(Huffington Post) – In 1971, Boston’s predominantly white police department created an all-black unit within its ranks. The initial goal of the “Soul Patrol” was to address local NAACP concerns about crime in the city’s black neighborhoods following a spate of four murders over the course of a week. Tensions between white officers and residents were already strained, and some black Bostonians had begun to question the police department’s commitment to addressing the surge in violence.
Some white officers initially opposed the unit, whose 34 African-American patrolmen at the time made up about half of all the black officers on Boston Police Department’s 2,742-man force. These critics believed that cops were cops first and maintained that race was a secondary factor in policing. But the all-black patrol began to garner support from other officers when the unit’s presence led to a spike in arrests in Boston’s mostly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester.
Boston’s experiment raises some interesting and complex questions amid the current debate over policing. Calls for increased commitment to community-oriented policing styles have been made again and again as officials consider reforms in response to police killings in Ferguson, Baltimore and, most recently, Cleveland. The basic premise is that reform, which includes building a more racially balanced force, will alleviate discrimination in part by hiring officers that look more like the members of the communities they are policing.
But more officers of color doesn’t necessarily correlate to less police violence against citizens — especially those of color. City Lab points to the case of the New Orleans Police Department, which is “one of the most racially balanced police forces in the nation.” In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department found that the NOPD’s patterns of misconduct, which included excessive force and illegal stops, searches and seizures, showed racial and ethnic — as well as LGBT — bias.
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