America Is Losing Its Black Police Officers

After decades of gains, departments face a wave of retirements.

A photo illustration of red and blue silhouetted police officers and people in handcuffs.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

When Ray Kelly was appointed commissioner of the New York Police Department, in 1992, he announced that his No. 1 priority was to recruit more Black officers to the force. “Without these actions, there will be increased tension between the communities and the police,” Kelly told The New York Times. “Tension leads to hostilities and that will lead to more cries of racism in the department.”

Kelly was not alone. The same year, Willie Williams became the first Black chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, which since 1980 had been under court order to produce a force that looked more like the city it patrolled—and which had been roiled by the beating of Rodney King in 1991. Williams promised to hire more Black officers. So did mayors such as Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., and Chicago’s Richard Daley, who in 1995 said, “You have to have a diversity, and that diversity includes everyone.”

These diversification efforts were largely successful. American police forces became far more representative of their communities, adding women, Black officers, and members of other minority groups. But some of America’s largest police forces are suddenly—and quickly—getting less diverse, as two trends converge: A wave of Black officers is reaching retirement age, and recruitment efforts to replace them are sputtering.

The NYPD has seen a 14 percent drop in Black officers since 2008, from a high of 4,162 to 3,598 this September. Black employment in the Philadelphia Police Department has fallen 19 percent since 2017. The number of Black officers in the Chicago Police Department has dropped by 12 percent since May 2019. Even Washington, D.C., long a leader in minority-police recruitment, has had a 25 percent decrease since 1998, when two-thirds of officers were Black, to 50 percent today, though the city also got whiter over that time period. The LAPD has seen a 24 percent drop in Black officers, from 1,175 in 2010 to 885 today, though the department’s ranks have also shrunk.

Gathering a complete national view of demographic changes is effectively impossible. The United States has more than 18,000 police departments, many of them tiny and all with their own practices for collecting and releasing data. But the data from the big departments all point in the same direction and match anecdotal reports: America’s police forces are getting less Black, and some are getting whiter.

As recently as the 1960s, some cities had no Black officers; others didn’t allow them to carry guns or arrest white suspects. But many departments have made major improvements on minority hiring, through a combination of court-ordered changes, political pressure, and the occasional visionary leader. Surveys from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the percentage of Black officers nationwide rose steadily from 1987 (9.3 percent) to 2013 (11.9 percent). There was a particular influx in the ’90s, fed by a growing political focus on diversity combined with the 1994 crime bill, which provided federal funding to hire 100,000 new police officers around the country.

Those unusual gains, however, sowed the seeds of the impending collapse in Black-police ranks. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was a big hiring push,” says Captain Aaron McCraney, who leads the LAPD’s recruitment and employment division. “Consequently, especially when it comes to African Americans, a lot of those people are at the point in their careers where it’s a natural attrition. It’s naturally occurring because of that hiring surge.”

Many members of the cohort of officers who joined the force in the ’80s and ’90s are now reaching retirement age. By 2016, the most recent year for which Bureau of Justice data are available, the proportion of Black officers had dipped to 11.4 percent.

The available data suggest that what McCraney is seeing in Los Angeles is happening in large departments across the nation—deepening the pre-2016 trends. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum this summer found a 45 percent annual increase in retirement rates at responding agencies, including a 27 percent increase in departments with at least 500 officers. Agencies also reported a significant jump in officers resigning preretirement. (The reasons for this phenomenon are not well understood.)

This exodus couldn’t come at a more difficult moment. Following the murder of George Floyd last year and other high-profile instances of police violence, American cities erupted in the largest protests in generations, if not ever. Police departments are facing new political pressures, and relationships between departments and Black Americans are at a low point—which makes reversing the demographic trend both more pressing and more challenging.

“When we don’t have the right face, you can’t get the right results,” Captain Frederick Thomas, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told me. “You’ve got to have the right face in the right community.”

