Yes, there was a glaring danger sign.
Looking back at the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., law enforcement officials across the country are quick to point at one obvious signal.
The population of Ferguson is about 67 percent African American, while the police force only employed three black officers on a force of 53.
“A nightmare,” summarized Brad Schoen, director of the Riley County Police Department. “That’s all you can say as a police chief. It’s a nightmare.”
What Schoen doesn’t add in that context, but what he and county officials work relentlessly to do, is prevent any type of obvious nightmare scenario here.
Schoen answers to the Riley County Law Board officially, and to the citizens he serves through a Community Advisory Board that handles questions and complaints about the police from ordinary citizens.
“Obviously, Manhattan and the rest of the county have a completely different type of demographic breakdown than in Ferguson,” Schoen said.
“This is mostly a white county, and yes, that’s reflected on the force. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have issues we address every day, or that there can’t be some sort of nightmare here if we don’t stay aggressive.
“That’s why Chris Robinson, our human resources director, has an outreach program and turns in a monthly report on all our employees — by gender and by race. We need to keep the balance right to maintain our dialogue with the community, because that’s the only way law enforcement can stay effective.”
Robinson’s report for August shows 102 sworn personnel working for the RCPD — 85 white males and 10 white females, with only five black males and two Hispanic males.
That may sound extremely lopsided (and it is, along gender lines), but the Manhattan metro area of just over 52,000 — the most diverse part of the county — is 85 percent white, 5.5 percent African American, 5.1 percent Asian and 5 percent Latino or Hispanic.
The RCPD isn’t really far off those numbers, but officials said they’d like to make them better.
“One place where we need to improve, where we actively recruit, is among the Hispanic population,” Schoen said. “We probably have about a dozen Spanish-speaking officers, and we need more as that population keeps increasing.”
Despite an ongoing search, so far the RCPD hasn’t been able to lure more Hispanic applicants.
“It’s the same situation in the black community,” said Corey Leavell, an African American who serves on the advisory board. “When I came into the position about a year and a half ago, I was prepared to hear complaints from blacks about the RCPD, and so far there has been nothing.
“The relationship between the police and African Americans in the county seems to be excellent, and I know Director Schoen insists that his force work on that.
“But why don’t we have more black officers? Just like with the Hispanic population, it’s still difficult to convince young people to choose to work in law enforcement.”
Schoen believes, and some law board members have signaled agreement at regular meetings, that some races and nationalities hesitate to become police officers because of what law enforcement has meant to them in the past.
“In some of the cultures from where we’re drawing our new citizens, any kind of contact with police might mean something negative. In extreme cases, it’s outright fear of police.
“So with those folks, you hope that in another generation — when they see that law enforcement is working with them and not against them — perhaps it will be easier to get them to apply for the force.”
Ron Wells, a member of the law board, put it this way: “If we can’t get African Americans to run for office in the community, we certainly can’t force African Americans to go into the Law Center and fill out an application.”
Wells made it clear, though, that the RCPD does an excellent job of maintaining communications with all county residents, thus making a Ferguson-type tragedy a very, very long shot here.
“I don’t see that kind of thing happening in Manhattan,” Wells said, “and not just because of the demographics. Our director and the RCPD go out of their way to talk with people, to see what’s going on, long before anything can build up.
“They work very hard at that, and I believe any board member would agree. They’re trying to spot problems before they occur.”
One of those potential issues, Schoen indicated, revolves around language issues.
“We definitely need more fluency in Spanish at our disposal,” he said. “And of course, this is a university community with people coming from all over the world. A lot of them are not really comfortable in English, and that’s probably going to be even more difficult if they are in a situation dealing with police officers.”
In the past, the RCPD has kept a list of people “on call” for handling various languages if the issue came up.
“We still do that,” Schoen said, “but honestly, those people come and go so much in a town like this that we never know who might be available.
“Just to make sure, we’ve contracted with a translation service so there’s always someone we can call.
“And believe me, there are a lot of language deals that can come up in a university town. I had a situation myself once with a car stopped on Seth Child Road with several women in it.
“I was trying to communicate with them, and one spoke Korean, another Chinese, and the driver spoke Arabic. Yeah, I’d say it can be a challenge once in a while.”
Even though that incident proved nothing more than amusing, a language misunderstanding under tense circumstances conceivably could cause a tragedy.
“That’s what has impressed me,” said Leavell. “As an African American and also as someone in a position to hear citizens’ complaints, you worry that you’re going to hear about some close calls with the police.
“The RCPD stays on top of that. It’s not a guarantee that something bad won’t happen, but it’s the best you can do to prevent it.”