Indianapolis leaders are considering giving the police chief more discretion in hiring officers in an attempt to increase the number of black officers on the force, a problem the city has struggled with since entering a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department nearly four decades ago.
The proposal calls for 80 percent of the department's workforce to be hired in rank order based on performance scores, while the police chief would have the discretion to hire the remaining 20 percent. It was among the provisions of the original consent decree in 1978 that was removed from policy when the city's police department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department merged into the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department in 2007, The Indianapolis Star reported.
"It is a tool used by or available to the chief to ensure greater diversity among the police department in Indianapolis so that it may look more like the community that it serves," said Stephen Clay, a Democrat on the City-County Council.
A vote on a proposal has ended in deadlock at the past two council meetings.
For decades, Indianapolis leaders have promised to increase the number of minority police officers in Indianapolis, but little progress has been made. When the consent decree was signed in 1978, the police force was about 11 percent black and 8.5 percent female.
Blacks comprise 28 percent of the city's population and 14 percent of the department. Women make up 13 percent of the department, a proportion that has remained unchanged for nearly a decade. Hispanics comprise nearly 10 percent of the city's population, the department contains less than 3 percent.
Critics point to two events as contributing to the problem:
— A 1996 law changed residency requirements for law enforcement officers, allowing the department to begin hiring officers who lived in the significantly whiter counties.
—The merger between the police and sheriff's departments, which brought an influx of mostly white deputies that caused the proportion of black officers to drop 2 percentage points.
Creating a police force that looks like its community is more than a fairness and equality issue, experts say. Diverse police forces also help alleviate race-related tensions in communities, said Ronnie Dunn, an associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University.
"The discussion of race is diminished if you do have a larger presence of minority officers on the force," said Dunn, who was appointed by Gov. John Kasich to the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board and is a member of the NAACP Legal Redress Committee.
Indianapolis police Lt. Brian Mahone, a former deputy chief who was made head of the department's recruitment branch in January, said minority representation in law enforcement helped draw him to the profession.
"(Diversity) can make or break a police agency," Mahone said. "The community has to let us police them, and building that trust and that relationship of being able to see and know that you're represented in the process."
Mahone, a former U.S. Marine Corps recruiter, has spent much of his time in recent weeks traveling the Midwest in search of potential recruits. Mahone said recruiting has become more competitive in the Internet age. Many of the 1,500 to 2,000 people who apply to the Indianapolis police force have applications out with departments across the country, from Jacksonville, Florida, to Houston and San Diego.
"We're looking for the best of the best, right?" Mahone said. "So is everybody."