ST. LOUIS (AP) — Police agencies need to work harder to become more diverse, and a key starting point is improving relations between police and minority communities, experts said Wednesday during a conference in St. Louis.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster hosted the "Roundtable on Representative Policing" at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and was joined by about two-dozen political and law enforcement leaders from the St. Louis region.
The area's low number of minority police officers is a topic that has gained significant attention since the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. A state grand jury is still considering whether the officer, Darren Wilson, will face charges. Just three of Ferguson's 53 officers are black, though two-thirds of the town's residents are African-American.
"That has added to the breakdown in communication and trust" in Ferguson, Koster said.
No Ferguson officers were part of Wednesday's discussion— a spokesman for Koster didn't know if anyone from that department was invited — but Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has said he is seeking to increase diversity on his force.
Democratic state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who has frequently joined protesters in Ferguson, said she has been a supporter of police, "but not when our people are treated like animals." She cited a "cultural disconnect" between police and minority communities that she said has become obvious during the Ferguson unrest.
"After you're tear-gassed for three hours, you have a different kind of feeling when it comes to law enforcement," Chappelle-Nadal said.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was put in charge of Ferguson security by Gov. Jay Nixon days after Brown was killed, said Ferguson is providing an opportunity for police agencies to learn and improve.
"I can tell you as a policeman we will do better," Johnson said. "We will grow. We will change."
A similar event will be held in Kansas City on Oct. 14, and Koster plans to take ideas from the meetings back to Nixon and lawmakers.
"Everybody has the same challenge," St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said. "There's not a lot of quick fixes." One thing that can be done immediately, he said, is to promote more minority officers.
Experts on the panel said one major reason that African-Americans don't seek to become police officers is they often have strained relations with police from a young age.
"They look at police as the boogeyman," said Esther Haywood with the St. Louis County NAACP. "We need to try to find some way to teach our youth what respect for the law is."
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said injustice is evident in minority communities. Young black men, he said, are "under attack."
"We know what the problem is," Dooley said. "The question is: How do we bridge the gap? How do we move forward?"
Many of the experts on the panel said education will play a vital role in bringing in more minority officer candidates. Some said law enforcement needs to do a better job of seeking recruits form predominantly black universities, while others suggested scholarships, mentoring and special training.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the stakes are high.
"These are big challenges but I know it's something we can overcome," Slay said.