New Jersey police departments, long accused of hiring discrimination in lawsuits, are still struggling to recruit minority officers as the state’s general population rapidly diversifies.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of a dozen New Jersey police departments found that many, including in some of the state’s most racially diverse cities, are disproportionately staffed by white officers. The disparity is particularly pronounced among departments’ supervisory ranks, according to data from March provided by the departments.
In the northern city of Elizabeth, where 18% of the population is white, 59% of the force’s rank-and-file officers and 79% of supervisory officers are white. In Atlantic City, whites make up 16% of the population, 70% of the police force and 76% of supervisory ranks.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has made progress diversifying the Police Department, but data from March showed more than half of the city’s police force and 82% of the supervisory ranks are white. White residents makes up 22% of the city’s population.
One success story is East Orange, where the police force is 81% black and 12% Hispanic, nearly mirroring the city’s population.
“There’s no portion of this city that we don’t represent,” said Sheilah Coley, the city’s police director.
A spokeswoman for J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, said in an email that the Police Department’s minority-recruitment efforts are hindered by the state’s civil-service rules, which use employment tests to create applicant lists that restrict hiring and promotions to the top three candidates.
Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White and Jersey City’s mayor agreed that civil-service rules limit hiring choices, but said they are aggressively recruiting minority applicants.
Mr. White, who took over the department in 2013, said he plans to bolster minority recruitment through partnerships with high schools, churches and civic organizations and by improving the department’s relationship with minority residents who have “negative views about law enforcement.”
“The more people that take that test, the greater the likelihood of diversity,” he said.
Tensions between racial minorities and police—most recently brought to national attention by the deaths of black residents during encounters with white officers in Missouri, New York and Illinois—have long been an issue in New Jersey. In Newark, where police brutality sparked the 1967 race riots that killed 26, local officials said last week that they agreed to accept federal oversight of the Police Department following allegations that police engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops and arrests that targeted minorities.
Racial minorities make up about 41% of New Jersey’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, up from 21% in 1990. Diversity within police departments hasn’t kept pace, said Jiles Ship, a former central New Jersey police officer who now teaches criminal justice at Rutgers University.
Mr. Ship, who is black, was first hired as a police officer in 1985 and retired as lieutenant state investigator with the New Jersey attorney general’s office in 2010. Exposure to different ethnicities within the workplace helps police understand and connect to the people they encounter on the streets, he said, citing his own experience working with officers from Italian and Jewish backgrounds.
“I’ve learned so much about those cultures just by riding with those individuals and them being my partners than I ever could have from any type of training or instruction,” Mr. Ship said.
The civil-rights movement and riots of the 1960s and 1970s sparked a public outcry and policy changes aimed at boosting recruitment of minority officers. But the momentum to diversify later lagged because elected officials and police chiefs believed the problem had been solved, said Tyrone Williams Jr., an officer with the Montclair Police Department for 16 years.
“There’s not a lot of white males who think a diversity problem exists,” said Mr. Williams, who also belongs to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, an advocacy group. “I don’t think there’s ever been a true commitment to maintaining a diverse police force.”
There are no statewide statistics on racial demographics in law enforcement, but national data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that African-American representation in local police departments has increased 3 percentage points since 1987 while Hispanic representation has increased 7 percentage points.
Many New Jersey police departments analyzed by the Journal also showed Hispanic representation outpacing that of black officers.
In Trenton, the police force is 31% Hispanic, nearly on par with the city’s population. African-American officers make up 17% of the department in a city where more than half the residents are black.
Trenton Police Capt. Edelmiro Gonzalez Jr., who serves as the force’s chief of staff, said the department is working to recruit more black officers.
Antonio Hernandez, president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers and a police officer in Bergen County, said New Jersey departments have shown improvement in recruiting Latino officers, but more progress is needed.
“Certain groups, including Hispanics, blacks and females, are failing the police academy at a higher percentage,” Mr. Hernandez said.
In Jersey City, Mr. Fulop has made recruitment of minority police officers a cornerstone of his agenda, but he said he has had trouble graduating minorities from the police academy.
“I think that sometimes the byproduct of our aggressive recruiting is a higher attrition rate,” Mr. Fulop said.
Mr. Fulop said he has hired 28% of the department’s total minority representation since taking office in 2013, but he said that minorities are still “woefully underrepresented,” especially in the supervisory ranks.
In an effort to improve police diversity and law enforcement’s relationship with the community, lawmakers in Trenton are considering legislation to promote and track minority hiring statewide. The bill would require departments to develop minority recruitment programs and report diversity statistics to county and state officials.