Civilian and police leaders have long argued that departments that don’t look like their communities are less effective and more likely to produce tensions. Racism remains an enormous problem in American policing, including the overpolicing of Black communities, disproportionate killings of Black civilians, and internal racial tensions within departments. In 2020, according to Gallup, just 19 percent of Black adults had confidence in the police, a number that rebounded somewhat in 2021 but is still an atrocious 27 percent.

“We know based on our own observations, as well as the various empirical studies, that we serve a very pivotal position in the creation of good, solid police-community relations,” Charles P. Wilson, the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told me. “We police differently than our [white] counterparts do. There’s no question about that. We come on the job for a different reason than they do. When we’re on the street, we treat people differently.”

In the LAPD, McCraney told me, Chief Michel Moore has set a priority of getting Black officers on the streets. Even with the recent drop, the LAPD’s percentage of Black officers matches the demographics of the city it polices, but McCraney, who is Black, noted that when officers are spread out across a large area, Black citizens may still not see officers who look like them.

“It’s bigger than just being equal,” he said. Moore “is looking to address some of the past ills that have occurred in the perception of the relationship between the African American community and the LAPD. The chief has made a big move to maybe overrepresent in areas such as African Americans to help to improve relationships and connections in the city.”

Retirements are a normal challenge for police departments. The problem is that departments are also struggling to recruit young Black officers. Philadelphia officials said in July that Black recruits accounted for 31 percent of the latest class, lower than the proportion of Black people in the department (34 percent, including nonuniformed staff) and Black residents in the city population (44 percent). Current NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a press conference in May that recruiting Black officers was one of his top priorities, and acknowledged that the combination of COVID-19 and Floyd’s murder had made the task more difficult.

Part of the recruiting problem is a long-standing one: Recruiting and training processes have historically drawn in fewer Black applicants and bounced a disproportionate number out. A Chicago inspector general’s report this summer found that the Chicago Police Department “has a disproportionately high attrition rate for Black candidates, especially Black female applicants, which contributes to the low number of Black officers hired.” Black candidates are 37 percent of the applicant pool in Chicago, but just 18 percent of those invited to attend the police academy. In May, Shea celebrated a steep increase in the number of Black applicants to take the NYPD test, but historically only one in nine applicants who passes the test is hired as a cop.

“We have a real big problem with recruiting. We’ve got to do a better job of marketing policing,” Thomas said. “In the minority community, it’s real hard right now because you don’t have a lot of trust from the community.”

Moreover, Tracie Keesee, the senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity and a former NYPD deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion, warns that departments need to examine their culture, not just their demographic statistics, to move forward.

“This is an old thing that is experienced by a lot of folks of color,” she told me. “Why do you want me so badly? Is it so you can say you have the numbers, or is it for you to put me somewhere so I can reflect the community at the moment, to buy you some time? What is the experience going to be for me?

Those questions are especially pointed right now, not only because of skepticism about the police but also because of rising concerns about the growth of white-supremacist and far-right sentiments within departments. The FBI has warned for years that extremist groups have worked to infiltrate law enforcement, and in a 2019 article, the Georgetown law professor Vida Johnson found nearly 200 instances of police officers using racist slurs, belonging to white-supremacist groups, and other troubling cases of bigotry, a number she believes is an undercount. On September 30, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an investigation after records showed several NYPD officers on the rolls of the Oath Keepers, a group under scrutiny for its role in the January 6 insurrection.

“The failure of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to aggressively respond to evidence of explicit racism among police officers undermines public confidence in fair and impartial law enforcement,” Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI special agent, wrote in 2020.

Racist sentiments among some police officers are not new, of course. When Williams was hired to lead the LAPD, the department was grappling with widespread internal bigotry, and Williams’s predecessor Daryl Gates had refused to condemn racism among cops. The boom in Black-officer hiring that followed in Los Angeles and elsewhere shows that forces can improve their demographic diversity. If they don’t do so now, and departments become more white and racism more entrenched, reversing course later will be harder, leaving Black communities policed by forces that include white racists—a magnified version of the untenable circumstances that led to the current moment.

Morgan Ome contributed reporting.