PORTLAND, Ore. - The latest Portland police officer-involved shooting is shining a spotlight on diversity, particularly among police officers. The majority of officers in Portland, and in many other police agencies around the country, are white men.
Adding more women and minorities to the force has been a priority for Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman since taking over the position.
“We have full-strength hiring. We have increased the diversity of our police force, but it’s still not reflective of the population, and that’s my ultimate goal,” says Saltzman.
Because culture often defines perspective and guides understanding, diversity is believed to affect quality of service; but recruiting women and minorities like Donna Brown can be difficult.
“I kept seeing white officers primarily,” Brown says, “and I thought, where are all the officers of color? Where are they?”
Brown, an African-American woman, decided she should be that officer and went to work for the Portland Police Bureau for two years. She recalls thinking: “This is something where I can do something positive, help the community, and be an excellent resource.”
As much as Brown enjoyed the work, she says she had to battle false perceptions in her own community. “There's a stigma that goes with that - of sort of being a sellout.
“For minority candidates, law enforcement hasn't always been the first choice,” says Sean Murray, the Portland police personnel manager.
Despite a history of minority police chiefs, like Derek Foxworth and Rosie Sizer, close to 88 percent of Portland police officers are white.
For Portland police to mirror the community, according to a 2006-2008 U.S. Census survey, the numbers of minorities and women would need to be closer to:
Murray says departments around the country are competing for minorities and are fighting a long history of minorities who view police less favorably than whites.
“It's not only that you have to recruit those candidates but their families also,” he says. “Those family members have grown up in the 1950s and 1960s and their perception of the police may not be the same type their children are experiencing.”
Murray says the Cadet program, and having youth build relationships with officers, is one way the Bureau is working to change those mindsets.
In the past, Portland police traveled to Chicago in an attempt to recruit more minorities. Even though the Bureau is up to full staffing, it is looking forward to upcoming retirements and considering a trip to California to “tap in to the fact that California’s economic situation is not good right now: L.A.P.D. isn’t hiring and the diversity California brings.”
But finding the right officer means talking to many candidates. The multistep application process of written and physical tests, background and credit checks, interviews and reference reviews weeds many candidates out. "From every 12 that take a test, we hire one candidate," says Murray.
"I don't think it's the test," counters Brown. "I think it's the scrutiny at which a black applicant is under. ... There are a lot of black applicants that, for some reason in the process, fail. That needs to be addressed."
Because officers are so visible, research has shown when they’re more reflective of the community it gives a perception of equal treatment. Brown says being an African-American female officer helped her gain trust.
“That's where diversity and culture comes in. That's where I have an opportunity to relate to people in my community from my cultural perspective and to communicate on terms that are understandable,” she says.
Although Brown is no longer an officer (she was let go after her probation period in 2007) she still supports and respects local police officers but believes more should be done, not just to hire minorities, but keep them working and earning positions of leadership.
“I think the Portland Police Bureau can be so much more respected if this issue was taken seriously. ... We’re in 2010: when are we going to get there?”
2009 Police Officer Hires
57 (100.00%)Source: Portland Police Bureau
Sworn Police Bureau Employees as of 9/1/2009
969 (100.00%)Source: Portland Police Bureau