Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Sacramento Police Department flunks the racial diversity test, but there is more to the story

A career police officer, Sam Somers has been deeply affected by how the current narrative of police brutality reflects on him and his officers.
A career police officer, Sam Somers has been deeply affected by how the current narrative of police brutality reflects on him and his officers. rbenton@sacbee.com

When diversity is cited in the media, it’s often referenced as an example of what is lacking in an institution accused of racism.

For example: If only that police department were more racially diverse, maybe that African American suspect would not be dead today.

That statement could be applied to Baltimore, where Freddie Gray suffered a broken neck while in police custody. Or Ferguson, Mo, where Michael Brown was fatally wounded by a white officer. Or New York, where Eric Garner died while in police custody. Or North Charleston, S.C., where Walter Scott was shot in the back by a white police officer now facing murder charges.

It’s the story that never stops: White, militarized police departments killing black men in a national narrative raising many questions, including this one:

Aren’t largely white police departments – and the lack of diversity within them – contributing to a callous mistreatment of dark-skinned people who are more likely to raise suspicion and more likely to face deadly force in confrontations with police?

In this debate, Sacramento is being tainted by implication.

Statistically, Sacramento has one of the least racially diverse police departments of any big city in America. More than one national publication has cited this fact, the latest being Mother Jones magazine this week.

It may be a jolt for some in Sacramento to believe, but the Mother Jones graphic on racial diversity in police departments (http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/05/police-are-whiter-communities-they-serve) reveals Sacramento as having arguably the most pronounced racial imbalance of any large police department in America.

In Sacramento, where racial and ethnic diversity is touted as a virtue akin to the city’s rivers and bike trails, the police force is more than 70 percent white, while whites make up just 36 percent of the population. Roughly 27 percent of Sacramento residents are Latino, but Latinos constitute less than 10 percent of the police.

By comparison, the Los Angeles Police Department is doing a much better job at reflecting multicultural L.A. within its ranks in blue. In the South, Atlanta also has been far more effective at integrating its police department.

“We’re making a substantial effort to change that,” Sam Somers, Sacramento’s police chief, said Tuesday. “But its not something you are going to create overnight.”

Sound like a copout?

It might to some, but numbers don’t tell the whole story – and racial diversity within a police department is not a cure-all. Baltimore has an African American police commissioner, mayor, state’s attorney and National Guard commander. The Baltimore Police Department is roughly 50 percent African American in a city where the African American population is more than 60 percent. Three of the six police officers facing charges in the death of Gray are also African American.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s mayor, was strongly criticized after initially describing rioters in Baltimore as “thugs.” In the racial lexicon of America, that word has come to be viewed by some as a racist term that whites use to label blacks. Yet there was Rawlings-Blake, one of the most high-profile African American mayors in America, using it – as did President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s police commissioner, admitted that his department needed to regain the trust of the community. Diversity or no diversity, Batts said of his department: “We’ve been part of the problem.”

In Sacramento, neither Somers nor his department is labeled as part of the problem. A career police officer, Somers has been deeply affected by how the current narrative of police brutality reflects on him and his officers.

“I have men and women who are putting their lives on the line, trying to do good,” Somers said. “We’re making sure that we’re hiring well so we don’t have a (North Charleston) South Carolina situation. That was terrible. It was disturbing.”

Somers supports his officers being equipped with cameras and is working toward making that happen, possibly as soon as late 2015.

Making Sacramento’s police force more diverse is going to take longer “We didn’t hire any officers from 2007 until just recently,” Somers said.

Now that it’s hiring again, Sac PD is recruiting heavily within the African American and Latino communities – sending recruiters to the East Coast to talk to students at traditionally African American colleges.

Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn, the highest-ranking African American officer in the region and a former Sacramento cop, says racial diversity alone is not the answer.

“You have to hire people that aren’t interested in being the bully on the block,” said Hahn, who became Roseville’s first African American officer when he was hired as chief four years ago. Hahn has hired four more African American officers since he took the job. Like Somers, Hahn is looking for officers who view community service as their chief priority.

“You need to hire people who understand that his or her most important job is building community and trust,” Hahn said.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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