Dallas: An Urban Center Ringed by Disparity
Suburban police demographics haven’t kept up with community population shifts.
By Reporting Texas and The Dallas Morning News
This story was written by Courtney Norris. It was reported by Norris, Fauzeya Rahman, Caroline Covington and Teresa Mioli.
One of Sam Allen’s jobs as a community service director is to get more minorities and women to join the Balch Springs Police Department.
He knows it won’t be easy.
Eight out of 10 Balch Springs police officers are white — though three out of four city residents are not. And state records as of early February indicated only one of the 42 police officers is a woman.
Balch Springs is part of a larger pattern. A Reporting Texas analysis found that suburban police departments in Dallas County have some of the largest demographic gaps in the state. In all but a few, the majority of police officers are white and the majority of residents are minorities.
The percentage of white officers in 14 out of 24 communities in Dallas County with police departments is at least 40 points higher than the percentage of white residents. No other county in Texas has that many communities with so large a gap. Tarrant and Harris counties each have five.
This means in cities such as Irving, Lancaster, Mesquite, DeSoto, Grand Prairie, Carrollton, Cedar Hill, Duncanville, Garland and Wilmer, minorities are vastly underrepresented in the police ranks.
The demographics of the Dallas Police Department’s officers do not match the city’s, but the gap between white officers and white residents is much smaller — 23 percentage points.
Several factors have contributed to the demographic divides in Dallas’ suburbs.
In recent years, jobs and better schools have drawn minorities to the same inner ring of Dallas suburbs where whites once moved after desegregation. And aging apartments that can no longer demand high rents have become magnets for poor immigrants and lower-income minorities.
“Migration from central cities to suburbs is a result of a number of factors, including the greater availability and lower prices of larger single-family homes in suburbs, the search for less-crowded schools, and the general search for middle-class areas with related lifestyles,” said Steve Murdock, a former U.S. Census Bureau director.
High-tech jobs in suburbia also appeal to minorities, said Murdock, who now teaches at Rice University.
The number of Hispanics in Texas has increased dramatically in recent years. Hispanic students now account for more than half of the enrollment in Texas’ public schools.
And as one Dallas County suburb after another changed from mostly white to majority-minority, police departments didn’t. The percentage of white officers increasingly became out of sync with local demographics.
That’s in part because police officers often stay with the same department for decades, until they qualify for a pension.
“These are civil service jobs, so you stay in them as long as you don’t mess up,” Allen said. “When it’s all over with you can draw out a check for the rest of your life.”
Matthew Merchant, Carrollton’s mayor, said more veteran police officers can mean fewer openings for minority candidates.
“We are a state civil service department. That limits to some extent the discretion of the hiring process,” Merchant said. “I think that is an important piece of the puzzle.”
Almost 88 percent of Carrollton’s police officers and about 44 percent of its residents are white — a 44-point gap.
John Worrall, who heads the criminology department at the University of Texas at Dallas, said police departments are trying to increase diversity.
“It is on the radar of law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Representation needs to be improved and would be beneficial. Steps are being made, but it is slow.”
Policing has been a white-male-dominated profession “and for the most part still is,” Worrall said. But he doesn’t think there is a conspiracy to keep minorities out of the police ranks.
Lancaster Police Chief Cheryl Wilson, who is black, declined to comment when asked about the demographic divides between suburban Dallas police departments and their communities.
She did respond to other questions by email. She wrote that her department “continues to recruit the best-qualified applicants that instill keen values and ethics aligned with serving and protecting the community.”
About 65 percent of Lancaster’s police officers are white, in a city that is almost 87 percent minority. Since Wilson became chief in 2013, she said her department has hired 11 officers — seven white men, two black men and two black women.
Some suburban police departments with a large minority population have sent recruiters to out-of-state colleges with large minority student bodies in an attempt to become more diverse.
B.J. Williams, Garland’s only black city council member and president of the Garland NAACP from 1997 to 2012, believes that police departments need to look closer to home.
“Nobody knows the community better than those who live there,” Williams said, adding that police departments need to recruit inside the ZIP codes they protect.
Williams said Garland does not have a separate recruiting program for minorities.
“We are by no means perfect as far as demographics are concerned, but we’ve shown a lot of progress,” he said. “There have been some increases in the number of officers. Our police force does not look the way it did 15 years ago.”
Eight out of 10 police officers in Garland — and just a third of its residents — are white.
Worrall said a long-term approach to increasing diversity is to have more community involvement “in police department decision-making.”
That, he said, improves the relationship between police and the community. Requiring officers to live in the communities they serve would also help. But Worrall said that “is not the norm for the vast majority of police departments.”
Allen, the Balch Springs community service director, who is black, said many minorities don’t want to become officers because of the perceived racism that still exists in suburban police departments.
“Does discrimination exist? Absolutely,” said the veteran police officer. Allen spent more than 40 years working for several suburban Dallas police departments.
During that time, he said, he worked with “racially insensitive” officers. Someone keyed “KKK” on his car. He got tired of having to prove himself.
Women also are underrepresented in suburban Dallas police departments.
Police officers in Mesquite, for example, are mostly white and overwhelmingly male. State records show that nine of Mesquite’s 213 licensed peace officers are women — a little more than 4 percent of the force.
Rick French, Mesquite’s director of Human Resources and Civil Service, said recruiters do their best and “make sure female applicants know they are welcome.”
“At the previous entrance exam we just had, I would say about 10 percent of people there were female,” he said. “So that is very encouraging.”