California’s public universities are among the most racially diverse in the nation, but campus police departments don’t reflect that diversity.
At 32 of 33 public university campuses, police officers are whiter than the students they serve, a CalMatters review of officer demographics shows. And in many cases, the disparities are glaring: Cal State Monterey Bay, for example, has a student population that is just over a quarter white. Yet of the university’s 15 police officers, 12 of them are white — about 80%.
The same story repeats across the state. Overall, the University of California and the California State University systems employ nearly 800 sworn officers. Roughly half of them are white, compared with less than a quarter of students attending the two systems.
CalMatters obtained records of the race and gender of every active, sworn police officer at UC and CSU as of February 11, 2021 from the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. The statistics alone don’t tell the whole story: Individual law enforcement agencies self-report racial demographics to POST and it may not capture all the ways identity intersects. And some campus activists think officer diversity is beside the point, when they’re fighting to abolish the armed police departments entirely.
But at a time of heated debate about the presence of police on college campuses — a presence that police reform advocates say disproportionately affects students of color — the data shed light on a key aspect of the relationship between officers and the communities they are sworn to protect.
“Minority people don’t feel safe with cops and now it’s a majority white cop force on campus,” said Diego Rivera, a recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who identifies as Latino. White people make up about half of the university’s student body, but nearly three-quarters of campus police officers.
“Driving around at night I always had my eye over my shoulder just in case UPD wanted to pull me over for whatever reason,” Rivera said. “It’s like you still get a feeling of paranoia, you know, not being a white person on campus.”
While diversity has long been discussed in policing, the 2015 report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that police departments strive to better reflect their communities in terms of race, gender, language, lived experience, and cultural background. Diversifying would improve both community trust and the internal culture of police departments, the report said.
Cal State police chiefs “are really focused on community policing and trying to get the recommendations in the 21st Century Policing Task Force report implemented at every campus in the system,” said university spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp.
At UC Davis, police chief Joseph Farrow acknowledged that his department needed to work harder to reflect the campus community. About 53% of the department’s 45 officers are white — far higher than the roughly 27% of Davis students who are.
“Racial diversity brings in the other stuff: The lived experiences, the different backgrounds, different beliefs,” Farrow said. “Are we there yet? Probably not. Do we have to keep working and be able to do that? Yes, we do.”
Other police chiefs on campuses with majority white departments said racial diversity is just one factor in building a representative department, and pointed to barriers they said made it hard to hire non-white officers.
“I think you can’t just take racial diversity and think that all the problems and the challenges are going to go away,” said Nader Oweiss, the recently-hired chief of police at Sonoma State University, where the department is 83% white.
In hiring officers, Oweiss said, departments also need to consider “whether they speak another language, they were born in the community, whether they worked in the community or went to school in that community.”