Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Over the past 25 years, Las Vegas’ population has flipped from three-fourths white to one primarily made up of minorities.
The city’s police force hasn’t kept pace.
While white residents make up only 46 percent of Clark County’s population, 77 percent of officers at Metro Police are white.
Staffing a diverse police force is an ongoing challenge here and nationwide, one brought to light by the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Brown’s death triggered protests, riots and tense confrontations between Ferguson’s predominantly black residents and its nearly all-white police force.
Experts say police departments, like all public agencies, should reflect their communities to maintain authority.
“If they’re not representative, the population might start to view them with less legitimacy,” UNLV sociology professor Andrew Spivak said.
Metro officials say they want their department to reflect Las Vegas’ diversity, but cultural and financial barriers have hampered their efforts.
Capt. Michael Dalley, who oversees Metro’s recruiting efforts, said the department has tried reaching out to more minority candidates. But budget cuts triggered a four-year hiring reduction that ended last year. “It’s hard to change our numbers when we can’t hire anyone,” Dalley said.
Metro’s police academy began launching classes again in 2013. Since then, of three pools of about 50 recruits, about 16 percent have been Latino. That’s up from the department’s average of 11 percent Latino recruits. Clark County is 30 percent Hispanic.
Recruiters also partnered with the Sheriff’s African American Recruitment Council to stage a job fair Sept. 20 to draw black applicants.
But Tod Story, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said Metro isn’t doing enough to diversify and maintain a representative force.
“There are language barriers, issues of religion,” Story said. “We need individuals within the ranks to inform and educate others. I think that’s what the whole success of a police department hinges on.”
Metro for years has grappled with accusations of racial bias stemming from a series of officer-involved shootings in the 2000s. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in to investigate Metro’s use of force. A similar review is underway in Ferguson.
The Metro investigation, which concluded this year, found that an overwhelming majority of unarmed suspects shot by police since 2007 were black or Latino, and every suspect shot during an officer-initiated stop was a minority. The Justice Department said those “proportions were of concern” and noted that while Metro had made some progress addressing bias, it needed to do more.
In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, about 200 people rallied last month in North Las Vegas to call for more oversight of Metro, including mandatory body cameras for officers.
“African-American men are being targeted, and their killings are going unpunished,” organizer Leslie Turner said. “This needs to stop. It’s not something isolated to Ferguson.”
To address racial bias concerns nationally, Justice Department officials announced that a team of researchers would study police-minority relations in five American cities and recommend strategies to address issues.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie said his department has made progress, but admits “we’re not where we need to be.”
Metro has followed more than 70 recommendations from the Justice Department. Leaders started more community-oriented policing initiatives and began a pilot program for officers to wear body cameras. The department advertises positions on Spanish-language radio and television, and recruiters attended the NAACP convention.
Seven years ago, Metro started a Hispanic Citizen’s Academy to build relationships in that community, and in West Las Vegas, Metro started a Safe Village program to try to reduce crime in the heart of Las Vegas’ historically black neighborhoods.
Boston, which has a police force relatively representative of its city, had success with similar programs.
“They started doing a lot of their policing in a different way,” said Dora LaGrande, a community liaison for Metro. “It’s a good beginning, but there’s still a long way to go. The black community has a lot of distrust against Metro — all police departments.”
In North Las Vegas
Minority representation also is disproportionately low in the North Las Vegas Police Department. North Las Vegas is 31 percent white, 39 percent Latino and 20 percent black. Its police force is 71 percent white.
Crippled by a financial crisis, North Las Vegas hasn’t hired a new officer since 2009, despite losing nearly 70 since then. A federal program this year is funding training for three recruits — one is black, one is Asian and one is white.
“We would love to have our department mirror the ethnic makeup of the city,” Sgt. Chrissie Coon said. “We want to build bridges with the community.”
Coon said the department is seeking another grant from the Justice Department that could help enlist at least a dozen new recruits and potentially more officers of color.
Henderson has seen fewer demographic changes than the rest of the valley. As a result, its police department more closely reflects the racial makeup of its residents.
Whites make up 69 percent of the population, followed by Latinos at 15 percent. The city’s police department, meanwhile, is 86 percent white and 7 percent Latino.
Spokeswoman Kathleen Richards said the department recruits officers of color by advertising jobs with groups such as the National Black Police Association and Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce. Henderson touts itself as one of the top 10 safest cities in America.