Police diversity needs work - here and everywhere

Police diversity needs work - here and everywhere

August 27th, 2014 in Opinion Times

A committee's work to study police promotion methods has turned up an interesting and continuing need, especially in light of racial strains illuminated recently in Ferguson, Mo., where only about 6 percent of the 50-member police force is minority in a town that is almost 70 percent black.

Locally, a months-long study of the Chattanooga Police Department by the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that the diversity profile of the department does not reflect the city's racial demographic, which shows 56 percent of city resident is white. About 78 percent of our police officers is white.

For decades, Chattanooga police chiefs have known and talked about the fact that the department needs more diversity, and several have said they were making minority recruitment an emphasis.

It's time to renew the challenge.

If the department is to reflect the Chattanooga citizenry, then it needs to be 35 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, 1 percent Native American.

Never is it clearer that diversity is important in a police department, a city government, a business or even a church than when something bad happens -- when something has overtones or even just a hint of racial, gender or religious bigotry.

That was true in Ferguson when an unarmed black teen was shot by a white officer and protests erupted.

And it was true in Chattanooga in June of 2012 when two white officers so ferociously beat a black halfway house resident at the Salvation Army that they broke both of his legs, causing six fractures to his right leg and two fractures to his left leg, including a compound fracture. His eyes were blackened, too, and his nose was broken. The beating dragged on for more than 10 minutes -- even while he was begging that they stop and not kill him. The entire incident was captured on the Salvation Army's security video. In all, the man was struck 44 times with metal police batons, choked, and hit with a stun gun. During most of the beating, he was in a fetal position.

All the while, other police officers milled past and took no action to intervene. Finally, adding insult to injury, one of the officers who had beaten the suspect walked over to where he sat on the ground -- now handcuffed with his hands behind him. Completely unprovoked, the officer yelled at the suspect and kicked him over on his back.

Again, the dozen or so officers seen on the video standing and walking nearby seem to make no effort to stop the madness.

In fact, no action of any kind was taken at all for nearly six months -- until finally in November 2012 the suspect's attorney obtained a copy of the security video. In February, the video was made public.

Immediately public outrage flared, and then-Police Chief Bobby Dodd fired the two officers involved in the beating.

Federal authorities found no cause to bring criminal charges against the officers. A Hamilton County grand jury declined to indict them. When the officers appealed their termination to an administrative law judge, she said they acted in accordance with their training and ordered they be reinstated.

But a diverse City Council stood by Dodd's decision, and rather than appeal the judge's ruling, the city reached an agreement with the officers in January. Both officers agreed to resign after rehire in exchange for $44,000 in pay and benefits, plus an additional $15,000.

Inadequate diversity within the department probably added to the chances that Chattanooga officers would overstep their authority. Inadequate diversity may also have added to the fact that their training was clearly not adequate. Lack of diversity in the initial internal affairs review and in a later look by a police and civilian Administrative Review Committee also played a role in the dismissal of original allegations against the officers: Not one person on the Review Committee was a person of color -- nor had a person of color ever served on that committee in the 14 years since it was created in 1999, according to a member of the committee.

In America, we are America because of our diversity. We have the very diversity of our ancestors to thank for the freedoms we carved out at our nation's birth and still celebrate.

It's time we give full voice to that diversity.