The Thin Black Line How D.C.'s majority black police force helps the city

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

In 1970, a civil rights activist growled to a reporter that D.C.’s predominantly white Metropolitan Police Department was “an alien army of occupation.” By the time that activist—Marion Barry—finished serving four terms as District mayor 20 years later, the majority of the city’s cops, like a majority of the city’s residents, were black. And black police chiefs had been running the department for years.

Today, MPD is commanded by a white woman, Cathy Lanier. And while the bulk of the police force’s officers are black, there’s some indication that the demographic changes the District has seen over the last few decades—a shrinking African-American population and an influx of white and Hispanic residents—are, again, being mirrored in MPD’s ranks.

Police statistics show that since about 2000, the number of black officers has been consistent, hovering at around 2,400. But the numbers also show that the percentage of black officers has decreased slightly, as the total number of cops fluctuated.

In 2001, black officers accounted for 66 percent of the department. The year after that, 65 percent. For 2003 and 2004, 64 percent. The steady drift continued throughout the decade, with a 1 percent drop about every one or two years. Last year, black officers made up 58 percent of the force, with whites making up 28 percent, Latinos 7 percent, Asians 2 percent, and those occupying the category “race not designated” 5 percent.

Like most demographic shifts, there are complicated explanations for the change. In 2001, when the percentage of black officers shifted from 66 percent to 65 percent, the city actually gained two black cops, ending up with 2,366. But that year also saw the addition of 30 Latino officers and 4 Asian officers. (It also, incidentally, saw the number of white officers, MPD’s second largest group, drop by seven.) Black cops aren’t necessarily leaving MPD; they’re just not being hired as rapidly anymore.

Why does that matter? Because, it turns out, having a police force that looks like the citizens they patrol means better relations with the community. Bucking expectations of a District once set ablaze by racial tension, black Washingtonians actually like their cops more than black residents of some other cities.

In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, “Police-Community Relations in a Majority-Black City,” sociologists Ronald Weitzer, Steven Tuch, and Wesley Skogan compared attitudes toward police in D.C. and Chicago. Here, 29 percent of black residents thought MPD had a problem with misconduct. In Chicago, 50 percent of black residents thought the police were corrupt. One reason for the difference, the study’s authors believed, was that Chicago’s police department was majority white. “The racial composition of the two cities’ police departments may account, at least in part, for differences in police-community relations,” the study reads. “Our Washington findings lend support to this hypothesis, but research on a few other majority-Black cities with majority-black police department suggests that the racial composition thesis requires further testing.”

To one hard-nosed black MPD detective, who didn’t want to be quoted by name talking about the racial dynamics of the force, there’s no further “testing” needed. In a city where, despite a migrating black community, blacks are still more likely to be affected by crime, it’s important to have more black cops than white. “The experience they bring to a situation is important,” he says. It builds trust.

Another veteran black cop who works undercover and can seamlessly slip into a street persona whenever he wants didn’t even realize MPD was mostly black. “I thought it was majority white,” he tells me—mostly, he thinks, because all the higher-ups in the chain of command he interacts with are white.

He disagrees with the detective, though. “I can’t cosign that statement,” he says. Black officers don’t necessarily inspire trust: “It depends on the individual. And it just depends on the people in the community.”

But it’s hard to argue that race isn’t important. As a black kid growing up in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, my first encounter with a police officer didn’t go well. A white cop kicked me out of a predominantly white mall. The officer demanded I go back to my own neighborhood, and I said I couldn’t, because I was waiting for a friend’s sister, who’d ducked into a boutique.

The cop went for his nightstick. I left.

When my buddy’s sister came looking for me, I was too humiliated to say what happened. That incident, along with a few police beatings I happened to witness, solidified my fear of white police power. Though my attitude toward white cops ultimately changed as I had better experiences, it took awhile. I have no idea how more black police officers might have changed or sped up that process. In Philadelphia, a city that’s about 44 percent black, the police department is mostly white.

No matter what the stats say, MPD officials think police demographics may not actually be changing much at all. Spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump points out that three years ago, MPD stopped requiring recruits to report their race; 5 percent of the sworn officers in the statistics the department released chose not to identify a race. “This makes direct comparisons with data from 1998 more challenging,” Crump argues, when I ask her to comment on the decline of black officers in the overall force, from 67 percent in 1998 to 58 percent last year. She’s got a point, but the decrease started before 2008, and it would stand to reason that has continued.

