Author: WXIA Staff
Published: 4:25 PM EST January 28, 2015
Updated: 4:25 PM EST January 28, 2015

In the week that the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated, the nation remains at a crossroads when it comes to race.

The old wounds of the past have resurfaced in the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

A nationwide USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll in December outlined a sharp divide in public opinion between African-Americans and whites. In the cases of Brown and Garner, African-Americans overwhelmingly say the grand juries erred in not bringing charges – 80% in the Michael Brown case, 90% in the Eric Garner case. But among whites, views changed between the cases: Two-thirds say the grand jury made the right decision on Michael Brown. By 47%-28%, they say the grand jury made the wrong decision on Eric Garner.

In both cases, nearly two-thirds of blacks say race played a major factor in the decisions not to charge the police officers. But only about one in six whites call race a major factor. By big margins, whites say race was not a factor at all.

Another study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 35% of whites expressed great confidence in police to treat people of both races equally. That's compared to 17% of blacks. In the same study, about 45% of blacks expressed "very little confidence" compared to 12% of whites.

How did we get here? Why is there a mistrust of police by some of those in minority communities?

On Jan. 21, 11Alive and other Gannett stations across the country will air stories, hold discussions and invite dialogue across social media about the trust and mistrust between police and our communities, and attempt to determine where to go from here. Take part in the conversation online using the hashtag #StartsWithTrust.

One of the big issues raised in Ferguson, Mo. after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown was the diversity of the town's police department. At the time of the shooting, just three of Ferguson's 53 police officers were African-American. According to 2010 Census data, 67 percent of the community is African-American.

In the week after the shooting, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was asked about the diversity of his police department.

The mayor says it's difficult to hire black officers.

"We hire everyone that we can get," Knowles said. "There's also the problem that a lot of young African American people don't want to go into law enforcement. They already have this disconnect with law enforcement, so if we find people who want to go into law enforcement who are African American we're all over it because we want them to help us bridge the gap. But these young people, they're not interested in law enforcement. There's already this frustration with law enforcement."

Ferguson resident Nicole Chissem who is African American was asked if she'd like to see more black police officers in her hometown.

"Of course, most definitely, I think it would help the morale."

A different response from Terrance Dodd, also a black resident of Ferguson.

"It don't make a difference what color they are," Dodd said, "it's not about race or none of that. We just need good police officers."

"Race should not make a difference," said Tim Maher, a criminology professor with the University of Missouri. "With that said, I think cities and departments should make every attempt to reflect the population of the police department with the population of the community to the best of their ability."

The 2013 racial profiling statistics provided by the state of Missouri show a disproportionate number of stops, searches and arrests of blacks. Of 5,384 police stops in Ferguson, 686 were white citizens, 4,632 were black citizens. Of 611 searches, 47 were white, 562 were black. Of 521 arrests in Ferguson in 2013, 36 were white, 483 were black.

Maher, who was a police officer for 13 years before becoming a criminologist, says data that could indicate racial profiling has to be explained fully to the public.

"The police chief and his officers should be aware of that data and should in some way be able to reasonably describe why the data exists that way, and justify if there's a disproportionate number of one race over another being stopped in that jurisdiction," said Maher.

Maher says the ethnicity of people who live in nearby communities and drive through Ferguson, could account for some of the numbers, but not all of them.

"If it's a community surrounded by a group of other communities that have a higher proportion of the race that is being stopped than what live in their community, that can help justify it," said Maher, "but it also could mean they are racially profiling and targeting the particular group that's being stopped more often."

[Mobile users click here for a Law Enforcement Diversity database]

Across the country, the data the disparity between black officers and black residents varies.

A USA Today investigation found that nationally, 12 percent of police officers are black. That's the same as the general population. However, one-third of those officers are found in just 10 cities. In fact, one in every five black officers works in New York, Chicago or Washington.

In at least 50 cities with more than 100,000 people, the percentage of black police is less than half of what blacks represent in the population, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Census estimates.

Although attention has focused in recent months on under-representation of blacks on police forces, large gaps exist for Hispanics in even more cities. Hispanic representation among police is less than half of their share of the population in at least 100 cities.

In Cleveland, 66 percent of the population is black compared with just 52 percent of the police force.

