By John Lantigua
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The majority of Florida police departments have significantly lower percentages of blacks in their law enforcement ranks than they have blacks in the populations they protect and serve.
In some cities, the percentages of black citizens are two to three times the percentages of black officers patrolling the streets, a disparity that experts say contributes to racial tensions, increases the risk of excessive uses of force, and drains taxpayer dollars due to unnecessary arrests and incarcerations.
Police officials in Florida say they are trying to recruit additional black officers to mirror the demographics of their communities, a mantra in law enforcement these days. The latest data and interviews with police administrators statewide indicate those efforts are falling short.
“I am failing miserably,” says Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood. He speaks for himself, but he might as well be referring to most of the state.
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 shined a national spotlight on the issue: The population of Ferguson was 67 percent black, but 50 of 53 police officers there were white. In North Charleston, S.C., where a fleeing Walter Scott was shot multiple times in the back and killed by a white officer on April 7, the city is 47 percent black, while the police force is 80 percent white. In both cities, black residents had long complained of what they consider harassment by white officers.
The death of a black man, Freddy Gray, after his April 12 arrest by Baltimore police prompted several days of rioting. Six police officers were charged, three white, three black. Baltimore’s force is 46 percent white, while the city’s population is 28 percent white.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting obtained 2015 officer demographic data provided by police departments statewide to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. FCIR then compared that data with the 2013 U.S. Census, the most recent available. The analysis includes only sworn officers who work the streets, not corrections personnel or other police employees.
Racial disparities exist in police departments throughout Florida. In Fort Lauderdale, the population is 31.4 percent black, while only 13.6 percent of police officers are black. In Daytona Beach, the gap between the black population and black street officers is 34.8 percent to 14.4 percent. The Fort Myers numbers are 31.2 percent to 13.4 percent. The gaps in Gainesville (22.4 percent to 15.6 percent), Orlando (28.6 percent to 16.1 percent), St. Petersburg (24.4 percent to 14.3 percent) and Tallahassee (35.3 percent to 15 percent) further underscore the problem.
In some smaller cities, the disparity is even greater. Boynton Beach is 31.5 percent black, yet only 9.9 percent of its street force is black. Fort Pierce is 40.9 percent black, and its police ranks are 16.4 percent black. In suburban Broward County, Sunrise has a black community that accounts for 33.1 percent of the population, which is being served by a police force that is 8.8 percent black, while Lauderhill is 79.3 percent black with a police force whose black street officers make up only 31.2 percent.
Some exceptions exist, but they are generally more affluent cities with very small black populations, such as Boca Raton, Coral Gables and Miami Beach. Those three cities have higher percentages of black police on the streets than black residents. Among larger Florida cities Miami is the only one with a force that represents the population, which is the result of a 1977 “consent decree” with the U.S. Department of Justice that mandated the integration of the police department there.
In some Florida counties, sheriff’s offices oversee significant segments of the populations. Jacksonville, for example, is policed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office due to government consolidation with Duval County. In general, Florida sheriffs also report low numbers of black law enforcement deputies. But sheriffs tend to employ a higher number of deputies who are certified for both law enforcement and corrections duties, and since the FDLE does not track how many of those deputies are working the street and how many are assigned to jail duties, FCIR did not include them in this analysis.
A legacy of segregation
Frederick Shenkman, a University of Florida criminologist, says the effects of country’s troubled racial history linger in Florida, as they do in law enforcement staffing in many parts of the United States.
“Up until the 1960s, most Florida agencies were segregated,” he said. “If there were black officers on a force, they worked only in black areas and could arrest only black people.”
Those days are gone. Today, black community activists say they see more white officers on their streets than black officers. And those officers often exercise an intense enforcement style — known as “broken windows” policing. Neighborhoods designated as high-crime areas are targeted and local residents — the majority of whom are not criminals — are stopped for even the smallest of infractions: vehicle windows tinted a shade too dark, rolling stops at intersections, panhandling, loitering on a street corner. The rationale is that if police crack down on the small stuff, the problem criminals will head for cover. Police say that strategy has lowered serious crime, but community leaders say the concentrated focus on their neighborhoods amounts to racial profiling.
“We’ve had people arrested for sitting on the sidewalk,” says Cynthia Slater of Daytona Beach, president of the Volusia County NAACP. “What’s that about? People see it as harassment. They don’t do this in white neighborhoods.”
Another example: A Tampa Bay Times investigation in April revealed that 79 percent of tickets for bicycle offenses in that city are given to blacks, while blacks make up only 27.5 percent of the population. Tampa street cops are 13.7 percent black.
Such stops for minor infractions often lead to searches, and sometimes to more serious charges. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found that nationwide blacks are arrested for possession of marijuana at 3.8 times more per capita than whites, even though the two races use marijuana at about the same rate. In Florida, it was 4.2 times. Community leaders say many of those arrests follow questionable stops — again, stops that are less likely to happen in white enclaves.
