13 Investigates: Houston-area law enforcement lacks diversity; could lead to more force and arrests

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Friday, June 4, 2021
Houston-area law enforcement lacks diversity, data shows
13 Investigates looked at the 14 largest police departments and sheriff's offices in the Houston area and found none of their departments reflect the diversity within their communities.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When Major Quincy Whitaker joined the Harris County Sheriff's Office as a jailer in 1991, he said getting promoted to his current position would have probably meant another Black officer couldn't also be a major.

There wasn't a policy in writing stating that and it was never explained. Whitaker said it was just understood, learned through observation and years of minorities taking the test to get promoted and being passed over.

"When I came, every rank from sergeant all the way up had one representation of different groups, and it was understood that that's probably all it was going to be," said Whitaker, who oversees the sheriff's office's administrative services bureau and oversees recruiting.

Whitaker said the sheriff's office has made concerted efforts to diversify the force over the years. He still remembers the first time there were two Black chief deputies at the same time, and the first time an Asian was promoted to command staff.

"We've come a long way. Today we are 62% non-white at the sheriff's office compared to 71% of non-white (people) in this county," Whitaker told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "In '91, it wasn't quite that diverse."

Despite the progress, the sheriff's office is still nine percentage points away from being as diverse as the community it serves. It's not the only law enforcement agency that doesn't completely reflect its community, but did have one of the smallest gaps in diversity, according to our investigation.

13 Investigates looked at the 14 largest police departments and sheriff's offices in the Houston area and found none of their departments reflect the diversity within their communities. Our investigation also found a department's diversity, even at the leadership level, impacts how officers interact with members of the community.

How diverse is your local law enforcement agency? 13 Investigates looked at the Houston areas 14 largest police departments and sheriff's offices to see how they measure up.

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When our ABC data team looked at arrests in the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., Black people were five times more likely to be arrested in departments where just 10% of officers were people of color.

When diversity rose to 50%, Black people were just twice as likely to be arrested.

Dr. Andrea Headley, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, has conducted similar research, which shows not only do arrests change when police forces are more diverse, but Black officers also use less severe use of force when making arrests.

"We do see differences with regards to [how] Black officers and white officers interact with the community," she said. "When everyone is making a decision to use force, there's still less severe force by Black officers."

Pasadena had the worst disparity in our region with just 32% of minority officers compared to 76% minority residents. Baytown was next with 35% of minority officers compared to 68% minority residents, followed by Pearland where 33% of its officers are minorities compared to a 58% minority population.

Baytown PD spokesperson, Eric Freed, said 150 people showed interest in its latest civil service exam, but only 115 met the hiring qualifications. After written and physical agility tests, only 22 people passed and made it to the stage in the application process where the personnel division conducts backgrounds.

He said 64% - or 14 of the 22 people in the backgrounding stage - are minorities.

"We understand the importance of having a diverse police department and continue to identify and attend job fairs and forums whose attendance, or student body, reflects our community," Freed said.

Our investigation found some communities have made strides in diversifying their police force. The Galveston County Sheriff's Office most closely represents its community, with 42.4% minority officers compared to 43.3% minority residents.

In Harris County, 62.4% of deputies in the sheriff's office are minorities compared to 71.3% of the county's population that are minorities.

Cadet Ciara Menifee, who just went through training with HCSO last month to fulfill her childhood dream of being a law enforcement officer, said her perspective growing up as a minority in Acres Homes will allow her to interact with the community differently than someone without that background.

"For someone that looks like me to understand them, that's very important to me, because I'm going to know and understand where they're coming from," Menifee said.

'Leaders still matter'

Since Americans live, work and play across neighboring police jurisdiction boundaries, our analysis also looked at diversity among officers in metro areas. The numbers weren't any better.

In 99 of the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas, the percent of white officers is larger than the percent of residents who are white, according to an ABC Owned Television Stations analysis of U.S. Census occupation data.

In Minneapolis, where a former police officer was convicted of murdering Houstonian George Floyd, about 26% of residents are minorities, but people of color hold less than 12% of police jobs across 15 counties in the metro area.

The Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land areas also showed what ABC's data team called severe inequity. More than half of officers are white while 64% of the population are minorities, according to our analysis of Census data.