Johnny Barnes, executive director of the local American Civil Liberties Union, keeps a close eye on the police. Barnes, a black man, remembers how when he was younger, catching sight of a police cruiser in his rear-view mirror made him “apprehensive.”

He says African Americans will have a greater degree of comfort when they see police officers who look like them. But Barnes isn’t worried about having a majority black department. He just thinks it’s “very important that we maintain a diverse police department.”

But if MPD wants to maintain its healthy relationship with black communities, maintaining its abundance of black officers may be important. And if officials want to do that, the brass may have to focus on race, no matter how they read the statistics.

After all, MPD is shedding about 15 officers a month through attrition, and a large number of its officers will be retiring in the next few years. Many of those retiring cops joined the force during the Barry administration, more than 20 years ago—when the department made a concerted effort to hire D.C. natives so no one would mistake it for an occupying army anymore. As the city faces change brought on by gentrification, Washingtonians will need to address the question of how the transition should be managed, even though it’s easier to invoke the feel-good ideology summed up in the phrase, “It’s not about race.” As I suspected that day I was booted from the mall, sometimes it is.

Our Readers Say

"Fluxuated"?? C'mon, at least spell check your pieces before posting articles :(
I'm still waiting for the Washington City Paper to write and entire article on Cherita Whiting. They seem to attempt to cover this story up.

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/17/appeal-paints-officer-as-scapegoat/?page=1
@ Bill:

Thanks, we will fix that -- typo got inserted late in the production process yesterday.
When it comes to police, I think the term "white" needs to be dissected a bit more. There was a time when Irish (supposed Catholic) kids, experienced the same mistreatment by police as African American's now suggest; later a lot of Irish cops became part of the police force, probably by design to rid the force of bigoted enforcement. Same pattern probably holds true for Italians to some degree. It's certainly easier for the justice department to prosecute Asian and Latino gang members when some of the arresting officers have similar backgrounds and the defense cannot cite the historic reality of bigotry to get crooks off the hook.

Instead of always ignoring American and World history, African American would be better off understanding our own culture as just one facet of human history, not something separate as if the African American experience is something completely new and unique under the sun.
Just wanted to add a small vent on a related matter. Ever notice how some Hollywood films portray police in cities like DC as white, middle aged men? (Also happens with regard to municipal employees.) You don't see it that often but it's really annoying when it does occur. Liberal Hollywood doesn't go to the trouble to figure out how our police force really looks.
@YT.... Very interesting comment. I completely agree the history of white people in America is more than just white people in America. In my travels around the country, I've found that ethnic pride by white people is a very Northeast US culture (given that was the port of entry for immigrants). Where I grew up in NJ, white people identified themselves as Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc. As you point out there were tensions between the groups, especially when cops were one group and the community was another. I'm not sure that the DC area experienced those tensions to the extent that you find in the Northeast. Heck Philly, NYC, Northern NJ, Boston all still have ethnically segregated neighborhoods. BTW... I'm black.
Has anyone else thought about the fact that there are about 30 different police agencies operating within The District lines? Who cares what the Metropolitian Police racial make up is, the majority of the FBI, Secret Service, Capital Police, etc. is white. So, it is my opinion that the "color" of your police force has nothing to do with how citizens feel about them, it's how fairly they are treated by them and I believe the district has implemented many, many changes in training of their officers since 30 years ago.

Friggin' retards always makin issues when they're aint none. Why's it always gotta be about race? This author is a dumbass.

No, James, you're the dumbass. How many Capitol Police do you see in, say, Brookland? How many FBI Police in Congress Heights?

MPD comprises about 3800 officers, and the other police agencies don't have those numbers. Plus, MPD pursues matters of local concern all over the District, whereas the other, federal agencies are concerned only with the Mall, the White House, the Capitol, and other federal buildings. They aren't responding to neighborhood shootings, domestic violence calls, or the 10,000 other causes that cops have to interact with the people who live in the District.

But that's cool how you called Rend Smith a retard. Good job.
This article could just as easily been titled, "MPD looks like the rest of DC."

Instead, what I'm getting from this article is the other demographic populations in DC don't commit crimes in the same high volume as African Americans, so now the demographic make-up of our police force has to reflect to that fact. More blacks commit crime so more police officers need to be black?