"I think you clearly see there are already problems right now," said Zack Reed of the Cleveland City Council. "So what we've got to do is fix these problems. I think attorney general said we've got systematic problems. The DOJ report says we've got systematic problems. The only way you're going to fix this systems is you gotta fix it from the top down. It's got to be a holistic change in the way that we do business here in the city of Cleveland."

Police chiefs in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla. are working on the same thing. Both their cities have a gap of more than 20 percent between the population of black police and the general population.

"The issues that come up in those situations is that someone is more to apt to trust an individual who looks like them," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. "An unfortunately in law enforcement, quite often we're called to a scene in order to mediate disagreements or decide who is right or who is wrong, and someone's perception may be that the officer made a decision based on the color of their skin, sex -- some characteristic that they have."

For cities as physically close as Tampa and St. Petersburg, there's another problem.

"We compete all the time, you have a very small pool of African American, minorities out there," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway."It's mainly just getting everyone involved in a small pool,"

So how do you fix a problem that plagues so many communities across the country?

"One of the issues that's been floated for fixing this is taking lessons from the US military," said USA Today reporter Nick Penzenstadler. "They've done a really good job of diversifying their force, and they've do that by really pounding on the doors. They may have 10,000 contacts just to get 100 recruits. Police departments around the country really need to ramp up their recruiting efforts, which is going be a big challenge."

Until that challenge is met, civil rights attorney Terry Gilbert suggests changing attitudes from the inside out.

"I think they really need to work with their existing dept and eliminate the bias and eliminate the kinds of attitudes spoken and unspoken," Gilbert.

The USA TODAY analysis of Census estimates of those working as police found:

  • Minority officers are concentrated in a few metropolises. More than one-third of 111,000 black officers worked in just 10 cities. One of every four of 107,000 Hispanic police worked in seven cities.
  • In 80 of 282 cities with more than 100,000 residents, the disparity between representation of blacks on the police force and in the community was greater than 10 percentage points. In 10 cities, including Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, the disparity surpassed 25 percentage points.
  • Large disparities exist for the Hispanic population in even more cities. In at least 125 cities, the disparity between Hispanics' representation among police and the population was greater than 10 percentage points. In 37 cities, the gap surpassed 25 percentage points.
  • In all but a few of the cities with the widest disparities for blacks and Hispanics, most saw the gap remain about the same or widen from 2000 to 2010.

"It's a battle everywhere to diversify, especially here in the West with Latino peace officers," says Lt. Andrew Peralta of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police and president of the National Latino Peace Officer Association. "There has to be a national incentive to maintain a recruitment team and utilize minority organizations like us."

Police in Ferguson — which erupted into days of racially charged unrest after a white officer killed an unarmed black teen — arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races.

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.

Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.

"That does not mean police are discriminating. But it does mean it's worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling.

Whatever the reasons, the results are the same: Blacks are far more likely to be arrested than any other racial group in the USA. In some places, dramatically so.

MORE: Full-screen interactive of arrests in the USA

To measure the breadth of arrest disparities, USA TODAY examined data that police departments report to the FBI each year. For each agency, USA TODAY compared the number of black people arrested during 2011 and 2012 with the number who lived in the area the department protects. (The FBI tracks arrests by race; it does not track arrests of Hispanics.)

The review did not include thousands of smaller departments or agencies that serve areas with only a small black population. It also did not include police agencies in most parts of Alabama, Florida and Illinois because those states had not reported complete arrest data to the FBI.

The review showed:

• Blacks are more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.

• Arrest rates are particularly lopsided in some pockets of the country, including St. Louis' Missouri suburbs near Ferguson. In St. Louis County alone, more than two dozen police departments had arrest rates more lopsided than Ferguson's. In nearby Clayton, Mo., for example, only about 8% of residents are black, compared with about 57% of people the police arrested, according to the city's FBI reports. Clayton's police chief, Kevin Murphy, said in a prepared statement that "Ferguson has laid bare the fact that everyone in law enforcement needs to take a hard look at how we can better serve our communities and address any disparities that have existed in our departments for too long."

• Deep disparities show up even in progressive university towns. USA TODAY found police in Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., arrested black people at a rate more than nine times higher than members of other racial groups. Madison Police Chief Michael Koval said most of the arrests happen in the poorest sections of the city, which are disproportionately black, and where some residents have pleaded for even more police presence. Still, he said, "I think it would be remiss to suggest the police get out of this whole thing with a free pass. We have to constantly be doing the introspective look at who we are hiring and how we are training."

