When Sgt. Marcus Harper joined the Tulsa Police Department in 1995, he entered a force that was overwhelmingly white.
Harper couldn’t quite recall the exact number of black police officers that were within TPD’s ranks at the time, but the veteran officer understood then — just like he does now a quarter-century later — that the department is still disproportionately white.
“We can do a better job,” Harper told the Tulsa World. “For a long time, we did things a certain way. Times are changing, and we’re not producing the same results. There have been classes where we’ve had no African Americans. The last two (academy classes), for whatever reason to a certain level, is unacceptable. With the way the city is comprised, we should always have African Americans in the pipeline.”
TPD recently received flak over its lack of minority representation after the most recent Tulsa Police Academy graduating class failed to feature a single black member.
During last Wednesday’s City Council meeting, several people, including state Rep. Regina Goodwin, chastised the Police Department for what they believed was a repeated pattern of negligence in recruiting minorities.
Goodwin, in particular, took exception to the city and Police Department celebrating a 25-member academy class that lacked African Americans.
“How is that something to be praised?” Goodwin asked city councilors. “How is that something praiseworthy?”
According to the 2017 Tulsa Police Department annual report, the most recent year with available data, African Americans made up 9.2% of the department. U.S. Census Bureau data for that year indicated Tulsa’s African American population was 15%.
The city’s Equality Indicators report score for race and TPD employees dropped from 18 to 15 over the past year. The report also found that the city’s score regarding gender and TPD employees fell from 32 to 30 between 2018 and 2019.
Tulsa Police Maj. Ryan Perkins, the department’s training director, acknowledged that it has been the goal of the agency to “demographically represent the city,” but took exception to the appraisal that the department was unwilling to consider black candidates based on its most recent graduating academy class.
Perkins explained that there were no African Americans in this month’s academy graduating class to begin with, which he surmised as being “part of the ebb and flow of recruiting.” The unpredictable nature of recruiting, said Perkins, can result in either a surge in demographics or an unexpected decline.
He pointed out that there were five women, four Hispanics and two Native Americans in the August class. And as many as 11 African Americans are expected to be among the upcoming September and December classes combined, Perkins said.
But Harper explained that identifying and securing minority candidates is often challenging because of significant competition from law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
Drawing from an already small pool of minority candidates is made no easier when it comes to gender, either. Female applicants — particularly African American women — are even harder to recruit locally because of high interest from the federal and state level, he said.
“The same problems we’re having exist all over the county,” said Harper. “Everybody is trying to get those same candidates that we are. When we identify them, we have to make a concerted effort to not only recruit them but to retain them. You need to go above and beyond to try to recruit and retain talent. If you don’t, somebody else will.”
Despite the obstacles, Harper is steadfast that TPD needs to implement new strategies to acquire black officers. One suggestion he offered was using current black officers or recent local academy graduates as recruiters.
“Our most valuable resource in recruiting is our young African American officers in Tulsa,” said Harper, who suggested that African American officers should be featured on promotional materials to attract potential recruits.
As president of the Tulsa Black Officers Coalition, Harper recommended that veteran officers acting as mentors to minority applicants could possibly help bolster diversity within the ranks.
Perkins made clear that TPD has gone to great lengths to recruit at historically black colleges and military branches in addition to engaging in local community outreach initiatives to sell policing as an honorable profession to youngsters.
The public scrutiny over police demographics, though, ultimately rests in the idea that more black representation in law enforcement could reduce violence and incidents of racial bias.
Studies on the matter, however, are either inconclusive or provide too small of a sample size to get a definitive answer as to whether less force would be used against black citizens if more black officers were on the street.
This year’s Equality Indicators report found that African Americans were three times more likely to experience officer use of force than either Hispanic/Latinos or whites.
Other research, like a study conducted by Michigan State University and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that police departments adding more black officers actually increases the chances problematic encounters.
Chris Burbank, a retired police officer and the vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity, said the ethnic or even gender identity demographics of any police department does not necessarily diminish racist or discriminatory practices.
But a police force, he said, more aligned with the composition of communities can lead to better outcomes for both officers and residents.
“Policing is best done locally,” Burbank told the World. “It shouldn’t be this distant thing. It should be personal and interactive. The more confident that the community has that their views, feelings, and beliefs are represented, the more willing they are to cooperate. That creates an environment of participation. When you have participation, you tend to not have as many negative interactions.”
Harper supports that assertion based on experience policing in north Tulsa, a community where he resides.
“First and foremost, everyone would like a good cop,” he said. “Of course there will be some level of ease there with African American officers working in the community.
“Sometimes (residents) won’t be apprehensive to be in contact with the police or talk to the police.
“People have a familiarity with me on-duty and off-duty. I might show up at a scene with people who know me and there is a tendency for that situation to calm down. It helps if you are familiar with the people you are dealing with.”
Harper, who called criticism of TPD’s racial and gender makeup fair, said he hopes to see improvement in diversity numbers soon.
“We work for the citizens,” he said. “If citizens are demanding more minority recruits, more females or more Hispanics, that’s what we should be pushing for. There should be no question about us trying to meet the demand.”
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