Why don't we focus on eliminating the causal factors for crime (single parent households, unemployment) and stop worrying about causing anxiety when the criminals get stopped & arrested?
As long as the cops are honest I do not care about race anymore and will even invite a white to my house to dinner. Thirty years ago I would have never made this statement.
I'm sure DeOnte Rawlings would have been relieved to know that the bullet that struck him in the back of the head was fired by a black police officer, had he lived long enough to turn around and take a peek.

And the black officer that held my face against the glass door of the building where Bechtel is based and punched me in the back of the head and called me a faggot during an anti-war demo in 2009 really made me think about race dynamics on the police force in between what little gulps of air I was able to take with his arm hooked around my throat.

Although I will say that the former commander of the Civil Disturbance Unit's Special Operation Division is white and looks *exactly* like a WASP, square version of Ron Jeremy. Hi, Officer Harold, in the unlikely event you're reading this, you sweetie pie.
Woops. My bad. The SOD actually manages the CDU, not the other way around.

Officer Harold still looks like Ron Jeremy though.
As a DC black male who lived most of my adult life in DC, I am not concern about the racial makeup of MPD, but concern about how many cops are leaving my city. My neighbor, a young police officer who grew up in DC all his life is leaving the DC force and going to the PG Police to work. He told me not to belive that there are only 15-16 cops leaving every month, but close to 20-30 cops. He said it is well know that other agencies treat their cops better.
@James; you make an excellent point. The Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Secret Service have most white male and female law enforcement agents. Why would the City Paper choose to write an racist article like this? Oops, is it because they too are a part of the white racist media in America? Who many black reporters or writers does the City Paper have? I can tell you, none. The Washington City Paper and other white media outlets in DC enjoy race baiting in their articles. This is what has helped to divide Washington, D.C. based on skin color.
Correction:

How many black reporters or writers does the City Paper have? I am surprised they didn't write, the majority of MPD's Hispanic police officers are Puerto Rican or Dominican, not Salvadoran/Central American. Salvadorans/Central Americans make up the majority of the Hispanic population in DC. All Hispanic ethnic groups aren't the same and many come from different races and cultures within the Spanish speaking population. A Cuban or Puerto Rican have nothing in common with a Mexican and Salvadoran. The only thing they share is the Spanish language and sometimes different dialects have different meanings. The same applies to Americans speaking English and British speaking English.
@WARD4NDC

Umm, I think the author of this article is black. You really need to read the article to get anything out of it. The rest of your rant seems insane. Most federal bureaus hire from the entire country, which is still majority white.
It makes perfect sense that the police department be majority black. I'd say the same thing for just about any kind of job in the District. It's been a majority black city for decades.It isn't about race anymore. As more Spanish and white people move to the city, some too will take jobs in the police force, thus changing the demographic further.
The thing I find most striking is that most of the police I come across are short guys. It is something I noticed time and again. What is up with that? Mini-me on the beat.
Petworthy, the Devil is a lie. There are no white reporters at the Washington City Paper. All there reporters have been white like you. This is typical coming from whites moving into DC, but they don't have a dam clue to what's going on or the history in this city.
LOL@John in NE; your comment was funny. Midgets on the police force. Midgets or little people need jobs too. LOL

I must be political correct by saying little people, because they don't like being called midgets.
Petworthy, what was insane about WARD4NDC comments? Are you a mental health specialist and can give a diagnosis of someone's comment or opinion in a newspaper? I agree, the Washington City Paper does seem to race bait in many of their articles. Several black FBI agents have file a law suit with the EEOC for discrimination and being mistreated. I've never heard of any black female FBI or Secret Service agents, but I can assure you, there are some white females at these agencies as agents. What was the purpose of writing this article? To my knowledge, the Washington City Paper has always been all white and managed by whites. Not that I'm defending any of the black DC Councilmembers, but the City Paper has never written and negative articles on DC At-Large Councilmember David Catania and other white Councilmembers. You do know liberal whites and white gays can be racists?
Southeast Ken, I read the link you provided in the Washington Times regarding the woman, Cherita Whiting. Why haven't the Washington City Paper written in detail about this woman? I didn't vote for Vincent Gray or Adrian Fenty. I didn't like either of these men. If Cherita Whiting did lie about her being an ex-felon on a DC Government application, this should be looked into.
@Petworthy;

Also, Hispanic is a term attached to many ethnic groups and races coming from many, many, Spanish speaking countries in South America, Central America, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. However, Puerto Rico is U.S. territory and Boricuas are U.S. citizens. It's true, the majority of our Spanish speaking MPD police officers are Puerto Rican and Dominican, not Central Americans. Remember, many Central Americans in DC are illegal or are not citizens. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth and MPD went to Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, and New York City to recruit Puerto Rican American Spanish speaking officers. Many Dominican off spring in NYC are citizens too. Many Dominican Americans from New York City have been recruited by MPD.