Historically, a drug conviction disqualified a person from a law enforcement career. Today, some offenders can avoid a conviction through court diversion programs. And many departments say even with a conviction, if a young person stays clean for several years after an arrest and passes written, psychological and polygraph tests, he or she can still be a cop. But black leaders say the intense police scrutiny of their neighborhoods makes that path much more difficult and contributes to the low number applying for police jobs.
“I’ve never heard of a person who had a marijuana charge ever being hired by police around here,” says Slater of Daytona Beach.
What has developed is a sense, especially among young blacks, that law enforcement is a white institution designed to oppress blacks. Daytona Beach Police Chief Chitwood defends his officers, but says he understands that tensions are heightened in black neighborhoods when white officers are the ones carrying badges and guns.
“If an African-American officer tells someone there that they need to stop doing something, it is more likely to resonate,” he says. “A white officer does that and it is construed, ‘He’s telling me this because I’m black.’ ”
Major Delrish Moss of the Miami Police Department, an African-American, says a predominantly white police presence in black neighborhoods is seen as “an occupying force that comes from the outside.”
“You’re trying to recruit African-Americans, but they look at the way law enforcement works in their neighborhoods and say, ‘Why would I want to be part of that?’ ” says Moss.
All of the police departments contacted by FCIR said they are recruiting officers at black colleges, military bases and black churches, as well as running police cadet programs for kids. But most of these efforts haven’t made a dent in the racial demographics of their street forces. Recruiters say the recent deaths of black men at police hands in various states will only make that challenge more difficult.
Police in Florida’s Big Cities*
*Police data for Jacksonville not available.
“The recent police community relations issues are going to present a real challenge for recruiting,” says Lt. Gary Dukeman of the St. Petersburg Police.
But Lia Gaines, president of the West Palm Beach NAACP, says Floridians cannot allow what has happened elsewhere to be used as an excuse for not recruiting more blacks into Florida policing.
“It’s not about what happened anywhere else,” says Gaines. “It is about the relationships between police and minority communities right here in Florida. Those relationships have to improve. The behavior of the police in those communities has to change.”
Advocates for more black police say saving money starts at the neighborhood level with officers who lower tensions, reduce crime and solve problems without adding to costs. Moss says the fact that his department has attracted a large number of black officers — the population of Miami is 19.8 percent black and 28.9 of city law enforcement officers are black — allows for more community policing. He recalls being an officer in the blighted Overtown neighborhood and dealing with local people who got in trouble.
“But I had grown up there and I knew those people,” he says. “I knew this one guy had started acting up after he lost his job, so I reached out to someone and helped him get a new job. If a kid was doing what he shouldn’t, I went to his mom and she exacted justice. I didn’t have to arrest those people and the taxpayer didn’t have to pay for it.”
Of course, some people had to be jailed. He recalls a local teenager, Willie Bonner Jr., who was involved in a murder and went into hiding.
“I called his mother and told her as a fugitive from justice he was risking getting killed. I told her to bring him down here and she did,” Moss says. Bonner went to prison, and no police officer was injured trying to capture him. “Relationships in the community make you very effective,” Moss added.
Gaines of the NAACP says the current racial imbalance makes law enforcement inefficient in black communities.
“The police are constantly arresting people for possession of marijuana, but you almost never hear of the suppliers of the marijuana to those neighborhoods being arrested, because police they send in there can’t get that kind of information,” she says. “They arrest and arrest people, and it never ends. It makes no sense.”
Officer Reynold Philippe, 45, a Haitian-American with Miami Police Department, was raised in Miami’s largely-black north end. Today, he patrols that area and spends his days wading into crime scenes and neighborhood disputes among people he has been around all his life. He works with a large smile and wraps his arm around the shoulders of people he is trying to calm.
“I don’t bust people for minor stuff,” he says. “I talk to them, but I don’t bust them. Those same people will help me when something serious happens. They won’t talk to me where people can see them, but they give me a nod and later they call me and tell me what I need to know.”
Philippe spends the work week in Miami and his off days in a St. Lucie County community, where he owns a house.
“I’ve never told any of the police up there that I am an officer,” he says. “I watch how they operate. There are almost no black police up there, but lots of black people. They don’t do community policing. They aren’t friendly. They don’t mix with the community. Some don’t let people even stand next to them, and of course, the people don’t help them with anything.”
Moss thinks the Justice Department could use “consent decrees,” as it did in Miami, to diversify other Florida departments. But he also believes black civic organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, as well as black churches, should do more to encourage youth to enter policing. He says those groups also need to be at the table with police chiefs when recruitment is being implemented.
“Those police departments say they are trying to recruit more blacks, but who do they have sitting at the table with them?” Moss asks. “It will take some doing, but I’m convinced there are idealistic young black people out there who can help bring change.”