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The MPD’s current crop of recruits doesn’t look like D.C.
The Metropolitan Police Department’s “Career Expo” at the Washington Convention Center late last month was the force’s biggest show of confidence in years. Luring potential recruits with gleaming cruisers, silky infomercials, and dozens of smiling brass, the event was probably most remarkable for its banality: Here was a department doing exactly what it’s supposed to do—wooing young men and women who want to see action. Cops who usually spend their days getting verbally abused by those they are sworn to protect and serve were instead passing out cheery pamphlets that read: “Be a Part of Something Special.”
These days, they have the goods—or at least the good press—to back up their PR. D.C.’s police force has been riding a wave of positive attention. Its August gun-buyback program led the evening news for nearly a week. The new Summer Mobile Force, a roving unit that hits violent hot spots, has also drawn solid reviews. In terms of its public image, if not its success against crime, the department seems to be in a whole new place.
But amidst the hype about transformation, there’s one significant change few cops are talking about: The police force—historically a key symbol in District racial politics—is getting whiter. In the last five recruit classes, covering the years 1998 and 1999, whites have become a plurality.
The raw numbers demonstrate the size of the change. White officers make up just 27 percent of the current police force. But whites occupy 45 percent of recruit slots. Whites have outnumbered blacks 60 to 58 in the last five batches of recruits.
Police higher-ups downplay the racial numbers and argue that the department’s main priority has to be finding qualified bodies—never mind what color they are. The emphasis on new blood comes thanks to a $15 million U.S. Justice Department grant that will fund the hiring of 200 officers in the coming year. Officials have made recruiting trips to college job fairs and Army bases up and down the East Coast, and have sent job info as far as California.
According to Inspector Jennifer Greene, who heads the recruitment office, 85 percent of the department’s applicants are black. But a sizable discrepancy exists between those who apply and those who get a chance to pick up their three-ring trainee binders at D.C.’s Institute of Police Science.
Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer says that although the department doesn’t have a specific diversity program in place to recruit minorities, the department should mirror the District’s racial demographics. The force is currently 67 percent black, he says—roughly the same as the city in general. Gainer says it’s too early to tell whether the department has a problem recruiting minorities. “Even a 60-40 split is probably not a bad number,” he adds. “Whether it should be plus or minus 5 [percentage points] is probably more detail than I am into.” Greene adds that numbers can occasionally spike one way or the other without indicating a wholesale change.
Gainer says that the brass are investigating the discrepancy between the number of minority applicants and those who make it to the force. “That’s information we need to look into,” he says. “We have been asking Human Resources and Recruitment to give us the information. If I saw a continued trend, I would question whether we are recruiting properly.”
The recent recruit statistics may just be a blip, but race is never far from the surface when crime and justice issues are discussed in D.C. Even though not every issue breaks down into black and white, the department’s political history remains dominated by race.
Before the 1968 riots, the District’s police force was 80 percent white. According to former Mayor Walter Washington, officers had no real training in racial dynamics or excessive force. And they suffered no real consequences when they abused their power over an increasingly black city. In the ’50s and early ’60s, it was not uncommon for D.C. residents to run into white officers itching for a fight.
To the civil rights activists who constituted the nascent home rule movement, the city’s police force was, from a practical perspective, the military arm of race-baiting members of Congress like John L. McMillan of South Carolina, the chair of the House District Committee. Activists characterized the force as an “occupying army.” According to Dream City, Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood’s history of modern Washington, police killed 13 African-Americans in 1967 and early 1968, “including one whose offense was as petty as stealing a bag of cookies.”
“They were definitely notorious,” remembers Jim Foreman, one of the founders of the Orange Hat Patrols, a citizens’ anti-crime group. “It was rough. At that time, it was the harassment—clearing you off street corners, picking you up, and locking you up. It was hell on the streets.”
After the riots, things started to change. President Richard Nixon bumped the police force from 3,100 to 5,100 officers, according to Washington—and many of the new recruits were black. Washington says the department was 43 percent black by the mid-’70s.
Marion Barry’s rise to the mayor’s office in 1979 changed the complexion of city government for good—including the police. In the police force, blacks dominated the ranks from chief down to patrol officer. By Barry’s fourth term, the department’s identity as a black-majority institution was so stable that he could name a white man as chief without stirring up fears of a white takeover.
If there is something to the recent recruit statistics—and D.C.’s police force does become noticeably whiter—no one’s quite sure what it will mean.
“There’s definitely a potential problem,” says Mark Thompson, chair of the local NAACP’s police task force. “I think right now we live in a climate of apprehension on both sides. High-profile events around the country and the overwhelming number of police shootings have created a large tension between the community and the police.”
“It is an issue,” says Sandra Seegars, a community activist in Congress Heights who regularly scrutinizes the police department. “It seems as if the whites are taking over the police department and the city council. It seems as if the chief is bringing more whites in.”
Police-watchers who pronounce themselves unconcerned with an officer’s race point out that the real cause of hostility is bad cops, no matter what their color. “I don’t want lousy white candidates; I don’t want lousy black candidates,” says outspoken police critic Carl Rowan Jr. “I think bad cops earn mistrust whether they are white or black.”
“I don’t care what color they are when they walk through the door,” says Assistant Chief Alfred Broadbent, who runs the police academy.
But in the wake of 1998, when an outsider wonk replaced Barry and a crew of good-government types finally wrested control of the D.C. Council from its civil-rights-minded old-timers, some people see the recruit classes as a harbinger. When changes in the police department involve the complexion of officers instead of simply the efficiency of services, the symbolic importance is a lot more critical than in personnel changes at, say, the public library. Already, Ramsey has received criticism from the Fraternal Order of Police because 12 out of 17 civilians he has installed in senior department positions are white.
But the race card never pops up at the Career Expo. Like good ’90s public-servants-in-training, the recruiters at the convention center and at the academy say they don’t even look at race.
William Erkman, a white cop from Ocean City, N.J., is Exhibit A. He’s seeking a D.C. police job for one reason: “It’s a big town.” Erkman knows nothing of Washington besides the kind of postcard images available at the souvenir shops at National Airport. “The faster pace is more my style,” he says, adjusting his shades atop his blond crew cut. “Just the volume of people you see.”
He doesn’t think about race. “Not particularly,” Erkman admits. “People are people. I’d do the same standard of service for everybody.” CP