The face of the New Orleans Police Department is changing. And because police officers make life-and-death decisions every day, we should pay close attention to the new demographics.
The city has a majority-black police force for the first time since Reconstruction ("To Serve and Reflect," June 19, 2001). Women officers now make up an unprecedented 15 percent of NOPD's 1,675 officers -- breaking the old record of 14 percent, set in 1990.
Though the department could not provide a recent breakdown by age, there is obviously less gray among The Blue. The city has hired more than 700 officers since 1997, the majority of whom have four years or less of police experience.
What should we make of our changing police department? "The numbers at NOPD are comforting in terms of race and gender," says Peter Scharf, a national expert on deadly force and co-director of the UNO Center for Society, Law and Justice. However, there are still too many unknowns -- including the cops' geographic origins and educational background -- to draw sweeping conclusions. "The issues are more complex than black and white or male and female," Scharf adds.
In the past, NOPD cops typically came from local neighborhoods with blue-collar backgrounds, often upon discharge from the military. Since 1997, however, the promise of higher pay has attracted recruits nationwide. The new recruits are arguably better educated than their predecessors and come from more middle-class backgrounds. But will that make them more effective than native cops in our unique neighborhoods? Moreover, today's young recruits bring a "willing-to-relocate" career ethic that has already proved unsettling to a department that seeks a stable workforce.
It is in the dual interests of fairness and pragmatism that a law enforcement agency should reflect the community it serves. Aided by a federal consent decree, NOPD is almost there. New Orleans is now 70 percent nonwhite; NOPD is 54 percent black -- up from 40 percent in 1994, when Richard Pennington was sworn in as the city's fourth consecutive African-American police chief.
However, blacks compose only one-third of the rank at NOPD. The Black Organization of Police wonders whether the civil service grading system might explain the large numbers of blacks at the bottom of most promotional exams. Civil Service officials say the system is fair and plays no favorites. We believe the city's troubled public schools must also be considered a factor. An NOPD task force backed by the private New Orleans Police Foundation is reviewing the promotion process.
Departments should be on guard against racial profiling. Still, race can play a positive role in both crime prevention and intelligence gathering. A black officer might more easily obtain intelligence on the recent rise in heroin distribution in the city's predominantly black housing projects. Conversely, white cops might go undercover more effectively in the predominantly white suburbs where -- according to a new U.S. Department of Justice report -- heroin dealers range from "Caucasian suburban teens to housewives."
Meanwhile, there is a widely held assumption that greater black representation among the NOPD rank will preclude the kind of racial tension that followed the 1980 police killings of four blacks in Algiers. However, Scharf says, his recent research for the National Institute of Justice shows that "the notion that increasing minority participation in police ranks will protect a city from social disturbances is probably not true." He adds: "Black police officers [nationwide] have a much higher rate of deadly force than white police officers and there are all kinds of reasons for that relative to their junior status in the police hierarchy."
The force has gotten much younger, Scharf explains. NOPD says its new hires are well-trained and have generated few civilian complaints. Still, younger, less experienced police officers are generally more likely to use deadly force.
Although NOPD has more women than ever, only one -- a captain -- is in the upper ranks. The National Center of Women & Policing (NCWP) notes that women officers rely less on physical force and more on communication skills. "As a result, women are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations, and are less likely to become involved in use of excessive force situations," an NCWP report states.
NCWP research also shows women officers are more effective at handling domestic violence calls -- the single largest category of calls to cops nationwide. Currently, female cops' duties are split between field and administrative duties. Women need more opportunity to prove themselves in special units such as federal task forces and SWAT.
Meanwhile, Bob Stellingworth, who co-directs the UNO Center, says the bottom line on retaining the "highly competent" officers on NOPD remains unchanged: money. "The NOPD has one of the best pension plans in the country. But the 401K generation doesn't pay as much attention to that. They move around a lot. [NOPD salaries] must keep pace ... or there will be some deterioration."
Chief Pennington has turned NOPD around and given it good momentum. As NOPD continues to change, it must continue to improve in all areas.