Connecticut towns continue to struggle with diversity in police ranks


The now infamous killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis has again put sharp focus on the wide disparities of race and ethnicity in the makeup of most local police forces from the communities they safeguard – including those in Connecticut.

At nearly all of the Connecticut’s larger municipalities there is a yawning gulf between the ethnic and racial makeup of the police departments and the populations of the communities they serve. The disparities have changed little since the CT Mirror first documented them in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

In Hartford, only about 11.5 % percent of the police department is black, while the city has a 36% black population. About 35% of Danbury’s population is Latino, but only 9% of its police officers claim that ethnicity. And roughly 11.4% of Meriden’s population is black, but only about 3.4% of its police officers are African-American.

The Bridgeport Police Department did not respond to requests for information about the current racial and ethnic makeup of its force but, in 2014, the population of Connecticut’s largest city was 35% black, compared to 15% of its police.

In New Britain, however, 9.6 % of its police force is African American, nearly matching the population rate of African-Americans in the city. New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute, a 22-year veteran of the force, is proud of that, but says he’d like to boost the numbers of Latinos in his ranks. “We really need more Hispanics to apply,” Chute said.

While the population of New Britain is more than 45% Latino, only 11.5% of its police force is Hispanic.

“Recruiting is one of the most difficult things in 2020,” Chute said, not only for minority officers but “across the board.”

“There’s been a steady decline in applications and we don’t have all the answers why,” Chute said. He said negative publicity may have dampened enthusiasm for a career in law enforcement.

Since he’d like his police force to reflect his community, Chute said he aggressively tries to recruit minority candidates, first from the town and then at other venues  including sites across the state that hold the CHIP Physical Ability Assessment used in Connecticut to determine whether an applicant is physically fit for a policing job.

“We set up a booth right at the site,” Chute said.

Besides passing the CHIP test, applicants for Connecticut’s municipal police forces must pass a written test, polygraph exam, background check, psychological evaluation and medical exam.

But the rigorous application process is not usually a problem, Chute said.

“The problem is we need to get them in the door first,” he said.

Retention is also not a problem, Chute said, since the New Britain Police Department offers personnel the opportunity to retire with a state pension.

Many small police forces say their officers are lured away to large, city departments that can offer better pay and benefits.

Experts say that increasing the ranks of minority officers alone won’t solve all the underlying problems of police brutality. But they also say diversity could help strengthen ties between local police and the communities on their beat.

Daryl McGraw, co-chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, said the disconnect between urban communities and their police forces make residents feel like being in prison. Police “act like guards instead of being part of the community,” he said.

McGraw said police should ideally be recruited from the communities they serve, which would naturally lead not only to a more accurate reflection of its racial composition, but also to a deeper knowledge of the people and places they work to protect.

Like Chute, Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo said it’s been hard to recruit new officers in the past few years,  whether they be white, black or Hispanic.

“It’s not a career that’s desired right now,” Spagnolo said. “There’s been a lot of negative stories and negative sentiment about the police.”

Yet Spagnolo said having a diverse force is important and he’s made outreach to the local NAACP, faith based leaders and put up a tent — for 16 hours — at “The Gathering” a multicultural event Waterbury holds every year. Those recruitment efforts may have had some success because Spagnolo said about 40% of the applicants in his last recruitment drive were minorities.

“Our goal is to have a police force that reflects the community it serves,” Spagnolo said.

He said a diverse force may not be the cure-all to bad policing — he believes training is central to good policing — but said diversity helps police understand cultural issues and foster closer ties with multi-racial and multi-cultural communities.

He said his “progressive” force already undergoes “implicit bias training” and “de-escalation training,” and is considering adding anti-racism training to the curriculum.

As far as reforms, Spagnolo said some may be needed and the federal government should tie policing grants to mandatory training and other requirements.

“Policing is going through a very drastic change,” Spagnolo said. “It’s a very volatile situation.”

Changing the culture

A number of factors are slowing progress in addressing an imbalance that dates back generations,  including the lack of appeal a policing job holds for many minority youth — especially because there is evidence blacks and Hispanics are more likely to suffer violence at the hands of police officers.