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Fatal shootings also happen less often than in communities where the top leader is Black compared to white, even when accounting for city and department size, according to a study by Hamilton College's Dr. Stephen Wu.

Wu, who studied fatal police shootings in small and large cities across the country over a five-year period, found that fatal shootings are 40 to 50% higher in departments that have white police chiefs compared to departments with Black police chiefs.

For cities with about 1 million residents, Wu said it's a difference of 20 fatal officer-involved shootings at departments with a Black chief compared to 30 fatalities at departments with white chiefs.

READ ALSO: 1st police-worn body camera footage released under HPD's new policy

"Every individual is a human life that we're talking about," said Wu, a professor of economics. "Even if it seems like those numbers are not as big of a percentage of the number of interactions, it certainly has an impact on people's everyday lives in terms of the way they think about those potential interactions with officers."

Wu said the study shows diversity is important across all ranks of law enforcement.

"Leaders still matter," Wu said. "Whoever is at the top is really setting an agenda, is setting a tone, is helping determine the culture from that very top."

WATCH: New HPD chief sits down with Ted Oberg to discuss plans to tackle 'criminal system with cracks'

It's official. Houston City Council approved Troy Finner's promotion to police chief on Wednesday. He was promoted from executive assistant chief where he oversaw field operations. In the video above, ABC13's Ted Oberg spoke with him one-on-one about his goals and his plan to bring down violent crime.

Menifee said it means a lot to see other people of color move up in the ranks, and hopes she, too, can make a positive difference in the community.

"I can show them when I was growing up, this is how it was, and this is how it should be," Menifee said. "We're supposed to protect and serve our community and our county. It's not always bad."

'Can't teach life experience'

When he went through training to join the HCSO 30 years ago, Whitaker said only five of the 30 cadets were Black. But at last month's training, nearly the opposite was true -- 82% of cadets were minorities.

HCSO Cadet Christian Villanueva said working at a county jail for two years taught him how to talk to people and deescalate situations.

"You need to understand that people are going through things when they call you and they're usually calling you at the worst times, so you need to learn how to talk to them," Villanueva said. "You have to have some sympathy and empathy with them."

That ability to relate to people isn't something that can be taught and having more minorities in the police force means better opportunities to relate to people in the community and make a positive impact when it comes to crime and safety, Villanueva said.

"Whenever you speak to someone of similar race it makes a big difference. Probably just because you came from the same background, you know what they went through, they know what you went through and it's just sort of an unspoken bond," he said. "It's life experience. You can't teach life experience."

As part of her research, Headley said she's spoken with officers who said that having white and minority officers work alongside one another, white officers are able to observe how a minority officer might respond to a certain situation and apply that behavior to how they approach a similar situation in the future.

"We don't only want white officers policing white neighborhoods and Black officers policing Black neighborhoods and turn to a time that almost approaches a segregated police force," Headley said. "There are clear benefits to having diverse police forces."

In Baytown, Freed said recruiting officers is more challenging now than it has been in the past. Additionally, the city has to compete with other agencies in the Greater Houston area.

"Recruiting is challenging as this line of work is not currently as popular as it once was," Freed said. "We strive to provide a workplace where differences are honored, with a workforce that reflects the diversity of the people we serve."

With the social justice movements over the last year, Whitaker said it's "taboo" for minorities to even think about being a police officer. He said he tries to convince minorities to join by helping them understand how a diverse police force will lead to better interactions between police and communities of color.

"You feel comfortable with someone that you have something in common with, something similar to, and when you get out, if they see me around in the neighborhood, out of uniform, they're more comfortable to talk to me," he said. "It's important because you don't want to give a hostile approach or position or perception to the community, so we try to make it diversified and put someone in there that looks like them, talks like them (and) understands."

Whitaker said he always hoped his agency would be more diverse, but never thought during his career that HCSO would reach where it's at today with 62% of officers who are minorities.

As he continues to recruit applicants from different backgrounds and experiences, he said it's important for people of color to understand the importance of representation within law enforcement and that the path to leadership is possible.

"I tell him how it was when I started and how it is today. Look at where I am," Whitaker said. "Thirty years ago it was one major that looked like me. Now there's several that look like me."

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