New York City Mayor Eric Adams made history last month when he publicly confirmed his appointment of Keechant Sewell as the city’s police commissioner. She is the first woman and the third Black person to hold the position in the department’s 176-year history.
With Sewell’s appointment, New York City joined the growing number of police departments with Black leaders. In the aftermath of protests of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in 2020, many agencies hired Black chiefs for the first time. Of the country’s 50 largest police departments, 26 are now led by Black police chiefs.
The trend is a largely urban one; Black police chiefs remain underrepresented across smaller police departments. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they comprise just 4% of chiefs in agencies that serve fewer than 100,000 people.
Pivoting to Black leadership is a longtime strategy of departments facing public outrage over high-profile incidents of police brutality. In 1992, Willie L. Williams was appointed the first Black chief of the Los Angeles Police Department following riots that were sparked by police officers’ beating of Rodney King. In 2016, two years after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer, Delrish Moss was sworn in as the first Black chief in Ferguson, Mo. In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death in 2020, Yvette Gentry was appointed to lead the Louisville Police Department in Kentucky as interim chief. And in 2021, the first Black women to be appointed police chiefs in Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, Tennessee, took the helm, as well.
Appointing Black leaders in response to racial turmoil in police departments illustrates Americans’ enduring belief that diversity can heal long-standing wounds. When explaining their visions for leading their departments, Black chiefs have themselves evoked the notion that diverse leadership can create a bridge.
“I bring a different perspective,” Sewell said in the December press conference announcing her appointment, “committed to making sure the department looks like the city it serves and making the decision to elevate women and people of color to leadership positions.”
But turning to Black police chiefs to repair the fissures caused by decades of white leadership and systemic racism has done little to change the culture of law enforcement and has led to some early resignations. Those seeking to reform troubled departments have been met with intense internal backlash to the changes and their unprecedented leadership, experts say. And they receive few tools to combat it.
“I do think that people of color can be hired in the aftermath of a critical incident simply because the city thinks that it looks good,” said Jacinta Gau, associate professor at the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida. “And so it can unfortunately become a box-checking exercise. They might be very qualified – I don’t want to diminish that at all – but they’re hired for the wrong reasons, and therefore the expectations are set up incorrectly.”
While police chiefs and commissioners have substantial authority over determining their departments’ strategic priorities, the belief that Black leaders are better equipped to change how policing is designed and performed in the United States hinges on faulty assumptions about racial identity, experts say. Race alone doesn’t shield them from the influence of racially biased systems and engagement in discriminatory law enforcement tactics.
“Some chiefs have knelt with protesters,” said Frederick L. Thomas, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a 3,000-member organization of law enforcement officials, “but they have also overseen officers deploying tear gas at demonstrations.”
The allegiance to representational politics relies on the sometimes false assumption that Black leaders are both capable of, and interested in, leading their departments differently. For example, Sewell has said she supports reinstating the New York Police Departments plain clothes unit – shut down in the wake of the Floyd protests – and has vocally criticized the Manhattan district attorney’s directives not to prosecute certain lower level offenses.
In a 2016 study analyzing use-of-force cases in eight mid-sized to large police agencies, Gau and her colleagues found that white officers were more likely than Black officers to use pepper spray and “hard-hand tactics,” such as punching. They were also more likely to use force against Black civilians. However, data on the effect of racial diversity in police departments remains conflicting.
“There are some police departments in this country that are majority Black, but they don’t really tend to behave noticeably differently than any of the other ones, including majority white departments,” said Gau. “That speaks to the power of the institution itself. Each officer is embedded within an organization and each organization is embedded within the institution.”
That institution has priorities, norms, and expectations that create what Gau says is a concrete “occupational culture” among officers across the country. The strength of that culture is often displayed in counties where incoming Black chiefs and commissioners attempt to usher in progressive policies, but are met with resistance.
When Joel Fitzgerald was appointed to lead the police department in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2020, it was his fourth time serving as a community’s first Black chief. He soon drew opposition from former officers, the local police union, and conservative community leaders for proposing the removal of the department’s insignia that bears resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan dragon. City Council members called on him to resign, and three former Waterloo police chiefs penned a letter lamenting decreased morale in the department due in part to the insignia change.
