worse,” she said.

Hill supports the protests. She, too, believes the police have overstepped their authority, but she condemns the looting.

Her children are not allowed to play outside. She walks her daughter to and from the bus stop. Somebody lit a trash can on fire last week near her apartment. Several 911 calls went out to a fire department that never arrived.

Hill only moved into that housing complex because she qualified for subsidies. There was a $99 move-in special at the time, just as there is now.

“If I could, I would move out,” she said.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters Tim Bryant, Steve Giegerich, Walker Moskop, and Tim O’Neil contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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