Petworthy sound like one of the new white Queens that has moved into DC thinking, he knows everything. I am a black gay man, but I find most white gay men in DC to be arrogant and racist. I will read them, if they try coming for me.

THIS ARTICLE WAS SENSELESS AND MINDLESS. DUH, WHY WOULD THIS PERSON WRITE AN ARTICLE ABOUT THE COLOR OR RACE OF MPD'S POLICE FORCE? TYPICAL WHITE PROPAGANDA.
Agree with CM Barry here. I'm white, and have never once felt like I was being treated differently by black cops, but I've witnessed and heard many stories from black friends that the same is not true of their interactions with white cops. While I have faith that DC at least has greatly evolved, and our white police are the utmost professionals, perception and community relations are important. Majority black police force is fine with this white resident.

I also agree with Barry that we need residency requirements on as many police as possible. Too many of our police, fire, EMS, nurses and public employees take their middle class incomes to MD and VA, depriving the District of both tax dollars and an important building block in the community. This is true of all races, and while the big news is that the white middle class is now electing to live in DC, we still see much of the black middle class preferring to live in Prince George's, or other neighboring counties.

I'm Irish American from New York City. The majority of New York City police department is white in a majority minority population. Why does race matter to some? I don't care what skin color or ethnicity of a police officer. I main concern would be, there doing their job in a professional manner. I don't foresee race not being a problem in the near future because the media focus on race and racial issues 24/7. I guess, this is how they sell newspapers.
@ Southeast Ken -- the author of this story is definitely black, or why would he write, "As a black kid growing up in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, my first encounter with a police officer didn’t go well"?
The point of this article is to say D.C. should have more black cops. How is that white propaganda?
First let me apologize to Petworthy for my comment. The author of this story is black. However, doing a Google search and reading many of his articles, he tend to focus mostly on race. In my opinion, this article didn't make any sense. Today, Philadelphia has a large white police force with a black police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey. Philadelphia has a large black population, but it's a very segregated city. Once I was stopped in Center City by a white Philly police officer on Market Street driving to my hotel. I complied with the police officer and showed my DC Drivers License and my work I.D. I asked him, did I do something wrong. He only stated, I could go, but he never told me why he stopped me. I felt, being a black man driving a nice rental vehicle with Virginia tags, maybe he thought I was a criminal. After coming back to Washington, I called to the mayor's office in Philly to report this incident. I was told by a black woman over the telephone, some of the Philly white cops were racist. My uncle living in Mt. Airy Philadelphia agreed. I've never experience a bad incident from any DC cops, black, Hispanic, or white. The same applies to Montgomery County, Maryland police officers. I did find an old article where Police Chief Cathy Lanier was on News Talk 8. Cathy Lanier is not a big fan on Rend Smith.

http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-arts/2011/01/cathy-lanier-lashes-out-at-city-paper-reporter-7064.html
The issue of race brings out emotions in a lot of people. We still have a long way to go on race relations in Washington, D.C. and in the United States.
I think that's another point of the article. It's not about the past, it's about the future. He's stating it pretty clearly.
I've been in DC long enough to know what's going on, I live here too. I walk the same streets, eat the same food, and catch crap about how me, as a white guy is screwing up your city and shouldn't be here, or kids beating up my son because he's white. Sounds kinda like "There goes the neighborhood", doesn't it. If that's not the same shite you're telling me I'm missing, I don't know what is.
The "Hispanic" check box in a census is the same as "Caucasian". No one in my family has ever been to that part of the planet, but there it is. Should I put Franco-Hiberno-American in the "Other" box. No. Because I'm a white guy. No one cares if my grandmother is Irish, except for my grandmother.
Will -- the police, fire, ems & nursing jobs aren't benefits to be given out as political favors; they are agreements to work for pay. The city shouldn't limit its search for employees to local hires: DC is a world city and can attract the best and brightest from around the country. Neither should the city have a residency requirement: DC isn't a plantation, and it isn't a Company Town; government workers shouldn't be required to buy from the company store. Further, in the interest of hiring the best, brightest, most diverse, and most honest workforce for the money, no additional constraints to employment should be added. Put another way, having a residency requirement isn't going to help recruiting good employees. If DC is truly interested in having its workforce live in the city, it needs to make the city more affordable and attractive for middle class workers. One direct way of doing this is to figure what tax revenue a government worker would spend in DC and 'refund' half of it as a 'local housing stipend' or some such thing. Of course, DC only gains in tax revenue if the worker fills a vacant housing unit, a new housing unit, or displaces a less-taxed individual. This won't always happen.
According to an article in the WAPO on March 24, the African-American population of D.C. is now only 50% or slightly lower. If the racial composition of the police force should mirror that of city residents, perhaps we have too many Black officers?

