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Ferrick: On race, Philly Police Department still behind

Diversity in the force falls short in several categories, statistics show.

Philadelphia police Commissioner Charles Ramsey held a press conference on Friday, March 6, 2015. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )
Philadelphia police Commissioner Charles Ramsey held a press conference on Friday, March 6, 2015. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )Read more

DO THE Philadelphia police force and its 6,600 uniformed members reflect the communities they serve? Are they seen as an "occupying force" in neighborhoods or are they perceived as "guardians" and community partners?

These aren't idle questions. They were made more urgent by the events in Ferguson, Mo., and the national debate about the behavior and role of police, especially in minority communities.

It was the anger and unrest that followed the Ferguson case - in which a white police officer shot and killed a young black man - that prompted President Obama to create a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

The quotations and questions in the first paragraph came from an interim report issued by the task force last week.

To summarize, the report calls on police to change hiring and training practices, seek diversity among police officers, make better use of data analysis and hit the reset on a militarized approach to law enforcement. If the lengthy and detailed report has one mantra, it is that the law-enforcement culture should embrace a "guardian mind-set to build public trust and legitimacy."

How does Philadelphia stack up when it comes to this wish list? Ramsey believes that we're almost there. At a news conference after the report was released, he said the Philadelphia Police Department is well on the way to meeting the criteria, although some practices and procedures could be tweaked.

On the surface, Ramsey is right. He is an avowed believer in both community policing and the sophisticated use of data to aid law enforcement. He has worked to improve training so that "community relations" is not an afterthought.

But there is evidence that he needs to do more - and it's an issue that the next mayor should address.

Philly's troubled history

The department has had a long and troubled history when it comes to diversity of its force. In the 1970s and into the 1980s - the era when Frank Rizzo and Joseph O'Neill were commissioners - it had one of the lowest percentages of minority officers among big-city forces.

Three lawsuits were filed by black police officers, and three consent decrees were entered in which the department vowed to make a concerted effort to bring minorities into the fold. It wasn't simply a matter of racial advancement; it also was done in the name of effective policing. As Michael Churchill, a public-interest lawyer involved in the last suit (filed in 1990) put it: "I don't think there is any argument that communities feel better if they can relate to law enforcers."

Mere data can't answer the questions posed in the first paragraph. We can't measure the effectiveness of better training or, for that matter, a change in the police mind-set. But we do have evidence from public records dealing with the race, gender and home ZIP codes of officers. The Next Mayor performed that analysis, using data received as part of a right-to-know request made of the city. It includes all active employees as of January.

It offers both encouraging and disheartening views of the police.

For starters, the force is diverse, although still majority white (55 percent) and male (83 percent).

Among the force's police officers, the lowest rung on the ladder, the exact figures are: 24 percent female, 53 percent white, 35 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian.

Once you rise up in the ranks, though, the numbers of women and minorities fade quickly.

Here is the percentage of whites by rank of field officer: corporals, 51 percent; sergeants, 68 percent; lieutenants and detectives, 71 percent; captain, 82 percent.

Only when you get to the very top of the pyramid, with the commissioner, deputy commissioners and inspectors, do the numbers improve a bit: 66 percent white.

Women are also nearly absent from the upper ranks.

In short, the department isn't diverse when it comes to the people who issue the orders.

There is a mystery in these numbers. Promotion is determined by civil-service tests. Half the police officers were hired after 1994, when minority recruitment was in full swing.

Yet only a relative few minority officers have advanced up the ladder to higher ranks.

The argument could be made that they simply didn't do well enough on the tests to advance into these positions. Unfortunately, that was the same argument made in the bad old days when the department was not even hiring blacks. (The 1990 suit centered on bias in the tests given to potential recruits.)

As to geographic diversity, the department falls short again. The vast majority of police don't live in the communities where they work, certainly not in high-crime communities.

Of the 6,600 uniformed police, 53 percent live in Northeast Philadelphia, an additional 10 percent live outside the city. (Police are allowed to live outside the city as of 2009, when an arbitrator agreed with the Fraternal Order of Police's demand to end the residency rule.)

Partly this is a function of economic class.

As the recent fatal shooting of Officer Robert Wilson III proves, policing can be a dangerous job. But most officers do earn middle-class wages. The average annual salary for a rank-and-file officer is $66,393, and it rises quickly as the number of bars and stripes increase: Detectives make an average of $75,047 a year; the average salary for captains is $102,000. (Ramsey, who also serves as a deputy mayor, is paid $270,000.)

It's no surprise that police officers who are homeowners cluster in middle-class neighborhoods. Middle-class black neighborhoods in the city's Northwest are home to a large number of black officers.

Philadelphia is no Ferguson, but the numbers show that we haven't come close to meeting the goals of the president's task force.

A Police Department spokeswoman said an official response would follow a departmental review of the numbers.