A grand jury ruled on Monday not to indict the white officer that shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri in August – and the nation erupted. Protests in Ferguson, Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago and Philadelphia raged through the night, with activists fighting, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not, for an end to the systematic racism operating in America.
One symptom of the oppressive nature of American society that the Michael Brown shooting has brought to light is the vast disparity between community and police demographics in many areas. In Ferguson in 2007, 29 percent of the citizens were white but 83 percent of the police force was white, according to a report published by the New York Times. At the nation-wide level, there is on average a 30 percentage point gap between the percentage of white officers and the percentage of white people in the community, according to the report.
A representative racial breakdown of the police is “an important thing to have to give the police great credibility within the community,” said Commander Jay Parrott of the Evanston Police Department. He said the trust that stems from that credibility keeps everyone safer.
Here at Northwestern, the Northwestern University Police Department said they prioritize having a racially diverse staff, but that they are still working to improve.
“I think everything that deals with working successfully with a community is based upon trust,” said NUPD Deputy Chief of Police Daniel McAleer. “That’s really something that doesn’t happen overnight. That’s something that you have to work on, and you have to work on it every day.”
McAleer said the extensive application process limits progress toward a fully representative staff.
“We’re always trying to have our police department reflect the make-up of the community, but it’s something that the selection process for a police officer can take months to come to a successful candidate because of all the testing involved,” said McAleer.
Still, without a perfectly representational force, the university police does what they can now to make sure they are serving the community in a fair and non-discriminatory way, McAleer said.
Every year, NUPD officers receive 40 hours of in-service training that includes racial sensitivity instruction from outside firms.
Also, the university has a police advisory board that meets twice a year to talk about issues with police stops where people felt improperly treated. Following those incidents, the police officers come back to the board with ways they can improve.
Finally, McAleer said that NUPD works with the Multicultural Center to have “a dialogue” before there’s any sort of formal interaction like a police stop.
“We want to try and be somebody that [multicultural students] recognize, someone that they trust and someone that knows that we’re here for their safety and that we’re aware of the sensitivities that are a part of dealing with diverse communities,” said McAleer. “We’re working to improve that greatly. Some of that is training, some of that is communications with various groups and some of it is communication with each other as far as police officers about how to do the job right and how to go about keeping the community safe without turning the community against us.”
However, two to four times a year, an incident occurs where a person feels they have been treated inappropriately, McAleer said, which includes cases of racial profiling.
And in a safety presentation to a group of Medill students taking a journalism class in Chicago, NUPD Officer Alex Stein encouraged students to move away from people they perceived as threats on the street, which he suggested could require racial profiling because of past experiences he’s had with “certain types” of people.
One Northwestern student felt that they were not racially profiled, but merely profiled for their apparel by the university police.
Gordon Burkhart, a Bienen sophomore, was stopped by the Arch by two officers because he wore a hat for the competitive shotgun shooting sport he participated in throughout high school. The officers asked to search his bag, and when he said no, they threatened to take him to the station. When they found nothing, the officers told Burkhart they had stopped him because of his hat.
"Just because I’m wearing firearm paraphernalia doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot the school,” said Burkhart. “It wasn’t new. It was a little surprising that it was coming from campus security.”
However, Burkhart said, “If I’m going to have any stance on it, personally, I’d rather be searched with the chance of stopping a school shooting than people being racially profiled. It’s the police’s job to protect and serve. They were just doing their job, but it was just a little shocking.”
Burkhart comes from San Diego, where he said he’s seen Latinos frequently profiled. “I’ll be walking to school with friends, and the police would stop us and ask the Latino people where they’re going but not ask where I’m going.”
For one Northwestern graduate student, NUPD was much more helpful and considerate than the Chicago Police Department. Lucy Vernasco, a Medill graduate student, was riding the Red Line one morning when a man in front of her started masturbating. When she called the Chicago police, the officer she spoke to told her “it must be hard to be an attractive woman on a train” and compared the incident to a robbery. However, she found the Northwestern police more helpful.
“The Northwestern police talked to the CPD on the phone for a little bit because I was crying so much,” she said. “They wanted to walk with me to the counseling center. Maybe it’s also because he saw me in person. They were more empathetic.”
The Chicago Police Department has 23 percent more representation in white cops than in white citizens, according to the Times.
Meanwhile, the Evanston Police Department was one of the more representative forces in the country, with 62 percent of its police force being white and 61 percent of its community being white.
In fact, Evanston Police Commander Jay Parrott said that since the New York Times report was published, the representation of minorities on the Evanston police force has increased.
“In Evanston, historically we've always been very engaged with the community, said Parrott. “The engagement comes with having any type of barriers minimized to allow community between the police and the citizen and to have a demographic of the police department that mirrors the community we serve. We try to be very close to that.”
Evanston practices a policy of “community policing,” where some police officers focus on building relationships and trust in with community members and organizations to prevent crime instead of simply responding to calls.
For both the Evanston and Northwestern police forces, they see trust built from within a community as key to preventing racial discrimination in the future.
“When we talk about a situation like Ferguson, if I was to look at that situation, I would say that there’s a greater divide and a greater lack of trust in Ferguson than there is here with Northwestern,” said McAleer. “That’s something that not only NUPD has worked on but the various communities have done to work with us to try and put these issues in front of us now and let them understand what we’re trying to do do and let them have the opportunity that if we stumble, they have the opportunity to talk to us.”
McAleer said that if for whatever reason the force is doing something wrong, they want to hear about it, and that they’re “not shy about apologizing and trying to be better the next time.”
“This didn’t come up last August,” said McAleer. “It’s not something that we started yesterday and it won’t be something that ends next month. It’s kind of like being a baseball player: you’re only as good as your last at-bat.”
Rosalie Chan contributed reporting.