Among the most visible changes in policing is the racial composition of police departments themselves, which today are closer reflections of the communities they protect. The LAPD, which polices one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities on the globe, is 59 percent nonwhite.
Nationally, 10 to 11 percent of police officers are black, compared with 13.4 percent of the population, says Ron Hampton, executive director of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America.
It's not necessarily the case, however, that a more diverse police force changes the public perception of a department, especially in poor, black communities where residents' views about police are generally the most critical and distrustful, say criminologists and other researchers.
When people in lower-class black communities in majority-black Washington, D.C., were asked whether a police officer's race makes a difference in how that officer treats people, the survey results were mixed. One-third said black officers actually treat blacks more harshly, one-third said they're more sensitive to black people, and another saw them simply as "blue cops," who define themselves by the color of their uniforms, not their skin, according to researchers Weitzer and Steven Tuch.
There is some evidence that black officers tend to be more understanding of African-American neighborhoods, but "most research shows that there's little to no difference on the ground in terms of police behavior, whether those officers are Hispanic, white, black, or Asian," Weitzer says.
Such findings seem to indicate that strains between the police and the community, while often having a racial overlay, are not solely about race. True, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are racially mixed cities where historically white police departments have at times wrestled openly with black communities.