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How well do police forces represent racial makeup of their communities?

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Nearly three quarters of more than 100 law enforcement agencies across much of the U.S. don't reflect the racial makeup of their communities, data supplied by the departments to Lee Enterprises shows.

As part of an investigation by Lee and Type Investigations, agencies were ranked based on the gap between the proportion of officers and leadership in the agency who identify as people of color and the percentage of people of color in the communities they serve. Of 105 departments that serve diverse communities, 76 under-represent their percentages of people of color by 10 points or more. Some have gaps of more than 30 percentage points. The largest gap, just more than 43 percentage points, is in Martinsville, Virginia.

READ MORE: 3 years after George Floyd's death, are local police as diverse as their communities?

Our guest today is reporter Karen Robinson-Jacobs, a member of the Public Service Journalism team at Lee Enterprises and a fellow at Type Investigations, who has been working on the story. We discuss the research process as well as the findings.

If you appreciate what we’re doing with this program, we encourage you to invest in local journalism by supporting the newspaper in your community.

About this program

Host Terry Lipshetz is a senior producer for Lee Enterprises. Besides producing interviews for this Behind the Headlines program, he produces the daily Hot off the Wire news podcast, co-hosts Streamed & Screened movies and television program and is the producer of Across the Sky weather and climate podcast.

Lee Enterprises produces many national, regional and sports podcasts. Learn more here.

Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Adobe Premiere and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Welcome to another episode of Behind the Headlines, where we feature experts and journalists discussing a variety of topics. Nearly three quarters of more than 100 law enforcement agencies across much of the U.S. don't reflect the racial makeup of their communities. Data supplied by the departments to Lee Enterprises shows. As part of an investigation by Lee and type investigations, agencies were ranked based on the gap between the proportion of officers in leadership in the agency who identify as people of color and the percentage of people of color in the communities they serve.

Of 105 departments that serve diverse communities, 76 underrepresented their percentages and people of color by ten points or more. Our guest today is reporter Karen Robinson Jacobs, a member of the public service journalism team at Lee Enterprises and a fellow at Type Investigations who has been working on the story. We discussed the research process as well as the findings.

We are welcoming Karen Robinson Jacobs, an investigative reporter for Lee Enterprises and a fellow with type investigations. Karen, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for having me. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're reporting on? Absolutely. We are wrapping up a seven month investigation, looking at law enforcement in about 15 states and looking at them through a number of different lenses and to just sort of backtrack.

May 23rd is going to be the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a former police officer in Minneapolis. And that was in the summer of 2020. So back in the summer of 2020, after weeks of protests that numerous cities in the United States, Lee's Midwest papers decided to look at how represented to law enforcement in those areas were of the communities that they served.

How diverse are they? How much does diversity match the diversity of the communities that they serve? So in many respects, this project, which is a joint project between Lee Enterprises and type investigations, where I am a fellow, is an expansion of the 2020 effort, but also a follow on look to see what has happened in the past three years.

How many total agencies did you request information from and what kind of responses you get back? We reached out to more than 180 agencies in at least 15 states. We sent them essentially a two page form. Reporters and editors throughout Lee got together and looked at beyond diversity of the ranks. What else did we need to know? We wanted to know.

For example, this time we looked at diversity of leadership. We zeroed in on whether departments are using body cams and dash cams, and we added this time. Where did that money come from? What are your policies in terms of consumer access, citizen access to that data? How long did the information sell between need? Not all of us at Lee.

We came up with about a two page questionnaire. We sent that out to again over 180 departments and about 100 just just under 150 sent the form back with some thing on it. Some departments answered many of the questions. Some departments answered almost none of the questions. And so it's it's it's really a range. And so from there, what we did was looked at the areas in which we had a substantial enough response that we thought we could determine some pattern.

So, for example, the number one question that was answered had to do with use of cameras. And that was about I think we had about 126 answers on that. We had about 120 answers on diversity in the force and about 95 answers on diversity of leadership. So what the departments were willing to reveal varied by department. We had some departments that just gave us the answers initially, like it's done as we reached out this lecture.

