Despite ongoing efforts to recruit more minority officers, there continue to be large discrepancies between the ethnic makeups of the state’s largest cities and towns and the police forces that serve them, a Connecticut Mirror analysis shows.
Only about 12 percent of the 430 members of Hartford’s police department are black, while the city has a nearly 39 percent black population. New Britain has a nearly 37 percent Latino population, but only about 7 percent of its police officers are Hispanic. Nearly 29 percent of Meriden’s population is black, but only about 8 percent of its police officers are African-American.
The latest comprehensive national report on local police, conducted in 2007, showed the average minority makeup of the nation’s police departments, including all groups, was about 25 percent.
The shooting death of a black youth by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and other acts against black suspects by white law enforcement officials have fostered a heated national debate over civil rights.
Much has been made of the fact that the Ferguson police department was composed of 53 officers, only three of them black, while the community they serve is about 68 percent African-American.
But experts on the justice system and civil rights advocates say such racial and ethnic imbalances don’t always result in the types of tensions between the community and law enforcement officers that were evident in Ferguson. They also say the imbalance is not always the fault of police departments, who often struggle to lure minorities to police work.
“There are two ways of looking at this,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University who has studied racial profiling and policing.
In general, Weitzer said, white and minority officers treat suspects much the same.
“The kind of training they have tends to make them look at things uniformly,” Weitzer said.
The difference is that black and Latino officers are better able to communicate with minority members of their communities, Weitzer said, “but that doesn’t mean that they will treat them more leniently than white officers.”
Latino officers help breach the language barrier between Hispanic communities and the police, but not all Latino policemen speak Spanish, Weitzer said.
He also said the ethnic and racial makeup of a police department may also influence how the community views the force. But his study of East St. Louis, which has a nearly total black population and a completely black police force, showed there were still plenty of complaints about the police, Weitzer said.
A big obstacle in making the police force mirror a community’s racial and ethnic makeup is that qualified minority candidates often reject police work, police chiefs and civil rights advocates say.
Muhammad Ansari, president of the Greater Hartford NAACP, said Hartford Police Chief James Rovella has asked for his help in finding black candidates for the police academy.
“Those who are qualified don’t want to be policemen,” Ansari said. “They have an attitude about the police.”
That attitude has not improved with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and other recent incidents of police violence against young black men in Cleveland and New York, Ansari said.
“In order to change things, we have to get more people in the police force,” he said, especially high-ranking minority officers who could help boost recruitment.
Ansari said he recently helped recruit a young black man for the Hartford Police Department. The recruit received police training, but decided to work for the state department of motor vehicles instead.
Hartford Deputy Chief Brian J. Foley said that even with federal help to hire minority police officers — his department has received millions of dollars in community policing (COPS) grants over the last few years – it’s hard to attract minority candidates.
“We want to, and it’s important to us,” he said. “But minority candidates are highly sought after.”
But Foley said the department is “heading in the right direction,” when it comes to minority recruiting.
There are the lingering effects of past problems, though.
A lawsuit stemming from the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old Latino man by a Hartford police officer in 1969 resulted in a federal court consent decree that set guidelines for the training, supervision and use of deadly force in the department. The Hartford department is still under federal oversight because of that shooting in what is considered one of the longest-running cases of its kind.
Representing the community
In New Britain, Police Chief James Wardwell said, “It’s not difficult to recruit. It’s difficult to get [minorities] to apply.”
He said many youths think they don’t qualify for service in the force because they’ve been arrested. But only those who are convicted of certain crimes are disqualified.
Others think they don’t have enough schooling. But most Connecticut police forces require only a high school diploma or GED. Only a few police forces demand more, including West Hartford’s, which requires two years of college.
Wardell said he’s reached out to local civil and immigrant rights leaders for help and advertised on Spanish-language radio.
“Certainly we want a police department that is representative of the community in which it serves,” he said.
The police departments in Bridgeport, New Haven and Norwalk are among the most diverse in the state, the Connecticut Mirror analysis showed.
Bridgeport’s population is 72 percent black and Hispanic, and its police force is 42 percent minority.
New Haven’s population is about 63 percent black and Hispanic, and its force is 43 percent minority. About 14.2 percent of Norwalk’s population is black, as is 13 percent of the town’s police force.
“We have two goals,” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. “We want to hire the best qualified candidates to protect our kids and families. And we want to have a police department that is representative of our community.”
Bridgeport recruits through churches, events like the Juneteenth and Puerto Rican Day parades, local colleges and Seaside Park and other places where community members gather, city officials said.
But, Finch said, “We’re not complacent. We still have work to do. That’s why we’re recruiting as we speak, and we’re asking for the community’s help.”
“We have asked all of our officers to submit a name, asking each to even suggest one person who they think would make a great police officer,” added Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudett.
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