• Arrest rates are lopsided almost everywhere. Only 173 of the 3,538 police departments USA TODAY examined arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups.

Phillip Goff, president of the University of California Los Angeles' Center for Policing Equity, said such comparisons are "seductively misleading" because they say more about how racial inequities play out than about what causes them. Those disparities are closely tied to other social and economic inequities, he said, and like most things that involve race, they defy simple explanations.

"There is no doubt a significant degree of law enforcement bias that is the engine for this. But there's also no controversy that educational quality and employment discrimination lead to this," he said. "It's not an indicator of how big a problem there is with a police department. It's an aggregator of what's going on in the community."

Still, he said, "there's some level of disparity that is a warning sign."

Whatever the causes, Harris said such pronounced disparities have consequences. "Believe me, the people who are subject to this are noticing it and they're noticing it not just individually but as a group. It gets talked about, handed down, and it sows distrust of the whole system," he said.

How much can we learn if all we see is the outer layer of one another?

A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute found three-quarters of white Americans have zero black friends. Nearly two-thirds of black Americans have zero white friends.

What is it about race that makes it so hard to talk about? WXIA's Matt Pearl has a look in the video above.

When it comes to bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community, DeKalb County Police Lt. Byron Holmes has a better shot than most. As assistant director for DeKalb County's police academy, Holmes has a hand in shaping every new officer that enters the county's police force.

WXIA's Blayne Alexander talks with Lt. Holmes about the challenges he faces.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley is not shy when it comes to talking race. Barkley, who has openly discussed racial issues before, made controversial comments about the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the riots that ensued after that decision was announced.

In a one-on-one interview with WXIA's DeMarco Morgan, Barkley said that racial conversations usually only take place after "something bad happens."

"It'd be a lot better if we had nice conversations about race over a cold beer when nothing is going on because when Trayvon Martin happens, when Fergusons happens, when Eric Garners happen, when OJ Simpson happens, everybody just picks a side and they don't care if they're right or wrong, they just pick a side," Barkley said.

Barkley said that he'd like to see more black police officers in the communities that they served, but said that young black men don't have the motivation to become officers.

"I would love to have my community to be full of black cops, but first of all nobody wants a job where they are under-appreciated and underpaid," Barkley said. "So that's why there are so many different layers to this thing -- everybody want to make it like it's just this simple. Its not that simple."

The former NBA great emphasized that conversation and education are the keys in bridging the gaps among communities.

WXIA's Brenda Wood hosted a chat with several community leaders at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Taking part in the conversation:

- Goldie Taylor: A veteran journalist, opinion writer and filmmaker. She has been a working journalist and political consultant for nearly 25 years, including her most recent role as a political contributor at MSNBC. Taylor is also a featured political analyst at WXIA 11Alive-NBC News. As a political consultant, she has served in various key leadership positions, and most recently served as communications director for Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed

- Tim Franzen: the Atlanta economic justice program director for the American Friends Service Committee. He is the founder of the Moral Monday Georgia movement and played a key role in Occupy Wall Street

- Tatiana Lima: A second-year law student at Georgia State University. She is a passionate advocate for civil liberties. She is currently working as a law clerk at a metro Atlanta law firm and was recently selected to serve as an extern with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

- Thomas Brown: Served as sheriff of DeKalb County, Ga. for 14 years. Also served as DeKalb County's Public Safety Director and fire chief.

- Mike Brooks: CNN law enforcement correspondent. He's often seen on HLN's Nancy Grace show and is also featured on TruTV's In Session.

"I do not believe there is a country in the world that is a better position for the 21st century than ours. We are diverse, we are young, we have everything that we need. But we spend too much time fighting and too little time working together." -former President Bill Clinton at the HOPE Global forum in Atlanta on Jan. 17.

The conversation about the trust and mistrust between police and our communities has only just begun. We invite you to share these clips and begin dialogues of your own. You can also join in nationwide conversation on Twitter using #StartsWithTrust.

Brenda's Last Word: #StartsWithTrust

Sources of this story include WXIA/11Alive, USA Today research, Susan Page/USA Today, Brad Heath/USA Today, Pew Research Center, DeMarco Morgan/WXIA, Matt Pearl/WXIA, Blayne Alexander/WXIA, Art Holliday/KSDK

A frank discussion on race