CINCINNATI – Officer Phill Black grew up as an African-American in Bond Hill and became a Cincinnati police officer nearly three decades ago.
He’s experienced the leadership of several chiefs with varied and distinctive management styles, a litany of violence-reduction initiatives and the race riots of 2001. But the dearth of African-American representation in law enforcement is eye-opening to him.
While he and Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell say the department has made significant strides in hiring black officers over the years, the force doesn’t adequately mirror the demographics of the city it serves.
“Diversity brings perspective,” Blackwell said. “Perspective helps shape our enforcement models. If we don’t have some of the perspective, I think you can get one-sided about how you attack crime and relate to folks.”
Of the 960 sworn officers on the force, 297 are black or 31 percent, according to a police personnel records. In a city that’s roughly spilt evenly among blacks and whites, it’s critical for the department to boost that percentage, they say.
“Not that much has changed over the last 10 to 20 years,” said Black, president of the Sentinel Police Association, which represents black officers in the department. “We’ve had one African-American captain promoted in the last 10 years and the numbers have been constant for sometime."
Statistics bear him out: of the 11 captains at CPD, only Criminal Investigations Unit Commander Capt. Eliot Isaac is black. Of the 43 lieutenants, six are black.
“Although there have been strides, we’re still a long ways away when you compare the population of the city – the department does not mirror that.”
According to 2010 census data, whites represent 49.3 percent of the city’s population, compared to nearly 45 percent of black residents. Enforcing the law is far more effective when officers can relate to people, Black said.
“It’s much easier to relate to someone when you have things in common, to see that somebody looks like them that is representing them,” Black said.
Recruitment is paramount to increase the number of blacks in the department, he said.
“I can remember as a young officer with two years on, disliking the police,” Black said. “After a few years, I realized the job isn’t as bad as I remember growing up in Bond Hill, as far as interactions I had with the police.”
He served as a recruiter for five years during his 27-year career as a Cincinnati police officer.
Part of the reason the numbers are lagging is because the department hasn’t graduated a new crop of officers in more than five years. But, he admits, too many minorities harbor negative perceptions of police.
“For African-Americans, you really have to tear down stereotypes and negative experiences they may have gone through, so you really have to educate them about joining an institution like the police department,” Black said.
Black said “by and large” the black men and women he comes in contact with on his beat in Avondale “do not feel like they’re treated fairly,” by police, and often don’t report crimes because of it.
“Even when they claim they’ve had a bad experience with a police officer, they don’t report it because they have the attitude that nothing’s going to happen anyway,” Black said. “It’s important, as an African-American police officer, it’s my duty to educate them on career opportunities of law enforcement.”
Racial diversity has become a goal for many local police agencies across the nation, in departments large and small.
Increasingly departments recognize that having a mix of officers enables them to be more responsive and build better relationships with the surrounding community.
“When we educate the African-American community, whether it’s about a career in policing or maybe why something has occurred, it helps the department as a whole because we have another person understanding why an officer did certain actions,” Black said.
The U.S. Department of Justice obtained an agreement from the Cincinnati Police Department in August 1981 for special efforts to hire and promote more blacks and women. The agreement between the DOJ, the city, the police and a police union was embodied in a consent decree signed in a federal court.
The city and the police agreed to adopt a long-term goal of having blacks and women at every level of CPD in proportion to the number of qualified blacks and women in the Cincinnati labor force.
The Justice Department had charged that the city violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and antidiscrimination provisions of two Federal aid laws in hiring and promoting blacks and women. The city and police agreed on an interim goal of hiring new officers in the same proportion that they are represented on the 1980 police recruit list, 34 percent black and 23 percent female.
In 1987, the DOJ and the city agreed on another consent decree regarding the promotion of minority and women officers to supervisory positions. The affirmative-action portion of the consent decree required that if four white
men were promoted in rank order, the next available minority, defined as African-Americans and females, was to be promoted at the same time as the fourth white male.
Both consent decrees are still in effect, said Al Gerhardstein, attorney for the Sentinel Police Association.
Recruitment at Young Age Key to Improving Racial Diversity
Both Black and Blackwell believe it’s critical to reach African-Americans at a young age. Blackwell cited the police Explorer and cadet programs as long-term mechanisms to do so.
The summer cadet program recruits students between 16 and 18 years old to work part-time for the police department. They receive training on police procedures, policies, patrolling techniques and ethics. They are assigned to one of the city’s five police districts and work Tuesday through Saturday’s beginning June 9.
Blackwell plans on expanding the existing Police Explorer program to become classroom like with a formal curriculum. In its current form, the Explorer program supports police and city personnel on occasion.
The chief wants the program to prepare Explorers to become police officers. After about one year, exemplary Explorers will be paid employees of the department, and after another year, they will be guaranteed a place in the next police academy recruit class, Blackwell said.
“We need to build relationships, to repair the fracture that exists between minority kids and the police,” Blackwell said. “That fracture is a mile wide in many communities, because of the generational mistrust.”
Blackwell said to recruit more black and minority officers, the department has to do a better job selling policing as a career.
The starting annual base salary of a Cincinnati cop is about $53,000.
Talented minority candidates have a plethora of options, Blackwell said, and the department needs to be a better job of showing them its commitment to diversity.
“We’re with young people a lot, a lot of what I do is with them,” Blackwell said. “The kids that don’t have enough, yet are very talented and show promise – those are the kids we need to impact.”