Easy peasy. Some required us to file a Freedom of Information Act request or whatever the state equivalent is, and some just ghosted us. Did you get any forms back? You said some sent you reforms back with very little information. Were there any that just simply sent them back and said We declined to respond. There were some that sent the form back and didn't give us any information.

What they said is, you know, you will have to follow up with this person and that person and you'll have to file up and you'll have to give us, you know, a lot of money. There were some that were asking for hundreds of dollars to perform the data search for us. So if they send it back and it didn't contain any, you know, numbers, it was more like we're going to make you work harder to get this information.

And some agencies were pretty upfront about supplying the information. I will say the pattern is a lot of the smaller ones, because, you know, for example, we were asking, you know, what was the racial breakdown of the department In the department is six people that are and, you know, it's not going to take us a really long time to figure that out.

One of the things that and I note this in the story is in some cases, the members of the department don't self-identify. So we're really depending on the leadership of the department to say, you know, yeah, Karen, looks like this person looks white. So there are a number of departments that said specifically, we don't ask people to self-identify.

And so this is the best that we can give you. The Department of Justice also looks into this, and I believe they run up against that same issue that that departments do not. Some departments don't ask their members to stop identify. Interesting. So what would be the largest organization that got back to you with information that you could really dive into that was substantial.

Our largest department was the New York State Police, which covers the whole state, and they got a force around more than 4700. And they gave us a lot of information. They gave us racial demographic information. They also gave us leadership information. Also, our smallest was in Lewiston, Minnesota. It has six members and it is 100% white in a community that is not very diverse.

What kind of conclusions were you able to draw from data that you were able to obtain? The main conclusions that we drew is that despite protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown, which, you know, takes us all the way back to 2014, and then more recently, despite the murder of George Floyd, you know, we found dozens of departments where people of color are living with the department that looks nothing like them, and that has all kinds of implications.

You know, one of the most obvious ones is it has implications for trust, the ability of the community to really trust that they are being treated fairly. They are being treated the same as they would be treated if they were not people of color. But then it also kind of, you know, filters into other things like arrest patterns and incarceration patterns and it is a broader issue than just these departments.

You know, the United States is home to about 5% of the world's population, but it accounts for 25% of the world's prisoners. And, you know, not all incarceration begins with arrests, but a lot of it. And one of the things that we found, for example, we found a number of studies that show that in more diverse departments with more black and brown officers, there are fewer arrests or low level things like broken tail light or some issue with your tag or something like that.

And we have seen numerous incidents where something that seems like a small infraction can end up with serious consequences and black and brown citizens being significantly harmed. So I think that it really does reinforce that one enforcement, even an industry, still has a ways to go to be reflective of the community. And I should say this overall law enforcement, particularly in the last several years, they've had difficulty recruiting anybody.

And then they talk about this a lot and they have a lot of reasons why they feel that it is difficult. But their point is we would love to hire people of color. We would love to hire people, any people, any people who will, you know, meet our qualifications and standards and apply and be hired. We would love to hire them.

And I think what that means is that as departments do continue to try to diversify, they're going to have to be more aggressive and they're also going to have to be more creative. Did you get any insight as to what is leading to difficulty in recruiting police officers of the experts that we spoke with? They mentioned a number of things.

One of them being when there is a tragic incident where someone is killed at the hands of the police or law enforcement in general, and the perception of the community is that it is it was unfair. The person was unarmed or something like that. The news coverage that follows those incidents does not paint that law enforcement agency in a very positive light.

They use the term vilified that police are being vilified. I would disagree that it is vilification, but it is very pointed, sharp coverage of these incidents. And why do they keep happening? I mean, you know, The Washington Post has a very extensive database of citizens who are killed by law enforcement and people of color are disproportionately represented. And those are blacks.

So part of it is they don't look very good following these incidents and then they're just the regular parts of the job. Often you have to work nights, although pay is increasing, you make more money doing something else and you are putting your life on the line. So you take the problems that are inherent to the job and layer on to that.

There are many, many people in the country who have a very negative view of law enforcement because of some of these incidents. And so for some people, they're like men past. That makes sense. You mentioned that some of these communities are having a difficult time recruiting and that they're trying to improve on that. Have you gotten any sense as to what those opportunities are?

