Like everyone else, I have been watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri with a varying mix of confusion and concern, and I keep coming back to one specific question that I haven't heard anyone ask. Why don't we have more black police officers?
I have no idea what actually happened when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown last week. I wasn't there. Once the story devolved into the debate over angry protestors, overmilitarized police, opportunistic agitators, self-protective politicians, and embedded journalists, our chances of knowing exactly what happened between the two men likely evaporated.
Anytime an unarmed man is shot 6 times by a police officer, something has gone horribly wrong in the officer's decision-making process. I doubt that this was a fully rational, reasoned act by a 6-year policeman with no known disciplinary issues. However, I also doubt that Michael Brown was a submissive saint who was gunned down for no other reason than he was walking in the street. The truth is likely somewhere in between. We may never actually know for sure.
When terrible tragedies such as this occur, we are reminded that race issues bubble just below the surface in everyday America. We don't complain about the images of paramilitary police when a school is under attack from within, but we do when those same images evoke iconic memories of dogs and firehoses. We have an ugly history of institutional bigotry and racism in this country, and prejudice clearly persists. It's why we have riots in Ferguson when a young black man is killed, but we don't have them in Miami when a rabbi is slain, or in California when an unstable kid with guns massacres blond sorority girls. Then we just weep.
Many would like us to believe that the whole truth doesn't matter, only the basic facts. Another young, unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. They might be right, but if they are, then why doesn't that ever lead to my question? Why don't we have more black police officers?
Would a black police officer have shot Michael Brown? If the shooting officer were black, would we have the kind of unrest we are witnessing nightly from Missouri? What if Officer Wilson had a black partner to corroborate his report? If Ferguson had a police force that was 67% black, like its population, then would this ever have happened in the first place? I have no idea.
So again, I ask "Why?" Why does a suburban city that is 67% black have a 53-person police force with 50 white officers? This is not a socioeconomic or ethnic question. The ranks of local law enforcement are not being filled exclusively by young men and women of privilege. We have minority police captains and police chiefs through all of our major cities, and have had for many years. We have innumerable black and minority elected officials. We have elected and re-elected a black President, and he has appointed a black Attorney General.
We continue to have justifiable national outrage when young black men are killed by white police officers. We are told that this demographic disparity contributes to the tragic events that continue to plague us. We are told that our urban black communities, and specifically our young black men, live in fear of racial profiling and unprovoked harassment from disproportionately white police forces.
So... Why don't we have more black police officers in places like Ferguson? I'm not asking in some rhetorical, snarky, self-serving way, because I have some magical answer, or because I have any statistical analysis to prove that it would help the situation at all. I just genuinely do not know, and I keep waiting for someone to ask the question of someone who might.