Michael Brown is a former Maryland police officer who now works for a company that trains law enforcement officials.
He is also one of 12 minority officers who filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging systemic racism within the ranks of Maryland’s Prince George Country police force – a problem, he says, that starts at the top.
“It’s a learned behavior. It’s like a kid – you don’t know of racism until somebody teaches it to you. So, it’s the same thing going to the police department. Because a person coming into law enforcement… you don’t know how to get away with stuff, somebody got to teach that to you. And that’s the problem right now, because of all the leadership.”
Attracting more Black applicants to the force is one way to fix the system, some policing experts say – but the death of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police has hampered an already problematic hiring process that’s decades old.
Sergeant Anthony Russell, a former recruitment supervisor and head of a Black officers’ advocacy group in Baltimore County, Maryland, explains.
“I remember when I became a police officer, I remember talking to my father, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and he said to me very clearly, ‘Why would you want to be the police? These were the same people who had fire hoses and had canine dogs, and they use these dogs and these hoses against us.’ So that’s an uphill battle that every municipality is going to deal with as far as recruiting minorities. When you add the George Floyd situation on top of that, it makes it that much more difficult.”
[FLASH TO DIFFERENT OFFICER SPEAKING]
“The department needs to hire someone that looks like me, that looks like him, that knows the community, and it builds up the kids also in the community to say, I want to be like that police officer, this police officer.”
That’s Lieutenant Sonya Zollicoffer, alongside Lieutenant Thomas Boone – both are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Maryland’s Prince George County force alleging racism.
Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that in 2016 whites accounted for 71.5% of the 701,000 sworn local police officers in the U.S.
African Americans account for 11.4% of local police forces, a drop from 11.9% in 2013.
The nationwide averages mask much bigger gaps in big cities, which are both less white and have more police per capita than many small towns.
Police experts say Black recruits face nepotism, more problems during background checks, greater barriers to promotion and higher discipline rates once hired.
In other words, the entire recruiting process – and resources devoted to it – needs to be reformed, says Russell.
“You have to recruit people for real. The same way IBM recruits, the same way Amazon recruits. If we want to be looked at that way, if we really want to change the community, how much money are we putting in recruitment? Because if it’s twenty-six thousand dollars, that’s not enough. That’s not enough.”