They are they looking at increasing pay or are they trying to just paint their own departments in a better light? Anything like that? There are a number of efforts we spoke extensively with the department in Greensboro, which is home to a number of HBCU's. They have established close relationships with these schools and are trying to create almost a pipeline from the, you know, criminal justice program that the schools to the departments, some departments are increasing their use of technology.

They're doing some of the initial testing where previously you would have to come to the department and sit in a room and test. They're trying to do more of that remotely and using technology to do that so you can attract people who can't necessarily come down for however many days. It would take and take a bunch of tests because of whatever being as a child care or whatever.

So they're relying more on technology. So there are departments who are trying to be a lot more creative and thinking more broadly about, you know, where to find people, and then taking a look at what our testing looks like. I talked to one police chief who noticed that in one of the questions asked about a cupboard and a number of the people of color who took that test didn't know what a cupboard was because in my house it's called a pantry was college.

And so looking more closely at things like that, like are we really casting our net as wide as we can? That's interesting. In looking at the various responses that you got back, are there any larger police forces that are, even if they're not 100%, one for one, reflective of their community, relatively close or in, you know, a ballpark that would seem acceptable In Madison, Wisconsin, the force is just under 500, 488.

And the representation of people of color in the community is about 28%. Representation of people of color on the force is about 23%. So that's only a gap of about 5%. So that we would consider that a representative department for our purposes. Anything that was plus or minus ten percentage points. We would consider that a representative department. I think where we started to really see, you know, some gaps is when you're looking at gaps of something like, you know, 44 percentage points, 40 percentage points, 36, that's a pretty significant gap.

Martinsville Police Department in Virginia, the people of color in the population is 57.5%. People of color on the force is 13% about to get over 40 percentage points. And so they they have a new police chief who, I am told, considers this a priority. So in many and one of the things that's good about this project is that it gives us a really robust database that we can go back to over time and see, okay, you know, three years from now, how is Martinsville doing?

How successful was the new chief in expanding the ranks of people of color? You know, the kind of brings me to my next question. You were gathering this information for the past seven months. Were you able to get any sense of any change that's already in the works? Like, did you get any data points back from a police force that showed where they were maybe so many years ago?

And then now there's some sort of substantial change? Have you been able to get any of that kind of information yet? Well, we didn't really have as much correlation as I would have liked between the departments that we looked at in 2020. And these we had a number that we worked at a 2020 who ghosted us this time.

But anecdotally, we spoke with one department where they ride, I believe it was the majority of their incoming class of recruits were people of color. And that was the first time that that had happened for this department. So individually, there definitely are success stories. There are, you know, departments that are trying new things and reaching out in new places.

And they don't feel like they are being successful individually. Individual departments. Yes. I think when you look overall, the overall picture shows that we still have a little ways to go. So looking forward a little bit, what are the next steps for you in this investigation? So a report will publish. It'll look at the numbers. But what are you looking to do on your end over the coming weeks, months or maybe even years?

Well, again, one of the things that I really love about this is that it gives us a launch point to look at a number of other issues we look specifically or when we use the term diversity. For the most part, we were looking at racial and ethnic diversity. However, there are a number of studies that look at the impact of women on the force in departments where there are more women use of force, complaints go down.

So we'd like to look at that. We also actually asked about the number of sworn members who identify as a gender other than male or female. We did not get a single person in any person in any department that identifies either as a gender other than male and female. And that is in an environment where we see crimes against members of the LGBTQ community growing.

So we want to look at that a little bit more closely. You know, we want to go back to some of the departments that gave us some information, but not a map and see if we can create a fuller picture of those departments just to get a more well-rounded sense of what the numbers are really showing us across a number of categories.

So we'll we will be back at it here. And I can't wait to read even more in the future. I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me today. This is terrific. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Behind the Headlines. You can find us on every podcast platform and we'd love it if you could take a moment to subscribe and leave a review. Finally, if you appreciate what we're doing with this program, we encourage you to invest in local journalism by supporting the newspaper in your community. I'm Terry Lipshetz.

Thank you so much for listening to behind the headlines from Lee Enterprises.

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