Police have been unable to recruit a force that resembles the people they serve
Syracuse is almost 50% minority, but only 1 in 10 officers fit that description
When Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner was elected, one of her first appointments was Frank Fowler as police chief in December 2009.
Since then, Fowler has overseen a small increase in diversity among sworn officers serving in the Syracuse Police Department — though well below a figure representative of the community — and the department has implemented databases tracking force-related incidents involving officers.
Both initiatives were stated goals during Fowler’s first years as police chief.
DIVERSITY: SPD makes small strides
Speaking of diversity, the department said, the mission was to “increase minority hiring and retention in order to more accurately reflect the diversity of our community,” and to recruit candidates that represented a variety of “ethnic, cultural and racial populations while developing programs that will encourage successful outcomes for such candidates.”
During Fowler’s first full year as police chief in 2010, he reported that nearly 94% of all active SPD officers were white, with 6.3% black and 1.7% Hispanic, with some overlap of how officers identified themselves.
Reviewing that goal in the 2011 annual report, SPD reiterated its mission to reflect Syracuse, meaning 30% of officers should be black, 8% Hispanic and 6% Asian. The department also called its “greatest deficiency” the ability to recruit black officers, with only 17 black officers out of 297 total officers graduating from the Syracuse Police Academy since 1994.
From 2011-2013, the SPD annual reports continued to list minority hiring and retention as a priority. In 2013, the sworn police officer force had shown progress in officer diversity, with 90.6% white, 7% black, 1.5% Hispanic and also a miniscule percentage of Native Americans.
The most recent data, from the 2016 annual report, shows the percentage of white officers dropping under 90 percent to 89.5%. The rest: 7.1% black, 2.5% Hispanic, 0.5% Native American and 0.4% other. In a 2016 force reported at 445 sworn officers, 32 were black, 11 Hispanic, 2 Native American and 2 identifying as other. The percentage of sworn female officers was recorded at 14%, or 63 female officers, up from 10% in 2010.
While SPD has made small strides, it still lags behind other police departments in terms of diversity. A 2013 study by the Department of Justice showed that about 27% of local police officers were members of a racial or ethnic minority. The SPD total percentage of minority officers in the force stood at 10.5% most recently.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report, 44% of Syracuse residents identified with a minority ethnicity or race. In comparison, Kansas City, Kansas, a city with a similar population to Syracuse, is 60% minority. There, nearly one in four of its officers — 24% — is a minority, according to a New York Times report.
The SPD has stressed the importance of diversity when hiring new officers, yet the data shows that the total number of officers from each ethnicity has remained mostly static over the past seven years.
USE OF FORCE: Infrequent but deadly
Fowler has also overseen the introduction of police use-of-force databases during his tenure. In particular, Sgt. Richard Helterline, public information officer with the SPD, confirmed that the SPD is in the process of creating an officer-involved shooting database.
Helterline provided SPD officer-involved shootings statistics: 11 since 2011, including none from 2012-2014 and four in 2016. Three of those in 2016 ended in citizen fatalities: A Near West Side Father’s Day shooting at a crowded and chaotic outdoor party, a Walnut Avenue shooting near Syracuse University after a driver opened fire during a routine traffic stop, and the shooting of a woman brandishing a sawed-off shotgun.
The Houston Police Department has one of the more advanced officer-involved shootings databases in the country, available to the public online. The site provides past and real-time data for officer-related shootings, including in-depth spreadsheets, maps and graphs depicting the data.
Helterline said there are no plans to provide a database like the Houston PD, but he pointed out that citizens can go through city hall to file Freedom of Information requests to access certain police statistics, including officer-involved shootings.
“Everyone has different stat requests. There would be no way to answer all of those in one format,” Helterline said.
In addition to the officer-involved shooting database, the SPD conceived a taser database in 2015 that was implemented starting in January of 2016. Officers requested it to make it easier and more efficient to log Taser activity when on duty.
The department also announced last year it will install the ShotSpotter System in some areas of the city. The system positions microphones in high-crime zones and instantly reports coordinates when there is gunfire recorded. The system allows for officers to know the exact location when shots are fired, reducing location errors and delayed response time when incidents are called in.
The police will examine existing gunshot data to determine where the initial sensors will be set up in Syracuse. Helterline said the installation will be soon but he didn’t have an exact date.
Chief Fowler’s 2010 goal to increase diversity in the overall police force has seen minor to moderate improvement in terms of percentage of officers by ethnicity.