COLUMBUS, Ohio – Racism trips up Black police candidates at the very start of the application process and later as they seek promotion, complicating efforts to make law enforcement agencies more diverse, experts, officers and Black police associations say.
Black applicants to law enforcement agencies are often filtered out early through racially biased civil service exams, accusations spelled out in multiple lawsuits over the years. And applicants are rejected thanks to criminal background checks that turn up drug and traffic offenses attributable to discriminatory policing, and poor financial histories that can stem from racial profiling, records and interviews show.
“Black and brown candidates — they’ll gig them on credit issues, they’ll gig them on minor brushes previously with law enforcement, they’ll gig them on what they perceive as attitude issues,” said Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.
It's a decades-old problem gaining renewed attention following global protests over police brutality and racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Black and Hispanic men have disproportionately high rates of contact with law enforcement at an early age, leading to records that often disqualify them from becoming police officers, said Ronnie Dunn, a Cleveland State University urban affairs professor.
Nationally, about 11% of officers in local police departments are Black, a percentage that declines the smaller the community served, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Blacks account for about 12% of the U.S. population and are represented at much higher rates in big cities.
In Pittsburgh, a 2012 federal lawsuit alleged the city police department systematically rejected Black applicants at the outset of the process after background checks turned up traffic tickets or drug offenses. But the city didn't disqualify “Caucasian applicants for entry level police officer positions who have committed offenses similar to or even more serious,” the lawsuit said. In a settlement, the city paid $985,000 to Black applicants rejected between 2008 and 2014.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department sued Maryland’s Baltimore County, alleging its written exams for hiring police officers have discriminated against Black applicants for years. The county denies the allegation.
In Aurora, Colorado, an internal analysis found Black police candidates struggle from the start of the recruiting process.
“This is what systemic racism looks like,” said city councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who requested city data this year that found just five qualified Black applicants were hired over a five-year period — 1.1% of total Black applicants, compared with 4.2% of white applicants.
The process is conducted by Aurora's civil service commission, an independent city agency, which declined comment. A similar pattern exists in a separate recruiting system overseen by the police department that hires current officers from other agencies, with 18% of white candidates being hired compared with 7% of Black candidates.
A city-commissioned review of the police department is expected to scrutinize recruiting and hiring, said Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly.
The recruitment issue isn’t one solely faced by police department applicants. Last year, Target settled a lawsuit brought by the NAACP alleging their company-wide background check policies disproportionately disqualify Black and other minority applicants and employees from job opportunities due to unrelated minor convictions. The NAACP filed a similar lawsuit against Macy's last year; a message was left with the company seeking comment.
Applicant screens like credit checks can provide some measure of a candidate’s responsibility, said Jacinta Gau, a University of Central Florida criminal justice professor.
“But that has to be taken with an understanding that Black Americans in particular have suffered decades of predatory lending, racist housing policies, predatory real estate practices, and that has led to disproportionately high rates of mortgage default,” she said.
In Toledo, male and female Black candidates — but especially men — are more likely to have been stopped by police and ticketed, have financial problems triggering a housing eviction, and not have car insurance, said Anita Madison, a retired Toledo sergeant who runs the city's African-American Police League mentoring minority candidates and current officers of color.
“It’s not like we are trying to reduce the standards of the police department,” Madison said. “We're just trying to level the playing field.”
About 13% of Toledo's police department is Black, compared with about 27% of the population.
Former Toledo chief Mike Navarre, who is white, has been outspoken about reducing barriers to recruiting Black applicants — especially misdemeanor crimes that rule them out.
“I have seen far too many good black candidates disqualified for mistakes that they made when they were 18," Navarre told Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in a June 18 email, expressing concerns about proposals to add more disqualifiers to police entry applications.
DeWine said at a news conference the same day that it's an important issue needing attention.
But not every police shooting involves a white officer, which experts say limits the impact that simply diversifying departments can have. Without addressing the modern-day militarization of law enforcement and establishing better community relations, little will change, said Rodney Coates, a Miami University sociology professor.
Black or white, if police don’t have a community connection and are seen as controlling rather than serving people, the color of their skin doesn’t matter, said Coates, the son of an East St. Louis police officer and brother of an Illinois state trooper.
“If all he is, is a Black face, he’s just another cop,” Coates said.
For retired Philadelphia police detective David Fisher, a representative cross-section of minority officers helps in overcoming Black residents’ skepticism of police and concern about racism. About 35% of Philadelphia’s police force is black, compared to 42% of the city.
“I always tell Black officers, when we hit the streets, you’re out there as an equalizer, to make sure all things are equal,” said Fisher, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Black Police Association.
Associated Press researchers Jennifer Farrar and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.