Black Cops Aren't Better For Black Communities Just Because They Have The Same Skin Color

06/02/2015 01:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

In 1971, Boston’s predominantly white police department created an all-black unit within its ranks. The initial goal of the “Soul Patrol” was to address local NAACP concerns about crime in the city’s black neighborhoods following a spate of four murders over the course of a week. Tensions between white officers and residents were already strained, and some black Bostonians had begun to question the police department's commitment to addressing the surge in violence.

Some white officers initially opposed the unit, whose 34 African-American patrolmen at the time made up about half of all the black officers on Boston Police Department's 2,742-man force. These critics believed that cops were cops first and maintained that race was a secondary factor in policing. But the all-black patrol began to garner support from other officers when the unit’s presence led to a spike in arrests in Boston’s mostly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester.

Boston's experiment raises some interesting and complex questions amid the current debate over policing. Calls for increased commitment to community-oriented policing styles have been made again and again as officials consider reforms in response to police killings in Ferguson, Baltimore and, most recently, Cleveland. The basic premise is that reform, which includes building a more racially balanced force, will alleviate discrimination in part by hiring officers that look more like the members of the communities they are policing.

But more officers of color doesn’t necessarily correlate to less police violence against citizens -- especially those of color. City Lab points to the case of the New Orleans Police Department, which is “one of the most racially balanced police forces in the nation.” In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department found that the NOPD's patterns of misconduct, which included excessive force and illegal stops, searches and seizures, showed racial and ethnic -- as well as LGBT -- bias.

The NOPD's case highlights why it's necessary to pursue true community policing, which extends beyond just hiring more black officers. This isn’t to say that a more racially diverse police force isn't helpful, but the goal of community policing is to build a working relationship between the police and the policed, and to actively address the community's issues in hopes of lowering crime rates and increasing public safety.

Black officers won't gravitate toward this goal simply because they're black. In fact, it requires a shallow, tribalistic view of race to suggest that black officers will foster a better relationship with the black community simply because there’s a shared complexion. It puts race alone at the center of the debate over policing, ignoring underlying structural issues that afflict our nation's police forces.

Advocates for police reform have called for an examination of the way officers are conditioned and trained to engage with possible suspects, and particularly those of color. They've questioned how pressure to fill quotas can lead police to fabricate charges. They've criticized the fact that cops, on the chance they are indicted, are given deference by the courts. And, most importantly, they've pointed out that cops are not controlled by the law, but use it to their benefit once charges arise. These problems don't exist simply because disproportionately white police forces are patrolling the streets of non-white communities.

It’s apparent that, at times, a problematic disconnect can exist between white officers and black communities. It's hard to process the nuances of how black people exist within our own spaces when an officer's only direct contact with us comes in the context of fighting crime from inside a patrol car or behind a badge.

And just because an officer looks like the residents of a community, it doesn't mean he or she is more likely to respect their humanity. In fact, some studies have shown that black officers have a tendency to be tougher on black people. A 2007 investigation found that some of Washington, D.C.’s black residents believed black cops were harder on them than white officers, while a 2006 study of Cincinnati police records shows that black officers were more likely to make an arrest if the suspect was black.

This leads us back to the Soul Patrol’s hike in arrests in the early '70s. Though the squadron attributed their success to the relationship they had with black community members and they've been described as “an early version of community policing,” as we know now, a spike in arrests doesn't necessarily mean a commitment to effective policing.

Did the unit develop any long-term community outreach efforts to aid in curbing crime, or was it simply enhanced enforcement? Or did Boston Police just assume things would go smoothly because everyone was black? It seems unlikely that any questions were asked at the time. The public rarely asks questions when a slew of black suspects are locked up, and they were certainly less likely to do so in the early '70s -- even in Roxbury and Dorchester, where residents were reportedly relieved to see a few murder suspects locked up after the Soul Patrol acted on tips from the community.

All of this is a reminder that the real success of a community policing effort won't be measured in numbers alone. As Colorlines recently pointed out, a diverse police squad won’t solve “the prevalence of hidden, unconscious bias against black people” or “examine the racial impact of all of a department’s policies and practices, regardless of who is carrying out them out.”

“Race is a trigger for police brutality,” Jack Glaser, an associate professor at University of California-Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, told The Huffington Post. This is due, in part, to the history of policing in the U.S. -- which began when African-Americans were widely seen as property to be managed and handled, and has not fully abandoned its dark past. But this racial bias affects all officers, no matter their own skin color.

And while African-American officers may be more likely to see a black person as an individual and not assume he or she is a violent criminal, they may be less likely to acknowledge that they, too, may act upon the implicit racial biases present in policing more broadly. When police culture at large is grounded in such biases, even black officers often come to view black citizens as inherently criminal.

Neill Franklin, a black man who spent decades working for the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland State Police, told Vox that he held strong misperceptions of young black men after years on the job.

"When I'd see a young black male in a particular neighborhood, or his pants were sagging a little bit, or he walked a certain way … my first thoughts were, 'Oh, I wonder if he's selling drugs,'" said Franklin, now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit that favors progressive drug policy reform.

And the consequences of this institutional racism can sometimes be deadly, regardless of the race of the officer. Reports have found that black officers -- as well as white ones -- are responsible for killing a disproportionate number of black citizens.

“To the extent that [a police officer's] behavior is driven by fear or anger or aggression, the stereotype of black men as more aggressive or more violent will also cause black officers -- not all of them, but some of them to exhibit more force against black suspects,” Glaser said.

Any conversation surrounding police violence must include race, but it must also be willing to expand beyond it. Yes, there are stark racial disparities between how African-Americans and whites are treated when they encounter law enforcement. Yes, that conversation warrants the national attention it has gained. But to say that more non-white officers will alone lessen the violence inflicted upon black bodies is a simplistic, surface-level prescription for a deeper, systemic issue. The color of an officer's face is irrelevant if they are perpetuating institutional traditions that fuel racial inequality in policing instead of working to change them.

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