Study: Suburban police ranks don't match racial makeup of communities

  • Carpentersville's police force was 10 percent nonwhite, compared to 62 percent of the town's populace, according to 2007 data.

    Carpentersville's police force was 10 percent nonwhite, compared to 62 percent of the town's populace, according to 2007 data. Daily Herald file photo

  • County sheriffs and race

    Graphic: County sheriffs and race (click image to open)

 
 
Updated 9/8/2014 11:05 AM

The racial makeup of suburban police departments does not reflect the diversity of the communities those agencies serve.

That's according to figures from a 2007 study of American police forces by the U.S. Department of Justice that showed 16 of the largest police departments in the Northwest and West suburbs are overwhelmingly white, even in towns where the white population is a minority.

 

"People that are 'minorities' are underserved in many regards to local law enforcement because we do not have a law enforcement agency that reflects the population it represents," said Julie Contreras, chairwoman of the Immigration Affairs Committee for the Illinois chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "In many cases there is a language barrier, and it's important for cultural aspects, as well."

Among those 16 suburban communities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, the average white population was 64 percent, but the ranks of sworn officers in the police departments serving those communities were more than 90 percent white, according to the study. The majority of sheriff's deputies in those counties are also white, while the percentage of minority deputies rarely matches the county's minority populations.

"It's important for a police department to relate to the community makeup as best as possible," said Schaumburg Police Chief Jim Lamkin.

"I don't know that it's realistic to completely mirror population. It's a good goal to have, unless you're suggesting you have a different standard for different people."

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The current racial makeup of Lamkin's department hasn't changed much from the 2007 figures. At 92 percent, white officers are still the vast majority in a town where the white population is less than two-thirds. The 2007 figures had the department's white officers making up almost 95 percent of the force.

And while nearly 20 percent of Schaumburg's population is of Asian descent, only 2 percent of the police force there is considered Asian, Lamkin said.

And that can create language barriers, a civil rights advocate says.

"I know it's not traditionally a career path that a lot of Asian-American parents encourage their children to pursue, but the major problem with the lack of diversity with police in the Asian-American community is being able to engage in communication," said Andy Kang, legal director of the Chicago chapter of Asian-Americans Advancing Justice.

"In many cases involving domestic abuse, officers will seek out the person with the best grasp of English, and that may be the abusive spouse."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Few protocols exist at local police departments in dealing with language barriers, even though most local school districts employ teachers fluent in a variety of languages for programs germane to the region's immigrant population.

"We need to have resources available to us so we can at least address that," Lamkin said.

"We do have officers who are bilingual, but we also reach out to other agencies."

Kang said that's not always the best way to handle things. He pointed to a case involving a Korean-American family in Northbrook in which the father was accused of stabbing his son to death but later acquitted by a jury that believed investigators misinterpreted the father's stilted English answers in an interview after the son's death.

Kang said an officer from another department who spoke limited Korean muddied the investigation further.

"It just seems like good policy or best practice that your agency would mirror the demographic as close as possible," Kang said.

Some suburban police chiefs said that's not as easy as it sounds.

They say they routinely send representatives to area fairs to recruit minority and women candidates. But they also note most hiring decisions are made by an independent, appointed board, not police administrators.

"There just seems to be more white males applying," said Wheeling Police Chief Bill Benson.

"They're more likely to get hired because of sheer numbers. However, I will say that all things being equal between two candidates, somebody that is multilingual is going to be a benefit."

But Contreras said if suburban departments were truly interested in greater diversity among the officers they hire, there would be greater outreach to minority advocacy groups.

"I know of a veteran who returned from war who wanted to get a job on a local police department but couldn't get hired, so he moved to California where he was hired as a police officer," she said. "When there's 60 percent Hispanics living in your jurisdiction, there's no way on earth you can tell me there aren't enough individuals of color interested in those jobs."

Wheeling has a Hispanic population of 32.4 percent, while only 4.7 percent of the police officers are Hispanic.

But Benson said there are three job openings, and two of the top three candidates on the department's hiring list are Hispanic.

"In a department as small as ours, two officers can make a big swing in percentages, so you have to really know what all those numbers mean," he said.

Many police professionals support greater diversity among their ranks but say training and ability are more important since police officers aren't dispatched to handle calls that only apply to their specific race or gender.

"I think diversity is very important and that the more diverse your workforce can be the better off you are," said Al Popp, director of public safety in Carpentersville. "But I don't think individual makeup of an officer has anything to do with job performance. Lady Justice is blind for a reason."

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