For decades, Indianapolis leaders have promised to increase the number of minority police officers in Indianapolis, working to create a Police Department that mirrors the community it serves.
Diversity is key to de-escalating potentially turbulent situations and building trust in urban minority communities, law enforcers and experts say. But an IndyStar analysis shows that, despite federal hiring mandates, internal guidelines and repeated public promises to address the problem, the city’s police force is less diverse today than it was nearly 25 years ago, even as the city has grown more diverse.
Blacks comprise 28 percent of the city’s population but only 14 percent of theIndianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Representation among other populations looks even worse.
Women make up 13 percent of the department, a proportion that has remained unchanged for nearly a decade. And although Hispanic and Latino Hoosiers comprise nearly 10 percent of the city’s population, the department contains less than 3 percent.
Although IMPD recently has hired more officers overall, it has been inconsistent in its recruitment of minorities. Last December’s recruitment class was one of its least diverse in years.
“We’ve had some successes in some classes, but we’re just not getting enough minority applicants to backfill the losses,” said Joe Slash, a member of the Police Merit Board and the retired president of the Indianapolis Urban League.
Almost half of the city’s black officers are eligible for retirement, a dilemma complicated by a three-year hiring freeze earlier this decade. The lack of new hires not only reduced the number of officers on patrol, but also significantly hindered efforts to boost minorities on the workforce, officials say.
“This department, in terms of its diversity, should be given an award in the hall of shame for its diversity numbers,” said Stephen Clay, a Democrat on the City-County Council.
IMPD Chief Troy Riggs said he knows it’s a problem, one he insists he has been working to address since he first came to Indianapolis as public safety director.
But even as Riggs works to increase diversity and pledges to back stronger efforts to recruit minority candidates, some say they’ve heard promises from others before. Now, they just want to see results.
Indianapolis’ difficulties with workforce diversity stretch back to the 1970s, when the city was sued by officers who claimed they were discriminated against in hiring and promotions.
The police force at the time was about 11 percent black and 8.5 percent female. Numbers for other minority groups were not listed in archived records, and Indianapolis Police Department data from that time were not available.
Those legal disputes were resolved through a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The city vowed to beef up its police and firefighter workforces using guidelines that required authorities to hire classes that were about one-quarter black. That agreement was later amended to include women.
The city never hit those benchmarks, and its affirmative action-based hiring quotas were soon challenged. During the 1980s, Mayor William Hudnut, a Republican, fought to keep the consent decree guidelines in place despite a push by the Justice Department during the Reagan administration to remove them.
Hudnut was successful at defending the terms of the decree, and he left office at the end of 1991 with a department that was more than 17 percent black. By 1992, women made up about 15 percent.
But future officials rejected Hudnut’s quotas as unconstitutional. Soon-to-be Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, also a Republican, told IndyStar in 1991 he wanted to use a “creative and aggressive recruiting program” to increase the number of minorities. “I don’t believe in quotas, and I believe the city has relied on them too much.”
Others agreed that stronger recruitment was the answer. In 1998, Indianapolis Police Department spokesman Lt. Timothy Horty said the department believed it was recruiting better. A recent class had included 21 percent minorities. “It’s never going to be a perfect system,” he told IndyStar, “but we do the best we can.”
Despite those pledges, the department became whiter. From 2000 to 2010, less than 14 percent of hires were black, and less than 5 percent were other racial or ethnic minorities, according to IMPD hiring data.
Critics point to two events as reasons for the problem. A 1996 law changed residency requirements for law enforcement officers, allowing the Indianapolis Police Department to begin hiring officers who lived in the significantly whiter counties surrounding Marion County, said Slash, of the merit board. And the department’s merger with the law enforcement arm of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department in 2007 brought an influx of mostly white deputies to the newly created IMPD, which caused the proportion of black officers to drop 2 percentage points.
Meanwhile, opposition grew to the consent decree and the department’s use of race-preferential hiring practices.
In the mid-2000s, the Justice Department petitioned to dissolve the decree after U.S. Supreme Court decisions that rolled back affirmative action policies. The Fraternal Order of Police accused the city of stacking recruitment classes with minorities at the expense of white applicants. And several white police officers sued the city, saying they were passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified black applicants.
