The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, July 09, 2019 1:00 am


Of the community

City strives for ethnic balance in police ranks

Responding to reports of a man breaking into cars early Sunday,June 16, South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill stopped his patrol car in the parking lot of a downtown apartment building and got out to question a man he saw leaning into a car. Then, O'Neill said, 54-year-old Eric Logan charged at him with a knife. The confrontation ended with the officer, who is white, killing Logan, who is black.

There were no other witnesses to the 3 a.m. shooting. Unlike most Fort Wayne police, South Bend officers wear body cams. But O'Neill had not turned his on, so the officer's account of what happened is the only one available to investigators.

Today, there is no community where the shooting of a black suspect by a white officer would not be questioned. But this case has received more than its share of national attention, because it occurred just as South Bend's mayor, Pete Buttigieg, was climbing into the upper tier of Democratic presidential candidates.

The depth of the anger residents directed at Buttigieg in the wake of the shooting suggests that distrust of the police in South Bend's black community was already a problem. Some of it may  stem from a challenge confronting most cities, including Fort Wayne – a police force that doesn't reflect the diversity of its community.

South Bend is 26% black, but only 6% of the officers on its 241-officer force are African-American. The number of Hispanic officers on the force has risen since Buttigieg took office eight years ago, but the number of black officers has dropped by half.

Fort Wayne's numbers are a bit more encouraging.

Public Information Officer Sofia Rosales-Scatena said Monday 9.3% of the Fort Wayne Police Department's 480 officers are black, 6.3% are Hispanics and about 1.5 percent are Asian. According to 2018 U.S. Census statistics, 15% of the city's residents are black or African-American, 8.7% are Hispanic or Latino, and 4.3% are Asian. Another 4.2% of residents are listed as two more races.

Finding officers that mirror the diversity of Fort Wayne is still a challenge, Rosales-Scatena said. “Minorities don't consider policing as a career.” One big factor, she said, is that there are fewer role models – parents, uncles, brothers and sisters – who serve as police officers.

The department is trying to change that by targeting outreach programs to young people – at younger and younger ages, she said. For instance, the department works with the Fort Wayne Boys & Girls Club to offer a day of programs for middle-schoolers.

The department has reached out to community leaders and faith leaders as well, she said, trying to encourage minority residents to become part of the solution by joining the force. The department has a message, Rosales-Scatena said: “We are the community, and the community is us.”

The hope, she said, is that over time more minority residents will naturally consider policing as  a career. “We've started to see generational improvement,” Rosales-Scatena said. “We've had sons of black officers become officers.”

“I think we're doing a really good job in trying to get people,” she said. But, Rosales-Scatena acknowledged, “there's always room for improvement.”

Trust between police and the people they serve is a key to a healthy community, and one way to build that trust is to keep trying to have a police department whose diversity reflects its community.

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