When the video begins, all you hear is yelling. “It was just a cigarette! Mister, it’s just a cigarette, sir!” The video focuses, and you see a plainclothes police officer holding 17-year-old Marcel Hamer to the gutter with his foot. He bends down, punches the man in the head, and tries to arrest him. “Do you wanna get fucked up?” the office says, “Yeah, get it on film,” he continues. At this point, the young man is unconscious and unresponsive, and his friends are still shouting, screaming that he’s knocked out, begging him to get up.
This footage—taken on June 4—comes from New York City, and follows video of a similar incident from August in a nearby neighborhood, where an officer pistol-whipped an unarmed 16-year-old for briefly running away from police.
But there’s an important difference between the two videos. In the second, we see a familiar scene: black youth, white cops. The first, on the other hand, shows something less common: a black youth and a black cop.
In the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown—a black teenager—was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, we learned that Ferguson Police Department was nearly 95 percent white in a town where blacks were the large majority. Residents wanted change. “We want answers, we want justice in our community, we want diversity,” said Rev. Derrick Robinson in one of the early protests.
On the last point, at least, Ferguson city leaders agreed. “We hire everyone that we can get,” said Mayor James Knowles when asked about police diversity. “There’s also the problem that a lot of young African-American people don’t want to go into law enforcement. They already have this disconnect with law enforcement, so if we find people who want to go into law enforcement who are African-American we’re all over it because we want them to help us bridge the gap.” Likewise, during one forum, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said, “The perception is if we don’t have the diversity, we don’t have the understanding, and perception is reality.”
But there’s a problem. For as much as police diversity has value for image and community relations, it’s not clear that it does anything to cure the problem of police abuse and brutality in black and Latino communities. Just because an officer is black, in other words, doesn’t mean he’s less likely to use violence against black citizens.
The best look at this comes from Brad W. Smith, a researcher from Wayne State University in Detroit. In a 2003 paper, he looks at the impact of police diversity on officer-involved homicides in cities of more than 100,000 residents and cities of more than 250,000 residents. Regardless of city size, there wasn’t a relationship between racial representation and police killings—officer diversity didn’t mean much. At most, in smaller cities, female officers were more likely to commit shootings than their male counterparts, a fact—he speculates—that could be tied to sexist pressures on female officers, who might feel the need to act “tough” to prove their bona fides.
What mattered for police shootings wasn’t the makeup of the police department, it was the makeup of the city. In all measured cities, an increase in black residents brought an increase in police shootings. In smaller cities, a substantial change in the proportion of black residents resulted in a slight increase in the predicted number of police-caused homicides. And in the larger cities, the same change increased the chance for police-caused homicides by a factor of 10 compared to smaller cities. Put another way, the quickest way to predict the number of police shootings in a city is to see how many blacks live there.
And, in turn, the most likely victims of fatal police shootings are young black males. According to a ProPublica analysis of federal data on police shootings, young black males ages 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts. “One way of appreciating that stark disparity,” notes ProPublica, “is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring—185, more than one per week.” What’s most relevant for the diversity of police departments is this fact: While black officers are involved in just 10 percent of police shootings, 78 percent of those they kill are black.