In 2008, Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration reached an agreement with the Justice Department to end the consent decree.
But some believed the department’s work was unfinished. Six months after Ballard’s administration ended the court-established benchmarks, the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, representing dozens of police officers, sued the city, alleging the department favored whites over minorities for jobs and promotions.
And Slash said he told Ballard about major faults with the hiring process, saying: “It screened candidates out more than it screened candidates in.”
Speaking on behalf of Ballard, spokesman Robert Vane described the Republican mayor’s emphasis on diversity in city government as a “top priority.”
“Mayor Ballard is proud of the gains made in minority officer recruitment and the number of minorities in top leadership positions in IMPD — including the appointment of Rick Hite as chief of police,” Vane wrote in a statement.
He said Ballard’s efforts at bridging the gap between IMPD and minority communities were further recognized by President Barack Obama.
The city made some strides. IMPD human resources manager Bruce Henry said the city in 2008 revamped its written exam. Seemingly innocuous things, such as the way a question was worded, would change the way some test takers answered, Henry said.
Henry said the city hired a contractor to develop tests it was confident would not disenfranchise any applicant, and conducted studies to ensure that its exams were not screening out applicants because of their race or gender.
Make or break
Creating a police force that looks like its community is more than a fairness and equality issue, experts say. Diverse police forces also help alleviate race-related tensions in communities, said Ronnie Dunn, an associate professor of urban studies atCleveland State University.
“I do think that it does, in fact, help build trust within the community,” said Dunn, who was appointed by Gov. John Kasich to the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Boardand is a member of the NAACP Legal Redress Committee. “The discussion of race is diminished if you do have a larger presence of minority officers on the force.”
IMPD Lt. Brian Mahone, a former deputy chief who was made head of the department’s recruitment branch in January, also stressed the importance of police diversity.
A black officer himself, Mahone said minority representation in law enforcement was one thing that drew him to the profession. While growing up in Indianapolis, Mahone said, he was inspired by a black Indiana State Police trooper who lived on his block.
“(Diversity) can make or break a police agency,” Mahone said. “The community has to let us police them, and building that trust and that relationship of being able to see and know that you’re represented in the process.”
Mahone, a former U.S. Marine Corps recruiter, has spent much of his time in recent weeks traveling the Midwest in search of potential recruits for his department’s next crop of officers. He has met with students at Ball State University and spoken to classes at Central State University, a historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio.
As with many professions, Mahone said recruiting has become more competitive in the Internet age. Many of the 1,500 to 2,000 people who apply to IMPD have applications out with departments across the country, from Jacksonville, Fla., to Houston and San Diego.
“We’re looking for the best of the best, right?” Mahone said. “So is everybody (else).”
Even when Mahone convinces a strong recruit to apply, he can’t guarantee that person a spot. The same 90-day application process is required for everyone, including a written exam, an interview with a panel and a presentation. Then they take a physical exam.
It’s challenging to persuade recruits who live outside the Indianapolis area to return for tests, Mahone said, and IMPD can’t travel to administer those exams.
City investigators check the backgrounds of remaining applicants, whittling the pool to about 100. Once that list is certified by the Police Merit Board, top performers are picked for a recruitment class that recently has ranged from 35 to 78 people. Anywhere from five to 10 recruits drop out each class.
The monthslong process makes it difficult to convince come applicants to stick with it, Mahone said. “What happens if another police department calls?”
Since the end of a three-year hiring freeze in mid-2014, Riggs said, he has tried to improve the department’s numbers. He pointed to three recruitment classes hired since then that on average contained 20 percent black, 20 percent women and 10 percent Hispanic recruits.
“I may not be here for the 10 years it takes to fix this, but I am laying the problem out,” Riggs said. “(If) we recruit the right way, we get a diverse workforce.”
Recent numbers, however, haven’t held. A class hired late last year after Riggs left city employment — and before he returned as police chief — was more than 80 percent white. Riggs said the size of the class, which contained 78 recruits, hurt minority numbers. He said this year’s two smaller classes will give the department more time to recruit.