There were already racial tensions in DC and gentrification hasn't helped. A stream of gays and young white professionals have moved into many former black DC neighborhoods. Other historically black enclaves like Columbia Heights and gritty fringe communities began to fall to gentrification. High-priced condominiums and refurbished homes followed, along with doggy parks, bike lanes and Starbucks. My question, do you think gentrification in Washington, DC will end with race riots like the 60's? Many blacks feel disrespected by many of the young white professionals moving to DC, particularly gay white males. I never understood, when whites move into black areas, the real estate and property taxes increase. When black middle class professionals move into white suburbs, whites move out and the property values go down. Ward 3 has mainly kept blacks from moving to that part of DC. Racism has existed in the United States since white Europeans left Europe and brought black slaves from Africa to work for free and to take care of their unruly children. White superiority has been embedded in whites in America, whether they are gay, straight, liberal, Jewish, Republican, Independent, and Democratic. I am an 68 year old 3rd generation black Washingtonian. I predict, there will be a race riot in DC and in the United States soon. Whites are becoming a minority in this country and once the large Central American and Mexican population outnumber whites in America, they too will see hatred from these groups towards them. Hopefully, I am dead and buried and I want have to witness what's to come in the future in DC and in the United States. Diversity is a bunch of crap. Diversity has caused confusion and mistrust of ethnic groups based on race and culture. Integration destroyed the black community because many blacks thought, they had arrived by being able to intermingle with whites. However, I am not saying, all Caucasians are racist or evil. Listen to WMAL-AM starting at 9 a.m. and throughout the day. So many whites hate President Obama and other non white people. Let me remind others, the Tea Party members aren't the only racists. There are many liberal/conservative white racists within the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, blacks have brought a lot of shit that's happening to them upon themselves. They shouldn't blame no one but themselves.
As demographics have changed it's become clear that MPD needs more hipster cops in Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Shaw, and H St. They should be on fixed gear bikes, wear police bike caps, skinny jeans, and have retro highway patrol mustaches or other facial hair.

One city.
@Nick; are you saying, DC is now the white gay San Francisco? Maybe we should have a mostly white gay police force, since there's a large white gay male population to reflect DC's white gay male population.
What is the breakdown of overall DC city government employment by race?
Reading the comments to this thread make me very happy that the blacks are getting pushed out to PG. Jesus what ignorance and mindless hate.

I'm not black, I'm not white - I have no dog in this fight. But you guys are just idiots.
And of course the blacks all have to go off about how horrible the gays are. Get over it - if it weren't for the well-off gays moving into DC and bringing their tax revenues, there would be no new community center on Girard in Columbia Heights, no money for new schools, nothing.

But of course the ghetto blacks have to find someone to hate. So unbelievably pathetic.

Enjoy PG, losers.
i have lived in all four quadrants of d.c. from the late 1950's until the present and nothing has changed that is really noticeable , yes there are more "black" cops but they have seemed to take on the racist attitudes of the caucasian counterparts. these young white cops are the worst because they really have bought into this idea of post-racial society and black people are basically lazy criminals that have no rights. And the black cops want to prove to them that they are not like regular black citizens. they actually "patrol' our areas as if they are on a safari hunting animals.And they say if you see abuse you should report it, what a joke. I tell the officers why haven't they reported the abuse by their fellow officers ,they see it every day. They are all in cahoots with each other and they wonder why Black people say F THE PO-LICE!! with the black population shrinking in d.c. why is the arrest of Blacks 85% of all arrest in d.c./ caucasians commit crimes too, don't they?!? It's just like everything else in this country , SELECTIVE ARREST. SELECTIVE PROCECUTION PERIOD

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