Police force diversity again in the spotlight

In the wake of Walter Scott’s death at the hands of Patrolman Michael Slager, the controversy surrounding North Charleston’s history of aggressive policing and racial profiling has raised new questions about the force’s lack of diversity.

Last year, The Post and Courier examined the racial and ethnic makeup of all law enforcement agencies in the Charleston metro area, and found that the city of North Charleston has the least racially representative police force in the Lowcountry.

Just 62, or about 19 percent, of the city’s 342 sworn officers are black while the city’s population remains split almost evenly between blacks and whites. In Charleston County as a whole, which is 65 percent white and 28 percent black, only 27, or 11 percent, of the 253 deputies at the sheriff’s office are black. Only one police department — Mount Pleasant, which is 85 percent white — reflects the demographics of its community.

Since the civil rights movement, black communities have long advocated for more black officers in their local police departments, with the underlying assumption that they would do a better job policing and diffusing tension between minorities and predominately white police departments, says Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Research, however, generally shows little correlation between an officer’s race and use of force against civilians. But Stoughton, a former officer for the Tallahassee Police Department, has heard plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people are happier with their interactions with officers who are familiar with their community than they are with officers who aren’t.

Although an integrated police force alone isn’t enough to build and restore community-police relations, it’s “an important step,” he said, in addition to improved transparency, accessibility, and responsiveness.

“Race is not an essential factor there. A police department can do that without having a force that represents the community, but I think it does contribute to the general sense of trust,” Stoughton said. “When a community trusts the police department, it is more likely to cooperate with officers. That cooperation is essential to crime fighting.”

It isn’t easy, however, for many police departments to recruit minorities thanks to requirements that eliminate potential candidates of all races, but disproportionately affect people of color, such as having a criminal record, no college degree or a negative perception of law enforcement.

Charleston County sheriff’s department Maj. Eric Watson said part of the challenge of recruiting job candidates of all races is competing with the private sector, which typically offers better pay and benefits. Watson, the office’s only black major, said he doesn’t believe that Scott’s recent shooting death will damage deputies’ relationship with the community or arouse mistrust against the sheriff’s office.

“It comes down to effective communication regardless of your race, your background. It all goes down to being able to communicate to the people you serve,” he said “I treat everyone the same, and that is our philosophy across the board.”

But in the aftermath of the Scott shooting, Melvin Tucker, a veteran police officer and legal consultant based in Raleigh, N.C., doubts that the rest of the country will move on as quickly.

“It’s going to take years for the police to regain the trust of our citizenry because we have lost it. We’re no longer looked at as the guardians of our society. We’re looked at as the occupying army. That’s terrible,” he said. “It’s not going to change until you get police chiefs who are more loyal to the ideals and tenets of the law enforcement profession and less loyal to their own organization. Until that changes, things are going to go along like they are.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.