The shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. has sparked community protests that have prompted law enforcement agencies to look at whether their officers accurately represent the communities they serve.
But does racial parity make a difference when policing a community?
The answer, it turns out, is: not necessarily.
A new Associated Press investigation reveals police departments in communities with significant African-American populations have made some progress in hiring more black officers over the last generation. However, the AP concludes that departments have been slow to follow suit when it comes to Latinos.
The report identifies 49 police departments where more than half of the officers are white and actively serve predominantly Hispanic communities.
Yet research overwhelmingly suggests minorities are not more likely to trust police officers of the same race, and that there is no correlation between officer-involved shootings declining and diversity increasing. Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence to indicate diverse police forces treat their communities more fairly.
Instead, studies, experts and cops themselves suggest language and cultural understanding are crucial factors in preventing Ferguson scenarios. Simply, having Hispanic officers in a predominantly Hispanic community matters because they are more likely to speak Spanish and possess cultural awareness, not purely because they are Hispanic.
According to criminal justice academic and author Eli Silverman, “too much of policing is judged by the number of summons, arrests, and frisks, and officers have a disincentive to be close to the community."
Ferguson, Silverman said, is an example that illustrates how actually being of the same race can sometimes be counterproductive.
"They were resentful of that captain. A person called him an Uncle Tom. Some described him as a puppet doing the white man’s bidding," he said of the Captain Ron Johnson, the black officer who was brought in to try to quell the protests.
Silverman thinks it is important for departments to become more diverse, but says they have to do it carefully, warning that a rush to hire minorities will prevent these new cops from being vetted.
John Eterno, associate dean and director of Graduate Studies of Criminal Justice at Molloy University, also believes it is a mistake to frame race as the issue.
"Police departments have not worked closely with communities," he said. "It’s been policing by the numbers. They’ve taken this very aggressive style of policing where performance is reflected in arrests."
Eterno says this bureaucratic style of policing is what has led to boiling tensions with minorities.
"It’s about getting close to the community, not being an army of occupation," he said.
Professor Charles Epp, a University of Kansas scholar who has studied community-police interaction extensively, agrees.
"In my own work I've come to the conclusion that what drives down trust in police is as much what they're doing on the street as who they are," Epp said.
Salinas dissimilar to Ferguson
In Salinas, California, three-quarters of the population is Hispanic and about 40 percent of the police force is Latino. There have been four officer-involved shootings of Latino men in the last six months. Despite the disparity and the shootings, tensions have not boiled over as they did in Ferguson.
According to Police Chief Kelly McMillin, this is because officers have training in community interaction.
"You have the language issue you don't have to deal with when recruiting African-Americans, but also cultural competencies that are really important," he said.
The department actively seeks out Spanish-speaking applicants and Hispanic officers who understand that Latin American residents may be culturally wary of officers, given the overwhelming corruption within police forces in some of their countries of origin.
Instead of recruiting people at job fairs, McMillin said, he sends his officers into the community to identify young people who would make good candidates. Because he has worked to develop a positive relationship with Salinas residents over many years, people are more receptive to the idea of their sons and daughters entering the force.
The department has also instructed officers to explain how their actions can hurt their community rather than making aggressive demands.
Tracey Meares, a Yale professor who developed the strategy, agrees that while diversity can be important, what really matters on the ground is how an officer handles an interaction. In Salinas and places with heavy Hispanic populations, that can mean bringing in a bilingual officer to facilitate communication.
"When you have more communication tools at your disposal - being bilingual, for instance - you're less likely to be misinterpreted," Meares said.
Still, she added, "People feel better about a force, in abstract, when it's more representative."
Diversity as a byproduct
While research may suggest culture and forging a sense of community matter more than sheer diversity, departments that are culturally competent tend to have diverse forces.
In other words, diversity for diversity's sake shouldn't be the goal, but it's a likely byproduct of a culturally competent police department.
Los Angeles Police Department Officer Liliana Preciado has found this in her own work, particularly when it comes to connecting with Spanish speakers.
“What matters is language,” Preciado said. “I used to work detective, the sex crime unit. And there was a minor who spoke Spanish. I was able to communicate with her and make her comfortable. Had there been someone else there that only spoke English, the child wouldn't have talked.”
Achieving a representative, multilingual force is no easy task, however.
Challenges of recruiting
Studies suggest minorities are less likely to apply to become police officers, and even when they do, they are less likely to pass the tests required to get a badge.
Addressing the first issue - the lack of minority applicants - will require departments to actively decide diversity is important, said Anthony Chapa, executive director of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association and a former police officer and high-ranking Secret Service agent.
Forces need to develop positive relationships with the communities they serve, Chapa said. Officers need to visit elementary schools, get out of their cars at local coffee shops and talk to community religious leaders.
"What went wrong in Ferguson was not that there were three instead of, say, 20, black officers," Chapa said. It was that "there was a perception of injustice."
"It's obvious that the perception of the community is that they are not represented by the department, not just in the number of black officers, but in relationships over time with the department," he said. "When the community feels they have confidence in law enforcement officers, then those same people are going to endorse their children making applications to become officers."
Communities like Los Angeles and San Antonio that have had significant Hispanic populations for decades may be at an advantage here, Chapa said. They can recruit Hispanics within the community who don't need cultural training.
A recent analysis from the website FiveThirtyEight.com shows that many officers in major cities live outside of the neighborhoods they police. Regardless of race, that may damage cultural competency. Towns like Washington, D.C., which has seen a rising Hispanic population in recent years, are having to hire Spanish speakers who did not grow up in the community to achieve cultural and ethnic diversity. The Washington Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment.
The second issue - identifying applicants who pass the tests - would likely be tempered if departments spent more time in minority communities asking qualified applicants to apply. They can also choose to value things like bilingualism. Outright quotas are illegal, but a department can say on a job listing that preference will be given to Spanish speakers.
Requiring Spanish proficiency is one way U.S. Customs and Border Protection has achieved a relatively diverse workforce. Border agents must be proficient in Spanish when they graduate from the academy, which may make Spanish speakers more likely to apply. The agency is about 50 percent Hispanic, estimates Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.
To be seen as legitimate in the eyes of their communities, experts say, police forces need to adapt to the rapid shifts in American demographics. In the current Ferguson scenario, police blue is the color minorities hate. But, they say, that can change with fewer bullets, more outreach and more Spanish.
As Meares, the Yale professor, said: "What really matters to people, more than how representative of the population a police force is, is how they treat people."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.
Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.