Mahone, meanwhile, has been given $65,000 for recruitment, a budget that hasn’t existed for several years. Riggs also floated targeted programs for young adults who are considering the profession.
“All of this relies on money, too,” he said. “It’s tight money right now.”
Rick Snyder, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, has advocated for increased recruitment funding. His organization most recently suggested dedicating about $100,000 for such purposes — more than what’s available to Mahone right now.
Aaron Freeman, a Republican on the City-County Council, said it’s unrealistic to expect a lot of funding from a cash-strapped city.
“Obviously, diversity is critically important, and we need to recruit our own talent,” Freeman said. “There’s some ways we can do that in a creative way that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
Council discussion about officer hiring has instead revolved in recent weeks around a law change that for some recalls the diversity quotas from the Hudnut years.
That rule, called 80/20, was among the provisions of the original consent decree and was removed from policy when IMPD was created in 2007. While 80 percent of the workforce is hired in rank order based on performance scores, a police chief has the discretion to hire the remaining 20 percent.
The proposal has been kicked around the council since 2011 as a way to bring back hiring benchmarks removed during the 2000s. A vote on a proposal including the language has ended in deadlock at the past two council meetings.
“It is a tool used by or available to the chief to ensure greater diversity among the Police Department in Indianapolis so that it may look more like the community that it serves,” said Clay, the council Democrat. “Obviously, I’m unapologetically supportive of it if it benefits African-Americans.”
But Snyder, who said he doesn’t oppose the concept of using discretion, said the rule is meaningful only if it is used to make hires based on notable talents or skills, rather than on race or gender, which has been ruled unconstitutional. And without more funding for recruitment, he said, the proposal does nothing to actively increase diversity.
Freeman, meanwhile, said the existing proposal includes significant changes to the makeup of the Police Merit Board that he can’t support. And he says the focus on 80/20 is meaningless, because the merit board, which oversees hiring, promotions, demotions and terminations, recently adopted a policy that includes similar language. Riggs said he anticipates using discretion to make future hires based on valuable skill sets or a proven history of community engagement.
To Clay, however, it’s important that the council pass a local ordinance because it would become binding. A policy followed by the merit board could change at any time, he said.
Regardless of the proposal’s success, or any future recruiting tactics Riggs and his department propose, officials and experts caution that a diverse workforce is only one of the efforts necessary to improve police-community relations.
Riggs said he’s particularly concerned with how officials can address the city’s growing immigrant communities.
“They don’t think about a potential career in law enforcement,” he said, adding that immigrant involvement in law enforcement “helps us with some of the cultural issues that we have at times when we’re trying to investigate crimes or investigate victims.”
Riggs and others have pointed to the burgeoning Burmese community, for example. Later this month, IMPD officers will host an event with members of the Burmese community at the department’s East District headquarters.
Even as IMPD attempts to diversify its force, others stress that diversity isn’t a silver bullet for addressing some of the challenges the department faces, such as solving homicide cases involving black victims.
“It’s really about establishing relationships of mutual trust and respect,” said Dunn, the Cleveland State University professor.
Dunn chalked up the most deep-rooted issues to a lack of understanding between communities and police that stems from negative encounters.
“The most frequent contact that the average citizen has with the police comes in the form of a traffic stop,” Dunn said. “These low-income, inner-city communities are the ones that need police the most, but that distrust is so salient that they aren’t inclined to cooperate with the police.”
That direct contact is something Riggs said he’s working on, too. Officials announced last month the creation of 19 new beats its officers will patrol. The coverage areas, chosen because they produce a disproportionate amount of crime or because the residents there suffer from low quality of life, are much smaller than the locations officers are now tasked with covering.
Slash, meanwhile, said the city needs to find some kind of answer to consistently improving its diversity numbers. After decades of promises, the problems remain.
“They’re all saying the same thing,” Slash said, “but we can’t seem to get there.”
Call IndyStar reporter Jill Disis at (317) 444-6137. Follow her on Twitter: @jdisis.