In Portsmouth, Virginia, Tonya Chapman stepped down as police chief in 2019 saying city leaders pushed her out after she tried to usher in accountability measures for officers in her force. In a letter addressed to the Portsmouth community, Chapman detailed the events leading to her departure and the internal resistance she experienced during her tenure.
“As with any organization, there were officers in the department that did not like my style of leadership and did not want me to hold them accountable for their actions,” Chapman wrote. “Some quite frankly did not like taking direction from an African American female.”
Thomas, the president of NOBLE, said Black leaders who attempt to implement changes in their departments face a unique lack of support.
In some cases, he said, Black police chiefs “were recruited and hired to be the change agent that the community was asking for, but I don’t know if the community’s leadership put in place the support system and real commitment to reform that is needed to ensure that the law enforcement leaders were successful,” he said. “The access to mentors, executive coaching, and sponsorship are key resources that are not always available to Black law enforcement leaders.”
Thomas pointed to Dallas, Seattle, Cleveland, and Baltimore as cities with “challenging agencies” that Black police chiefs have been appointed to preside over.
“In some cases, these agencies have huge culture and legal hurdles that exist well before the Black chief and/or sheriff arrives,” he said.
While often held up as symbols of change, Black police leaders aren’t always reform-minded. Several Black police chiefs came under scrutiny following the 2020 uprisings amid criticism for their departments’ handling of protesters.
Renee Hall, the first Black female police chief of the Dallas Police Department, resigned a month after the agency released a comprehensive internal review of how her officers responded in the first three days of protests following the murder of George Floyd. The report detailed malfunctioning body cameras, poor communication between Hall and officers on the ground, and the use of tear gas.
Hall received pushback from the community for her department’s aggressive use of force against demonstrators, and an erroneous public statement in which she claimed that her officers did not deploy tear gas. The review found that they did, prior to Hall’s orders not to.
In Sacramento, California, Police Chief Daniel Hahn, the first Black person to hold the position, helmed a department that violently responded to protests during the 2020 uprisings. A September 2020 letter written by attorneys of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights condemned Hahn and other city officials for “shocking displays of unnecessary and excessive force in response to rallies, demonstrations, and protests since May.”
In August 2020, Carmen Best, Seattle’s first Black police chief, resigned after the City Council reduced her department’s budget by $4 million and cut the force to 100 officers. While the Seattle-King County chapter of Black Lives Matter called Best’s resignation “a loss” and expressed dismay that she was being “forced out of her job,” they were not without their own criticism of Best during her tenure. In June 2020, the group named her in a lawsuit filed against the Seattle Police Department for the ongoing use of nonlethal weapons against protesters, including a type of tear gas that Best had said would be temporarily banned. Hundreds of local protesters demonstrated outside of her home.
Among the most notable recipients of public criticism after the uprisings was Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
After serving as Portland, Oregon’s first Black police chief, she took the helm in Philadelphia in February 2020. By that summer, Outlaw was subject to formal condemnation after a series of reports were released by the city commissioner and the National Police Foundation detailing the violence waged by the Philadelphia police, as well as Outlaw’s directives to use tear gas on protesters without first consulting Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Outlaw’s comments on a local radio station belittling protesters – likening them to children who “whine and complain” after a schoolyard fight – brought more public criticism. Members of the Urban League of Philadelphia, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and The Links – the latter two of which Outlaw is a member – hosted a virtual town hall in February to support the commissioner. While they offered critiques of some of Outlaw’s decisions, they argued that she should not be scrutinized any more than her white colleagues who have made similar errors. In an op-ed released that month, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong implored Outlaw’s detractors to let the commissioner grow into the role “like the many males who preceded her as the city’s top cop.”
The focus on representation can shift public attention and energy toward defending Black law enforcement leaders instead of critically assessing whether they are effectively protecting the Black communities they purport to serve. There has been a steady increase in Black police chiefs across the country, but like so many proposed policing reforms, their presence has failed to ignite notable change in law enforcement culture or community trust.
City governments’ trend of hiring Black police chiefs in an effort to show that their departments are anti-racist ultimately does the opposite, Gau says, displaying a lack of understanding around how racial bias works. Looking to diversification, especially within the higher ranks of the police force, as the sole goal is a woefully limited strategy because it fails to take aim at the culture of policing itself.
“It’s this idea, that one, people of color can’t engage in biased policing, which is a ridiculous assumption,” Gau said, “and two, that racism or the absence of racism is just simply numbers.”