The Pennsylvania State Police has fewer black and Latino officers than at any time in the last decade, a result of years of lagging recruitment and a wave of retirements, records show.

The percentage of minorities began dropping about the time a federal judge ended oversight of the agency's hiring practices in early 1999, and has continued dropping year after year, an Inquirer review shows.

Meanwhile, the state police ranks have expanded - but almost entirely with white hires, statistics show. During the last decade, the number of African American troopers declined by 42 percent.

Today, the agency has just 228 black officers, only 5 percent of the force. African Americans are 10 percent of Pennsylvania's overall population.

Overall, the force is more than 92 percent white, compared with 87 percent in 1997, according to figures provided by the state police and the U.S. Justice Department.

State Police Commander Jeffrey Miller said his department was committed to reversing the trend with aggressive recruiting of black and Latino officers.

"Our numbers look as bad as they possibly could look," Miller acknowledged.

But members of Pennsylvania's legislative black caucus reacted angrily to the fall-off in the agency's minority ranks, saying they were never informed there was a problem.

"A reduction like this is completely unacceptable," said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.). "It isn't right."

Legislators vowed to push for change.

"It's gone largely unnoticed. It cries out for a remedy," said Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.).

The Inquirer reported last week that a number of police departments in the state - including Harrisburg's, Allentown's and York's - have reported drops in the ranks of their minority officers even as the minority populations in their towns are increasing.

But the state police experienced the largest decline of any large agency in Pennsylvania, according to police and Justice Department data.

Miller, who took over the agency in January 2003, said he was committed to diversity, but said he had been unable to recruit enough minorities to compensate for large numbers of retirements.

"I have prioritized the recruitment of minorities," he said in an interview last week. "Everyone in the law-enforcement system is having trouble."

The plunge among the state police comes as law enforcement across the United States is becoming increasingly diverse.

Across America, 24 percent of police were minorities in 2003, up from 15 percent in 1987, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported.

Missippippi and Alabama have state police agencies that are far more reflective of their populations. In Alabama, 26 percent of the population and 26 percent of the state police are black.

In the Mississippi highway patrol, which until recently was under federal court supervision, 35 percent of the troopers are black. Black residents make up 37 percent of the state's population.

A New Jersey State Police spokesman said statistics on the agency's racial makeup were not immediately available. But he said the agency had not experienced any dramatic declines in minority representation since 2000, when 15 percent of the troopers were minorities - about the same percentage as the state's population.

The Pennsylvania State Police had much more success finding black troopers years ago, when a federal judge was watching.

In 1973, when the state police ranks were virtually all white, a Philadelphia civil-rights lawyer filed a lawsuit alleging the agency had discriminatory hiring practices.

To settle that suit, the state police agreed to strict minority hiring quotas to correct the racial imbalance. Starting in June 1974, Miller said, the agency began hiring one minority cadet for every white one.

The proportion of minorities steadily increased, reaching 9.2 percent of the force by 1983. From 1983 to 1993, the department hired one minority cadet for every two who were white.

Minority representation continued to go up, peaking at more than 12 percent in 1997, about equal to the state's nonwhite population.

With that goal reached, the trend almost immediately started to reverse. There were no minority hires in 1997, state police records show. In 1998, four hires were minorities and 150 were white.

In February 1999, the federal judge overseeing the case ended the court monitoring. The department promised to work hard on recruiting to make sure black and other minority representation in the hiring pool was adequate.

It didn't work.

The state police "didn't really know how to do it," Miller said. "You have a lot of people in business competing for the same applicants."

Starting in the late 1990s, black faces again started to become scarce in the state police academy.

Between 1997 and 2002, before Miller became commissioner, minority hiring plummeted, accounting for just 4 percent of all new troopers. During the nearly five years under Miller, the figure improved slightly, to about 7 percent.

Those years of weak minority recruiting are showing up in the agency's diversity numbers, with a vengeance.

In recent years, the large classes of minority troopers hired in the 1970s and 1980s have begun retiring. The result: The agency has many fewer black troopers than it had in the 1990s.

The agency has 88 Latino officers, one fewer than a decade ago. The agency is 2 percent Latino, compared with 4 percent for Pennsylvania's population.

The number of minority troopers will almost certainly fall again next year as the retirements continue.

While admitting the agency needs to do better, Miller said it was unfair to compare Pennsylvania's state police to big-city departments.

For instance, he said, it is much easier for women who are mothers to join local departments than the state police, which has a seven-month academy program in Hershey.

To become a Philadelphia officer, "they go to an academy in the city of Philadelphia. If we recruit you, you have to go to the academy in Hershey for seven months.

"I wish we didn't have that as a limiter," Miller said.

There are other limitations. To widen the hiring pool, the FBI and some big-city departments have relaxed standards on past drug use for recruits. Miller said the Pennsylvania State Police had not done so.

Asked whether that was under consideration, he said only that there were arguments for and against loosening those rules.

Harold I. Goodman, the lawyer who filed the 1973 lawsuit, said the arguments were unconvincing.

"When the state police are subject to federal court jurisdiction, they have no trouble finding qualified minorities," said Goodman, who still receives regular reports on the agency's racial makeup.

Deputy Commissioner John R. Brown, who is responsible for recruiting, said state police were making improvements.

"We've come up with a bunch of new ideas," he said.

Brown said the state police last year began conducting hiring exams at two traditionally black universities, Howard in Washington and Morgan State in Baltimore, and at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

To find Latino applicants, Brown said, he may send recruiters to Puerto Rico as other departments have done.

"It's tough to get qualified applicants," said Brown, an African American lieutenant colonel. "We just have to continue to strive to build at the lower ranks."

Lawmakers said they were dismayed that state police had not disclosed the decline in diversity, and they vowed to do something about it.

"That's terrible. I knew they should never have taken off that decree," said State Rep. Harold James, a former Philadelphia policeman who led the city's association of black officers.

"Either we need to do another lawsuit, or we need to do something in terms of increasing the hiring practices," he said.

Some legislators said the drop in numbers spoke far louder than the promises for stepped-up recruitment. They said they suspected the agency was simply not trying hard enough.

"After seeming to have set things closer to where they should be, you would continue that policy," Roebuck said. "The fact that they haven't is totally unacceptable."

"There was a very aggressive recruitment effort going on," he said, referring to the 24 years under the consent decree. "I'm not aware that has continued with any degree of intensity."

Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.