Police forces often are not as diverse, in terms of gender and race, as the populations they serve—a fact that’s been highlighted when tensions between law enforcement and civilians arise. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, the fact that the police force in the largely African-American community was 94 percent white generated headlines in the wake of a white officer shooting a black teenager. So how does Texas’s law enforcement measure up?
Women make up 50.3 percent of Texas’s population, but as University of Texas journalism students Caroline Covington, Rachel Phua, Fauzeya Rahman, and Teresa Mioli report in a partnership with the Dallas Morning News, there’s a serious dearth of women in Texas law enforcement:
A Reporting Texas analysis found that as of early February, about 11.5 percent of the licensed peace officers in Texas were women. More than half of the state’s population is female.
Almost a third of all police departments in Texas have no female officers. More than half have no more than one. There are no female sheriff’s deputies in 54 of 254 counties, and 43 counties have no more than one.
Experts say that many law enforcement agencies don’t make a strong effort to recruit women. Women who get hired can face discrimination, limited opportunities for promotion and sexual harassment. Physical fitness standards designed for men also may make it hard for them to qualify.
Those numbers are roughly consistent with, if a little lower than, the rest of the country. Nationwide, the percentage of women in law enforcement is around 12 percent. And some of the numbers, while shocking, can appear skewed: while more than 20 percent of the counties in Texas may have no female sheriff’s deputies, there are a lot of very small counties in the state that employ very few deputies. As the report notes, the largest county without a female deputy is Erath County, which has a population of just under 38,000 and which employs a total of 30 deputies. The other 53 counties without a woman serving as deputy employ fewer officers and serve fewer people.
That doesn’t mitigate what the lack of diversity means for those small counties though. Erath County’s population is more than half women and those 19,000 women are still unrepresented entirely in the county’s law enforcement body.
In the statewide Department of Public Safety women are also poorly represented. As the report notes:
The Texas Department of Public Safety employs more than 4,700 licensed peace officers, the most of any law enforcement agency in the state.
The Reporting Texas analysis, based on what DPS reported to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, found that slightly more than 5 percent are women. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger disputed that number, saying “just over 6 percent” of the agency’s “commissioned personnel” are women.
The Reporting Texas analysis focused on licensed officers, who have the power to make arrests and use deadly force. Vinger said women make up nearly 43 percent of the total workforce at DPS.
He said that the percentage of women at DPS is comparable to that of state police elsewhere in the United States and that his department puts a premium on diversity.
The fact that DPS has more women in administrative roles is potentially reassuring, but with numbers between 5 and 6 percent for officers in the field, there’s still an issue here. While the reasons women are so poorly represented in law enforcement in both Texas and the rest of the U.S. are varied—physical fitness standards are often cited, as are difficulties in recruiting—the importance of a diverse police force is clear: policing is occasionally a job that requires physical strength and speed, but it’s a job that almost always involves interpersonal skills and the ability to build trust with the community. That’s easier to build when people see themselves represented by the police, something that the New York Times noted when reporting on the racial makeup of police forces throughout the U.S.:
Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University.
The racial makeup of police forces in Texas—even in the largest cities—is similarly disconnected from the population. The percentage of white officers in Dallas exceed the percentage of white civilians in Dallas by 29 points, and in Houston, that number is 27. It’s closer to a 20 percent overrepresentation in Austin, where nearly 70 percent of the police force is white, and San Antonio, where the number at which white officers are overrepresented in their community appears in the high teens, is by default the beacon of diversity among Texas’s four largest cities.
The racial makeup of police forces on the border is better: McAllen’s police force is actually slightly overrepresented by hispanic officers, who make up nearly 90 percent of the force, but only 85 percent of the population, while the city’s small Asian population is underrepresented in the police force. In El Paso, meanwhile, white officers only exceed the population by a few percentage points.
The Morning News built an interactive tool to explore the racial makeup of every police department in the state, which is eye-opening. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating look at an issue of real concern: Texas is one of the more diverse states in the U.S., but most of the law enforcement and police are white men. Given the ongoing concerns over fairness in policing in the country right now, the UT students and the Dallas paper offer a valuable look at whether or not that level of diversity is enough.