WYSO Curious Looks At Racial Gap In Local Policing

Aug 11, 2017

On this installment of WYSO Curious, we tackle a question asked by Talis Gage, "Why don’t more black people become police officers?"

WYSO Curious looked into the numbers and found that Dayton does have a disproportionately small number of African-American officers. The city is 43% black, but only 8% of its law enforcement is black. According to a USA Today investigation of census data, Dayton had the largest racial gap in the country in 2010. And that gap still exists today. Statistics provided by the Dayton Police Force show that the percentage of African-American officers hasn’t increased over the last decade.

There’s no quick fix for this disparity, but many police officers and scholars say the decision to become law enforcement—or not become law enforcement—starts at a young age.  

The Importance of Early Positive Interaction 

A few Fridays ago, the Dayton Police hosted “Coffee with a Cop” at a restaurant on North Main Street called Benjamin’s the Burger Master. The Dayton Police hold these events a couple times a month at different locations, and they give community members a chance to ask questions in an informal setting.

Major Eric Henderson of the Dayton Police Force at “Coffee with a Cop” earlier this summer.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

Major Eric Henderson is one of those cops. He’s also an African-American officer who saw law enforcement as a positive influence at an early age.

“My first exposure with the Dayton Police Department was when I was in high school,” Henderson says. “It was during the DARE Program. An officer came and picked me up in a cruiser. So, the first time I’m in a cruiser, I’m riding in the front seat alongside a Dayton Police officer.”  

Henderson didn’t make any career choices that day, but later, when he was studying at Wright State, he heard that the Dayton Police were hiring. “I went out on a ride along,” he says, “and here we are today.”  

Henderson believes that type of exposure to police is one of the keys to getting more black recruits.

“It’s important to have positive interactions," he says. “So, it’s important that we’re out at events like this and that we’re also a little more involved in schools and neighborhood activities.”

The Impact of Negative Interaction

Thomas Reid came out to support the police, though he says he's had some unfortunate experiences with law enforcement in the past.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

Thomas Reid lives near Benjamin’s, and he came down with his neighborhood association to show support for police. Reid, who is black, says he likes having a police presence in the neighborhood. It makes him feel safer, but he never would have considered becoming an officer when he was a young man.

“I don’t know about younger kids,” Reid says, “but people my age—I’m 62—I’ve had a few instances with the police. I had one where he stopped me on the highway. He thought I was kidnapping my white wife. He pulled me out of the car. I guess he thought I actually was kidnapping her. He pulled me over to the side, and we had a conversation. It was kind of weird.”

Dr. Marlese Durr is a sociologist at Wright State. She says those types of experiences stick with people and get passed down. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Durr wrote an article titled “What is the Difference between Slave Patrols and Modern Day Policing?” She says it’s hard for some African-Americans to imagine being law enforcement.

“If you do the comparison between slavery and contemporary times,” Durr says. “They indeed would be the overseer. They would be watching their communities. They would be the ones to keep ‘those people,’ so to speak, in line.”

Durr says that becoming a police officer was once considered a major accomplishment in black communities, but “post-civil rights” and “post-affirmative action,” young African-Americans have more options. And with high profile police shootings in the news, many feel they would become targets if they joined law enforcement.

“Recently,” Durr says, “it has begun to feel like they would be attacked the same way white cops are being attacked. Simply because they wear blue. They don’t think their skin color would help them anymore. Blue is blue.”

The Long Slow Solution 

Durr says police can build better relationships with the black community by connecting with children at a young age—“by the time their 9 or 10”—and that’s what the Dayton Police Department has been trying to do.

They have officers that read to students, play basketball with them, eat lunch at their schools. They even have an ice cream truck that drives around Dayton giving out free ice cream.

Still, it’s a slow process with so much history to overcome. Assistant Chief and Deputy Director Mark Ecton has recruiting responsibilities, and he says the police can’t do it alone.

“It’s going to take a community effort to change the narrative,” Ecton says. “We can go out and talk to young people and get them excited about joining our department or any other department. And then when they go home, they have someone who talks to them about their experiences with police and talks them out of it.”

Ecton, who is African-American, knows that many Daytonians have serious concerns about policing, and he’s asking those people to step-up.  

“I challenge people in the community who are unhappy with the state of law enforcement today to either join or identify someone who would make a good police officer,” Ecton says. “You know there is a need for change, and the only way to make change is to be in the room.”

There are also mathematical and historical problems. Ecton notes that law enforcement has traditionally been a white male field, which means fewer links to law enforcement and less history for African-Americans. The mathematics are also daunting. Dayton’s population has been dwindling for years. That means less officers are being hired, which results in fewer opportunities to change the makeup of the police force.

The Dayton Police Department is trying to increase interest in law enforcement though its social media and recruiting website. They also encourage residents to invite officers to community meetings and events. Last year, 32 new recruits graduated from the police academy. Five of them were African-American. That’s 16%, which is an improvement, but it’s going to be a long time before the Dayton Police accurately reflect the Dayton population. 

WYSO Curious is sponsored by Proto BuildBar, proud supporter of curious minds.