Strife In Ferguson Focuses Microscope On Police Diversity

Melissa Block talks with Capt. Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, about efforts to diversify police forces nationwide, the impact that diversity has on communities and the challenges in recruiting minorities to the profession.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests have brought to light a common disparity. The population of Ferguson is about two thirds black. Of the 53 members of its police force just three are black. While diversification of Police Departments has been a goal since the early 1970s, smaller forces in particular remain largely white and male. For more on the challenges of recruiting a diverse police force, we called on Tracie Keesee. She's cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA and also a 25 year veteran of the Denver Police Department. Her views expressed here are her own, not those of the Denver Police.

TRACIE KEESEE: One of the things that you have to look at when you talk about diversifying police organizations is that you have qualifications for folks and the last thing you want to do is to start to change or lower, which has always been a topic of discussion - those types of requirements. Another level that has to be examined as well is the relationship - the historical relationship between communities of color and Police Departments. I can speak from my own experience as, you know, an African-American police officer. When I told my parents that this is something that I wanted to do they were very concerned.

BLOCK: Really? What did they say?

KEESEE: You know, my mother being from the South - the historical issues in the South with the police and during the civil rights movement, there was a true concern for my safety. And the belief that something may happen to me - not necessarily from someone from my own community but from something or someone inside of the police department. Those types of sentiments really still exist in the communities of color.

BLOCK: I want to play some tape for you. This is from our reporter who was in Ferguson, Missouri, last night. And police from elsewhere in the county were facing off with protesters. And there were three black police officers among a couple of dozen white police officers and let's listen to what one of the protesters yelled at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You all better wake up and see what's going on, man. It's hurting us, man, when we see her own kind against our own kind.

BLOCK: So he's saying it's hurting us when we see our own kind against our own kind. I'd be curious to hear your reaction as you listen to that.

KEESEE: Well, absolutely. This is what the officers experiencing of what we call a double-bind. And I can tell you I've been in that position. And what happens is that you've chosen a profession that you are trying to serve honorably but you are very aware of the historical relationships that have occurred between law enforcement or your chosen profession and the community in which you grew up in. And it's a very stressful time for those officers and I'm telling you it's hurtful. It's hurtful for those officers. But it's also a reality that it's being spoken from the community. And I can probably tell you without even seeing the tape that those officers are doing exactly what they were assigned to do. And that is to hold the line, to make sure that violence hopefully doesn't escalate. But it is a very difficult situation and I think it highlights the reason why Chiefs have a problem recruiting from different communities of colors because of those types of things as well.

BLOCK: Is there any evidence that having a more racially diverse police force correlates with fewer complaints - complaints about police brutality or harassment?

KEESEE: You know, the research on that is very spotty. What the research tells us is that, you know, does diversity help? Of course it does. It always helps psychologically and it helps from a sometimes - a communication standpoint. But a lot of times if you have someone that is not prepared to do that job there's also a tendency for overcompensation in that job. And what I mean is that you have folks that can reflect the community that at that at times happen to be even more violent than the larger group that most folks are angry at. So does it help reduce things? I think in some cases it may. I think that's an area in which it still needs to be researched. But I think that you cannot just for the sake of having a face that looks like yours have someone in an organization that's not prepared to be able to communicate and understand what the community concerns to help try to make those things better.

BLOCK: Tracy Keesee, when you look at what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri, and the escalation of violence and tension do you get any sense, based on your experience with policing and diversity, that things would be different if there were more black police officers on the force there?

KEESEE: You know, you can't really say that. You don't know. That's the unknown. We certainly need to take a greater look at that. I don't think any one thing can say, if you had more of one would this make that go away? I just don't think that would be the right approach.

BLOCK: Not that simple.

KEESEE: No, it's not that simple.

BLOCK: Tracy Keesee is cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. She's also a captain with the Denver Police Department. Thank you so much.

KEESEE: And thank you.

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