Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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In 1970, a civil rights activist growled to a reporter that D.C.’s predominantly white Metropolitan Police Department was “an alien army of occupation.” By the time that activist—Marion Barry—finished serving four terms as District mayor 20 years later, the majority of the city’s cops, like a majority of the city’s residents, were black. And black police chiefs had been running the department for years.

Today, MPD is commanded by a white woman, Cathy Lanier. And while the bulk of the police force’s officers are black, there’s some indication that the demographic changes the District has seen over the last few decades—a shrinking African-American population and an influx of white and Hispanic residents—are, again, being mirrored in MPD’s ranks.

Police statistics show that since about 2000, the number of black officers has been consistent, hovering at around 2,400. But the numbers also show that the percentage of black officers has decreased slightly, as the total number of cops fluctuated.

In 2001, black officers accounted for 66 percent of the department. The year after that, 65 percent. For 2003 and 2004, 64 percent. The steady drift continued throughout the decade, with a 1 percent drop about every one or two years. Last year, black officers made up 58 percent of the force, with whites making up 28 percent, Latinos 7 percent, Asians 2 percent, and those occupying the category “race not designated” 5 percent.

Like most demographic shifts, there are complicated explanations for the change. In 2001, when the percentage of black officers shifted from 66 percent to 65 percent, the city actually gained two black cops, ending up with 2,366. But that year also saw the addition of 30 Latino officers and 4 Asian officers. (It also, incidentally, saw the number of white officers, MPD’s second largest group, drop by seven.) Black cops aren’t necessarily leaving MPD; they’re just not being hired as rapidly anymore.

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Why does that matter? Because, it turns out, having a police force that looks like the citizens they patrol means better relations with the community. Bucking expectations of a District once set ablaze by racial tension, black Washingtonians actually like their cops more than black residents of some other cities.

In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, “Police-Community Relations in a Majority-Black City,” sociologists Ronald Weitzer, Steven Tuch, and Wesley Skogan compared attitudes toward police in D.C. and Chicago. Here, 29 percent of black residents thought MPD had a problem with misconduct. In Chicago, 50 percent of black residents thought the police were corrupt. One reason for the difference, the study’s authors believed, was that Chicago’s police department was majority white. “The racial composition of the two cities’ police departments may account, at least in part, for differences in police-community relations,” the study reads. “Our Washington findings lend support to this hypothesis, but research on a few other majority-Black cities with majority-black police department suggests that the racial composition thesis requires further testing.”

To one hard-nosed black MPD detective, who didn’t want to be quoted by name talking about the racial dynamics of the force, there’s no further “testing” needed. In a city where, despite a migrating black community, blacks are still more likely to be affected by crime, it’s important to have more black cops than white. “The experience they bring to a situation is important,” he says. It builds trust.

Another veteran black cop who works undercover and can seamlessly slip into a street persona whenever he wants didn’t even realize MPD was mostly black. “I thought it was majority white,” he tells me—mostly, he thinks, because all the higher-ups in the chain of command he interacts with are white.

He disagrees with the detective, though. “I can’t cosign that statement,” he says. Black officers don’t necessarily inspire trust: “It depends on the individual. And it just depends on the people in the community.”

But it’s hard to argue that race isn’t important. As a black kid growing up in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, my first encounter with a police officer didn’t go well. A white cop kicked me out of a predominantly white mall. The officer demanded I go back to my own neighborhood, and I said I couldn’t, because I was waiting for a friend’s sister, who’d ducked into a boutique.

The cop went for his nightstick. I left.

When my buddy’s sister came looking for me, I was too humiliated to say what happened. That incident, along with a few police beatings I happened to witness, solidified my fear of white police power. Though my attitude toward white cops ultimately changed as I had better experiences, it took awhile. I have no idea how more black police officers might have changed or sped up that process. In Philadelphia, a city that’s about 44 percent black, the police department is mostly white.

No matter what the stats say, MPD officials think police demographics may not actually be changing much at all. Spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump points out that three years ago, MPD stopped requiring recruits to report their race; 5 percent of the sworn officers in the statistics the department released chose not to identify a race. “This makes direct comparisons with data from 1998 more challenging,” Crump argues, when I ask her to comment on the decline of black officers in the overall force, from 67 percent in 1998 to 58 percent last year. She’s got a point, but the decrease started before 2008, and it would stand to reason that has continued.

Johnny Barnes, executive director of the local American Civil Liberties Union, keeps a close eye on the police. Barnes, a black man, remembers how when he was younger, catching sight of a police cruiser in his rear-view mirror made him “apprehensive.”

He says African Americans will have a greater degree of comfort when they see police officers who look like them. But Barnes isn’t worried about having a majority black department. He just thinks it’s “very important that we maintain a diverse police department.”

But if MPD wants to maintain its healthy relationship with black communities, maintaining its abundance of black officers may be important. And if officials want to do that, the brass may have to focus on race, no matter how they read the statistics.

After all, MPD is shedding about 15 officers a month through attrition, and a large number of its officers will be retiring in the next few years. Many of those retiring cops joined the force during the Barry administration, more than 20 years ago—when the department made a concerted effort to hire D.C. natives so no one would mistake it for an occupying army anymore. As the city faces change brought on by gentrification, Washingtonians will need to address the question of how the transition should be managed, even though it’s easier to invoke the feel-good ideology summed up in the phrase, “It’s not about race.” As I suspected that day I was booted from the mall, sometimes it is.