How important is racial diversity in community policing?

Police have been under heavy scrutiny since the events in Ferguson, the officer choking death of black Staten Island resident Eric Garner, and most recently, the fatal shooting of black North Charleston, S.C., resident Walter Scott by an officer now facing a murder charge.

In Salinas, many in the community attributed the police killings of four Hispanic men between March and August 2014 to widespread racial profiling.

The New York Times and other media have noted huge disparities between the percentage of minority residents and the percentage of minority officers in many communities. In Ferguson, African-Americans made up 67 percent of the population but only 11 percent of the police force.

Little research has been published on how officer complaints or incident outcomes may differ when police departments match the racial diversity of their communities.

Some experts question whether shared racial demographics are as important to positive community-police relations.

A 2004 study by the National Research Council, a private, nonprofit institution that provides expert advice on some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, found that there is no strong statistical correlation between the race of an officer and how that officer treats citizens when they are stopped on the streets. The study found that similar training and on-the-job experiences result in more similarities than differences between officers of any race in their policing.

That said, residents do want a diverse police force, according to Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University specializing in police-minority relations.

A survey that he conducted of about 1,790 people regarding relations with police found that more than 70 percent of blacks, Hispanics and whites believed that police departments should have racial compositions similar to their communities. The survey was reported in his 2006 book, “Race and Policing in America.”

Only about 5 percent of blacks and Hispanics wanted most officers who work in their neighborhoods to be the same race as most residents.

“Ethnic minorities favor reforming police departments so that they reflect the composition of the local population. And this can pay dividends in terms of increasing public trust and confidence in a police department,” Weitzer wrote to The Tribune in an email. “What the public is critical of are departments that are lopsided — like Ferguson's.”

Most people regardless of race prefer to see racially-mixed teams of officers patrolling their streets, Weitzer said.

To help police departments nationwide develop best practices for community policing, the UCLA Center for Policing Equity is undergoing a large-scale project to compile data from local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies that could help them draw conclusions about issues such as racial profiling and police diversity.

Accurate data for things such as police-related shootings has been inconsistent among agencies, and little research exists to say for certain if race relations with police improve when make-ups are similar, said Meredith Gamson-Smiedt, executive director of the Center for Policing Equity.

“There are real disparities in data of who’s being stopped, use of force, and then we don’t know what is the best method to say whether a department is engaging in racial profiling. Right now there is no gold standard, no best practice,” Gamson-Smiedt said. The organization is gathering the data into one National Justice Database with plans to create best practices for police departments of all sizes. She said they expect to publish their first reports within a year.

“That way we can understand what is working, what policies are promoting fair policing,” Gamson-Smiedt said. “(Matching race) isn’t going to be the end-all be-all.”