Leaders of the Los Angeles Police Department are growing increasingly concerned about a looming decline in black officers on the force, particularly as pandemic-related restrictions on recruitment undercut their efforts to turn the tide.
“That makes it really tough, with us being hampered by COVID-19 and unable to go out and do business as we normally do business,” said Capt. Aaron McCraney, commanding officer of the LAPD’s recruitment and employment division.
Black officers currently represent about 9% of the police force, matching the percentage of black city residents. But many of those officers joined the force during a hiring push in the 1980s and ’90s and are expected to retire soon, McCraney said. Some already have.
Without a robust effort to bring on more black officers now, officials estimate the force will be only about 5% black within five years, McCraney said.
In a department that’s long struggled to earn trust in black communities, it’s an outcome no one wants.
The brutal beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1991, which was followed by rioting when the officers were acquitted, highlighted long simmering tensions between black communities and police and cast a long shadow on the department. A string of newer issues, including officers searching black and Latino motorists at disproportionate rates, have kept those tensions fresh.
Police Commission President Eileen Decker says the attrition has been a concern for more than a year, but the coronavirus’ effect on recruitment has made things worse.
“The Commission believes it is imperative that the Department not reduce the current percentage of African American police officers and our goal is to increase the current percentage,” Decker said in a statement.
Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala briefed the commission last month on the upcoming retirements and the diminished recruitment due to the pandemic. Chief Michel Moore has identified the coming decline as unacceptable and something to be headed off, McCraney said.
Moore wants the percentage of black officers not just on parity with city demographics, but also to go beyond it, McCraney said. When Moore was sworn in as chief in 2018, he said that increasing the number of black and women officers was one of his goals.
“He recognizes that many people in the African American community feel that there are not enough African American police officers,” McCraney said. “A way to address that, and to work on community engagement in the African American community, is to look at going beyond parity.”
Civil rights organizations that advocate for cities to hire officers who look like the people they serve say a decline in black officers on the LAPD would be a step backward.
“It’s on law enforcement and politicians to do something about this. It’s their duty and responsibility to change this trajectory,” said Scot X. Esdaile, chairman of the NAACP’s national criminal justice committee.
Esdaile said it was no wonder that young black people weren’t applying to become officers. There is a long history of police abuse in the black community, including King’s beating, and the modern prevalence of cellphones and other cameras has meant documentation that the abuse persists today, he said.
“Young people, young black people, are pretty much turned off from being involved in the profession of law enforcement,” he said. “This is a direct reflection of what’s going on across the country.”
Still, there must be black cops on police forces if departments are to have the trust they need in communities to get tips and solve crime, Esdaile said.
“Law enforcement is going to have to find out a way, if they are sincere, for being more diversified,” he said. “If you’re going to protect and serve a community, it’s imperative that people see their own.”
The demographics of the LAPD, like the city, have changed dramatically in the last 30 years.
In 1990, the force was 61.4% white, 21.5% Latino, 13.8% black and 3% Asian. Now it is far more diverse, and more diverse than other big departments in the country, at about 50% Latino, 30% white, 10% Asian Pacific Islander and 9% black, McCraney said.
Those numbers mirror Los Angeles as a whole, which in 2019 was 48.6% Latino, 28.5% white, 11.6% Asian and 8.9% black, according to U.S. Census data.
But women, despite making up half the city’s population, account for only 18% of department employees.
Girmala said that, before the pandemic, the police force was on pace to meet recruitment goals for hiring more black, Asian Pacific Islander and female officers. Now, it has fallen behind.
McCraney said a major recruitment fair planned at one of the biggest malls in Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, was recently canceled. With schools, universities and churches closed, other recruitment opportunities also have been blocked.
As a result, “our testing numbers have plummeted,” he said.
In March, 392 people took the department’s test to become an officer, a 40% drop over March 2019, McCraney said.
The department has about 10,000 sworn officers, and 3,000 more civilian employees. It generally likes to hire about 500 new officers per year, to keep up with attrition, McCraney said. That’s not easy even when there isn’t a pandemic.
In the past, only about 3% of applicants have been hired, McCraney said. More recently, the department has been hiring about 1 out of every 12 applicants, he said. That means “in order for us to hire 500, we need to test probably 6,000 or 7,000 candidates,” he said.
In addition to canceled recruitment events, McCraney said he suspected the decline in applications was due in part to a shift from in-person tests to online tests. That transition could lead to more applicants in the long run but might have spurred a temporary slowdown.
He said he hadn’t seen any uptick in applications, even with the recent spike in unemployment — but had noticed those applying being extra diligent in seeing the process through.
The decline in test takers puts a personnel strain on an already depleted force.
As of this week, 87 department employees had tested positive for coronavirus infection, out of 846 tested, and another 111 were awaiting tests. There were also 125 officers not working because of potential exposure to the virus. One employee was hospitalized.
McCraney, who has been on the force for 28 years, said the department was now in the process of developing new social media and marketing campaigns to draw in the diverse candidates it wanted to see.
He hopes more diverse candidates consider the Police Department. They should check out potential careers in the force, he said, and not rely on preconceived notions.
“A lot of times, people look at how things were 20, 30, 50 years ago, and they apply it to today,” he said. “I’d encourage people to come and help make the change. Be the change.”
New officers in the department start at $67,000 a year.
Times reporter Leila Miller contributed to this report.