A new study has shown that when a police department is racially diverse and reflects the community it protects, the shooting deaths of Black residents decline. A sociologist from New York University, Joscha Legewie, teamed up with Jeffrey Fagan, who is a law professor at Columbia University, and together they analyzed the police shootings data available at Fatal Encounters. The database, Fatal Encounters, was started by Brian Burghart in 2001, after a Black student was fatally shoot at the University of South Alabama by campus police. The initial findings of the study show a city with a large Black population but a small number of Black police officers has a higher rate of deadly police shootings. This statistic was even more staggering when the city had a similar number of Black and white citizens. In the study, Mr. Legewie noted, “Diverse police departments are particularly able to alleviate tensions in cities … where you have preexisting racial, ethnic tensions.”
As part of the study, the authors accounted for unique socioeconomic factors, and what they found was cities with an evenly mixed white and Black population, still had fewer Black citizens dying in fatal police encounters when the police force represented that diversity. The findings are starting to reflect what police brutality activists have been saying about cities like Ferguson, Baltimore and Cleveland; predominately Black cities need a higher number of Black police officers. Although the data shows less fatal police shootings occur when there are more Black officers, a word of caution has to be used, because there is also a high number of complaints against Black officers for excessive use of force and police brutality. For example, the New Orleans PD was used as the poster child for a “racially balanced” police force but the department still faced a Department of Justice investigation for numerous excessive force, racial discrimination, and various acts of officer misconduct complaints.
The Black police officers are the ones caught in the middle of a complex equation because they have to find a way to walk the thin blue line, while being respectful of the citizens that look like them. This can be a hard proposition, as seen in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, where three of the six officers involved in his death were Black. Another example of this double-edged sword is that of Kelvin Sewell, who was the police chief of Pocomoke City Police Department in Maryland. The police chief who is Black, claims in a lawsuit that he was fired because he refused to fire two Black police officers who filed racial discrimination complaints against the department. The two officers in question, filed the complaint because of “racial mockery, epithets, threats, humiliation and discrimination” from white officers in their department. One officer said he was threatened by a white officer, who told him he would take him down “KKK Lane.” Mr. Sewell’s case is particularly disturbing because he is a highly decorated homocide detective who worked for the Baltimore PD for 20 years. In 2010, he was hired by the Pocomoke City Police Department. One year later, he was promoted to being the department’s police chief and is the first Black man to hold that position. The city’s mostly white city council still has not given Kelvin Sewell a reason for his abrupt termination.