The racial imbalance is not by any means apparent only in Connecticut.

A 2016 survey by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the latest available of most of the nation’s police departments and sheriff’s offices, found that, nationwide overall, one in four officers, and one in five first-line supervisors, were black or Hispanic. Since measures of the nation’s population range from about 12.4%- 13.4% black and 17-18.3% Latino — some 30-32% minority — the disparity between the minority composition of police nationally and of the nation’s population seems not that wide.

The number of minority officers is not uniformly distributed, however. The balance of races and ethnicity is most reflective of the nation’s population in the largest cities of half a million inhabitants or more, according to the BJS study. The proportion of black and Hispanic officers in smaller municipalities dropped significantly the smaller the population of the community.  In towns that had between 50,000 and 25,000 residents, for instance, the average was 87% percent white officers, 6% black officers and 5.2% Latino officers.  Over time nationally, the percentage of black officers has been relatively static at about 11%, the BJS study said. The percentage of Hispanic officers increased slightly from nearly 8% in 1997 to more than 12% in 2016.

In Minneapolis, the city of about 430,000 people where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day, 20% of the city’s police force are minority officers while about 39% of the city’s population is black and Hispanic.

Since demonstrations erupted to protest Floyd’s death and the larger problem of police brutality, several of Connecticut’s police chiefs have expressed sympathy with the protesters, including Norwalk Police Chief Thomas E. Kulhawik. He went out to greet between 400 to 500 demonstrators who marched from I-95 to his station last Sunday.

Kulhawik said he knew many of the marchers who “ran the gamut’” in age, race and ethnicity.

“Our message was that we heard their issues and we understood,” Kulhawik said. The chief also said recruiting minority officers had been difficult when the economy was booming before the pandemic hit.

“When the economy is good there are a lot of options to policing,” he said.

Policing ‘not aspirational’ for black youth

McGraw, of the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, said the effort to diversify police through recruitment should be grounded in a push to “make being a police officer attractive (to minorities) again” by changing the culture. He believes that police training should be reformed from the ground up to emphasize problem solving and communication and de-emphasize the use of force.

“The weapon should be the last resort,” he said.

In addition, McGraw said that much more stringent accountability measures should be established. “Taking a human being’s life should be very difficult,” he said. “It shouldn’t be you can kill somebody and show up for work tomorrow.”

John DeCarlo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and the former police chief of Branford, said “police that look exactly like their community will get a better results.”

But a diverse police force may not always mean less abusive behavior. DeCarlo cited a university study that found black police officers were more likely than white officers to use a taser on black suspects. 

“We don’t have an explanation for that,” DeCarlo said.

In 2015, the Journal of Criminal Justice Education published the most comprehensive study on law enforcement and higher education to date. One major finding was that police officers with college degrees are less likely to use force against citizens.

The study said college graduates are used to solving problems and debating issues, and “might not like the old school, by-the-book mentality of many police administrators.”

Co-author William Terrill, who conducted the study as a criminologist at Michigan State University, said today’s policing is much more about social work than it is law enforcement.

“It’s about resolving low-level disputes, dealing with loiterers and so on,” he said, and that officers with experience in psychology, sociology and other college-taught disciplines might be more adept at addressing these issues.

As police chief in Branford, DeCarlo said he urged minority youth in the town to join his force, “but there just weren’t that many black families in Branford.”

He said police chiefs are reaching out to black youth, saying “come on down and let’s make you an officer.”

“But young black men don’t want to be a police officer,” DeCarlo said. “With all [the violence] that seems to be happening, it’s not aspirational to be a police officer.”

To DeCarlo, education and training are ultimately what makes the difference when it comes to good policing. He said officers with a college education have proven to be less likely to use force.

Still, there should always be a push for diversity.

“Police departments should definitely mirror the makeup of their communities,” he said.

(Cover picture: A woman raises her fist behind a line of police chiefs from around the state at a mock funeral at the state Capitol in Hartford for George Floyd.)

Connecticut towns continue to struggle with diversity in police ranks was first published by CTMirror.

Publisher’s Note: CTLN and CTMirror collaborate to best serve the Connecticut Hispanic, Latino community.