It would have been difficult to convince a young Michael Williams that, in 2015, he would be nearing his 17th year as a police officer in Memphis, Tennessee. “I became a police officer because, early in life, I did not like the police,” said Williams, who is black and president of the Memphis Police Association.
Williams grew up in an impoverished area of Memphis in the 1960s, when there were few sworn black officers and no black police chiefs, despite the city’s sizable black population. “I just felt as though my community should have had police officers that were better able to relate to our culture,” said the 55-year-old Williams.
After leaving to serve 20 years in the U.S. Army, Williams said he returned to discover Memphis had promoted blacks to positions of leadership in law enforcement. While overall recruitment of minority police officers has increased nationally over the last three decades, the addition of black officers and the appointment of black chiefs have been much slower because the distrust and concern over aggressive policing in communities of color have not dissipated, experts said.
“From a black perspective, we would like to say that a black [chief] would be a better [chief]. But that’s not necessarily always the case,” Williams said Wednesday, when Andre Anderson, a black police commander from Glendale, Arizona, was named interim chief of police in Ferguson, Missouri, where the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white officer sparked civil unrest and a national dialogue about diversity in the law enforcement ranks.
“It depends on the individual,” Williams said. “Regardless of color, if you are in touch with the community and show a vested interest in the community, as opposed to only being there to police, I think that builds stronger bonds.”
Memphis, a city of 653,450 that is more than 60 percent African-American, now has a police department that is predominantly black and has a black director. In Ferguson, Anderson, 50, has more than 24 years of experience in law enforcement and, on Wednesday, he promised to fix problems that top federal law enforcement officials had criticized in a probe of the city and police department. The Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation was prompted by the Aug. 9 , 2014, shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old who was unarmed when he encountered former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Ferguson, a city of 21,000 people, is more than two-thirds black. All but a handful of the city’s 54 sworn officers at the time of the DOJ investigation were white, though at least one was black, one Latino and one Asian officer were also on staff. Former Police Chief Tom Jackson, who resigned in the wake of the DOJ probe, was white.
In 2013, about 130,000 officers -- or 27 percent of local police ranks in the United States -- were minorities, an increase of about 78,000 since 1987, according to the Department of Justice’s statistics bureau. However, Latinos and Asian-Americans made up more than 60 percent of the increase in officers of color since 2007, while the number of black officers plateaued during that same period.
African-American officers and Latino officers each accounted for 12 percent of local police forces in 2013. For African-Americans, that’s almost on par with the overall black population, which is 13.2 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate.
Several U.S. cities with majority-black populations have African-American police directors, chiefs or superintendents, but data has not been kept on the number of black police executives at the municipal level, according to Noble, or the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
In New Orleans, Michael Harrison has been the superintendent of police since October 2014. George Turner, the chief of police in Atlanta, was appointed in 2010. In Flint, Michigan, James Tolbert is chief of police. Until recently, Anthony Batt had been commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired him because of an alarming spike in murders following the riots and protests over the police-involved death of Freddie Gray in April.
Black officials also led police departments in cities where whites make up a majority of residents. In Philadelphia, Charles Ramsey has been police commissioner since 2008. In Indianapolis, Richard Hite has been chief of police since 2012.
— IMPD (@IMPD_News) July 13, 2015
During a national convention of the black police officers and leaders on July 13, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called on attendees to double their efforts to ensure that local law enforcement agencies reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve. “As men and women of color, we have an opportunity to ensure and to make clear that law enforcement at every level -- from the Office of the Attorney General to the officers on the front lines -- stands united with all Americans in the pursuit of a safer shared nation, a brighter common future, and a more just society,” Lynch said in remarks to Noble.
Noble, which represents several thousand African-American law enforcement executives at federal, state, county and municipal levels, has been outspoken in the wake of fatal police encounters that the organization condemned as “police violence” and stressed the impact that such incidents have on day-to-day policing for all sworn officers.
“How do we collectively strengthen public trust while ensuring the safety of our law enforcement officers?” Cedric Alexander, the Noble president, asked in a statement. Noble also strongly condemned events in 2014 that left two New York City police officers and a Tarpon Springs, Florida, officer dead.
Williams, the Memphis officer, said he joined the police force with the belief that he had to be part of building better law enforcement. “The only way to change things and to make a difference is to become part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem, and fix it from the inside out,” he said. “We have to be an example to the community of what a good police officer is.”