Philadelphia Police Force Still Far Whiter Than City Itself

But it could be worse—a lot worse.

Members of the Philadelphia Police Department swear an oath during a Department promotion ceremony. | Copyright City of Philadelphia. Photograph by Mitchell Leff.

A Philadelphia Police Department promotion ceremony. | Copyright City of Philadelphia. Photo by Mitchell Leff.

The alarming number of high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men over the last year has put a spotlight on just how few minorities serve as sworn officers in many American cities.

Take last week’s horrific video depicting a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina shooting a fleeing black suspect. Whites account for 80 percent of North Charleston’s police force, but only 42 percent of the total population of North Charleston. The city is comprised of 47 percent blacks, but only 18 percent of the city’s sworn officers are black. The disparities were even worse in Ferguson.

These sort of gaps between the demography of a community and that of the police force that serves it tend to be most pronounced in smaller cities, a 2007 Department of Justice report found.

But the disparities still exist in big cities, as this awesome interactive graphic from the New York Times shows. Whites are over-represented in New York’s police force by 21 percentage points. In Chicago, that number is 23 percent; in Phoenix, it’s 35 percent. (One qualifier: some of the Times’ data is pretty old, dating from that 2007 Department of Justice study.)

The Times didn’t look at Philadelphia, however, and that made Citified curious. Just how representative is the city’s police force of Philadelphia’s actual population?

Not very. Whites are over-represented in Philadelphia’s police force by 20.4 percentage points. The department is nine percentage points less black than the city as a whole, and five percentage points less Hispanic and less Asian than is the overall Philadelphia population. And at 83 percent male, the department is, perhaps not surprisingly, a long, long way from gender parity.

Tom Ferrick reported for last month that the disparities grow even larger higher up the police command chain. Of the 74 captains in the department, 82 percent are white and 18 percent are black. There are no Latino or Asian captains in the Philadelphia Police Department.

Let’s be clear. This is hardly just a Philadelphia problem, and it’s certainly more than just a policing problem. There are a lot of industries, journalism being very near the top of the list, that fail to reflect the racial makeup of society at large. But the stakes are particularly high when it comes to policing.

For all the work yet to be done, Philly already fares somewhat better than many cities, and far better than the least racially representative urban police forces in the nation. According to FiveThirtyEight, Philadelphia ranks 29th out of the 75 biggest metro forces in terms of replicating the city’s overall diversity. The least representative? Jersey City and Newark.

Why does it matter if a police force reflects the community it serves? Well, a 2011 study by the Department of Justice showed that civilians stopped by officers with the same race were more likely to believe it was legitimate. And there’s impressive research suggesting that racially homogenous police forces are more prone to unconscious bias in policing than are diverse police forces. Really, this isn’t a controversial point. When the demographic disconnect between a police force and a city grows extreme, as in Ferguson, it’s not hard to see how a department’s credibility can suffer.

From the 1970s all the way to 1990, the overwhelming whiteness of Philadelphia’s police force was the subject of lawsuits and consent decrees, binding the department to step up recruitment and hiring of minority officers. The efforts have been effective—in 1987, just 19 percent of the force was black and a scant two percent were Latino—but only to a point.

So it’s a good thing that there’s clearly new national interest and focus on building diverse police forces. And Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is acutely aware of these issues. He chaired the President’s Task Force on 21st Center Policing, and one of its key recommendations was encouraging police forces to “strive to create a workforce that contains a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities.”