J. Alexander Kueng’s family has said he was drawn to a career as a police officer because he wanted to improve the relationship between police and the Black community.
But on May 25, 2020, just four shifts into his stint as a full Minneapolis police officer, the young Black officer instead found himself kneeling on the back of George Floyd, holding him down along with two other officers.
Floyd’s death sparked nationwide calls for police reform. Residents in the city of Minneapolis debated the idea of removing MPD as a charter department while others called for the abolition of the police department.
For decades police departments — including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul — have been trying to diversify mostly white and male police forces. But the recent killing of a Black man, Tyre Nichols, has renewed questions about the role police officer diversity plays in reducing officer misconduct or brutality.
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For many advocates, the fact that five of the Memphis officers charged in Nichols’ death were Black, doesn’t change anything.
It’s more about the policy than the officer acting on it
When it comes to addressing systemic racism, it’s more about policies that disproportionately impact people of color, and less about whether the person enforcing the policies is Black or white, said Samuel Sinyangwe, founder of Mapping Police Violence, a national nonprofit organization focused on collecting and using data on killings by police.
“Despite years and years of conversation, despite legislation enacted in the majority of states to do something about police violence, we still see the numbers moving in the wrong direction,” Sinyangwe said.
There has been some success in diversifying U.S. police forces in recent decades. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the percentage of minority officers has increased in recent decades, almost doubling since the mid-1980s, although the number of Black officers has been stagnant.
About 86.5 percent of local police officers in the United States are male, according to a 2020 survey from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The survey found 69 percent of officers are white, almost 12 percent are Black and 14 percent are Hispanic. About 20 percent of front-line supervisors in police departments were Black or Hispanic.
Singyangwe said hiring more officers of color hasn’t resulted in fewer cases of police misconduct.
“You see that there is a broader culture, a system of policing that disproportionately deploys officers to Black and brown communities, and that disproportionately targets black and brown people for some of the same things that white people are doing in neighborhoods that are less heavily policed,” Sinyangwe said.
Diversity studies show mixed results
A study published in 2021 found Black and Hispanic officers made fewer stops and arrests compared to white officers. They also used force less often, especially against Black civilians.
Another 2021 study found that white police officers used force 60 percent more than Black officers during similar calls and that white officers used more force in Black neighborhoods.
Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges, who is Black, said he watched the video of the five Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols. Hodges said it’s easy to talk about the role race played in Nichols’ killing, but that he sees deeper issues at play.
“It's reflective of where we are as a society right now, in terms of the overall lack of respect for humanity that we have,” Hodges said. “It was on display on a street corner with some cops — who ceased being cops the minute they started beating this person — and they became criminals.”
There’s been a national effort to advance diversity in law enforcement from the U.S. Department of Justice since 2015.
Officials in the agency argue that “increased diversity can make law enforcement agencies more open to reform, more willing to initiate cultural and systemic changes, and more responsive to the residents they serve.”
Hodges said there are aspects of policing that need reform, but that representation matters and it’s important for the public to see officers who look like them.
The group Communities United Against Police Brutality has been advocating against officer misconduct and lobbying for reforms for more than 20 years.
Its president, Michelle Gross, said she wasn’t surprised by the race of the police officers involved in Nichols’ killing because Memphis is a majority Black city. While diversifying police forces can help make some residents more comfortable, Gross said what often matters more in cases of police misconduct is the race and economic background of the victim.
“Focusing on the race of the officers, I think it’s just a smokescreen. It’s not something that’s helpful. It’s not something that actually bears fruit in terms of addressing the problem,” Gross said.
“The biggest thing is the culture, that the culture of the department made it OK for those officers to act this way.”
The behavior of the former Memphis police officers involved in Nichols’ killing points to flaws in the department’s culture, training and disciplinary systems, Gross said.
“These officers had engaged in this conduct before, they were used to this way of dealing with people, and they certainly expected to get away with it,” Gross said.
“Addressing this conduct is way more important than worrying about the race of the individuals engaged in that conduct.”
Blue not Black
The culture of a police department “indoctrinates police officers regardless of their color into this system that has historically thrived on the abuse of Black bodies,” said Johnathon McClellan, president of the Minnesota Justice Coalition.
“In those moments, they aren’t Black, they ain’t white, they’re blue. That’s what they bring when they come into our community,” McClellan said.
“They’re taught there are two systems, there’s a system where you have this brotherhood of law enforcement, then you have everybody else — and that’s the struggle we find ourselves in.”
In the wake of Nichols’ killing, McClellan is hoping the state Legislature will consider criminal justice reforms, including a bill removing officers’ qualified immunity protection, allowing them to be personally sued for unlawfully violating someone’s civil rights.
He said these are the sort of systemic changes that can potentially reduce police misconduct.