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Why Ferguson’s Black Interim Police Chief May Be Set Up To Fail

CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/JEFF ROBERSON
CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/JEFF ROBERSON

Months after a Justice Department investigation revealed a culture of race discrimination in the Ferguson Police Department (FPD), city officials tapped an African American officer to lead the police force. Replacing Chief Tom Jackson, Andre Anderson will serve as the interim chief for the next six months. The change may be a positive one, but it also puts Anderson in a precarious role — and in a position to fall over a “glass cliff.”

When Michael Brown was shot and killed last August by Officer Darren Wilson, the FPD consisted of 50 white and three black officers who served a population that was 70 percent black. The disparity paved the way for racially biased and exploitative policing, which the Justice Department is forcing the city to clean up.

On Wednesday, Mayor James Knowles III announced that Anderson is taking on that role. Putting his duties in Glendale, Arizona on hold, Anderson, an Army veteran and commander of the Glendale Police Department, revealed a desire to diversify the FPD — which is currently made up of 45 officers — to better reflect Ferguson’s population. He also wants officer training to include bias awareness.

“I am asking the city of Ferguson, community members — mainly the community members — and leaders if we can set a course in the history books that clearly proves that peace prevails,” Anderson said. Despite his broad experience in police leadership, however, it may not be enough to get the job done — and he could wind up taking the fall.

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In what is known as the glass cliff phenomenon, women and people of color are hired in times of crisis to clean house, but are blamed for not being able to solve the problem quickly or without hitting a few obstacles. This pattern often affects corporate executives, who are called upon to fix problems that their white, male predecessors left. When the job hits a rough patch or is completed too slowly, women and minorities are ousted and labeled failures who drove the companies into a deeper hole. For instance, Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit, recently stepped down from her position after the contentious termination of popular staffer Victoria Taylor. Pao took the job after a slew of scandals damaged the reputation of the site, and she may not have been involved in Taylor’s departure at all.

Studies show that white men typically occupy leadership positions when companies and organizations are successful. Minorities and women are hired to shakeup the status quo when business goes awry, in part because white men do not want to be associated with a sinking ship. Moreover, many women and people color see these types of shakeups as the only means to advance in a company, and are therefore more likely to step up to the plate.

“We’ve known for a long time that women and minorities find it hard to break into the top ranks of organizations because of subtle barriers, and that’s known as the glass ceiling,” says social scientist Shankar Vedantam. “If the glass ceiling means that there are invisible barriers that limit the mobility of women and minorities, the glass cliff suggests that when women and minorities are promoted they tend to be promoted to struggle at firms or firms in crisis. In other words, they’re pushed off the glass cliff.”

But the glass cliff also impacts law enforcement. Early this month, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was relieved of duty by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, months after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Rawlings-Blake originally hired Batts because he was able to reduce the crime rate in Long Beach, California. But a spike in homicides in Baltimore since Gray’s death, coupled with officer backlash, created an even more fraught relationship between police and black residents in the city, and the police union pinned the blame on Batts.

The former commissioner was critical of how members of his force handled unrest in the city, and said Gray should have received immediate medical attention. He also admitted that Gray could have been abused — an admission that outraged the Baltimore police union. The union submitted a disapproving report to the mayor, arguing Batts was responsible for the rioting that took place and “put officers in harm’s way.”

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While it is too early to tell what changes Anderson will make during his tenure in Ferguson, he may be poised to follow in Batts’ footsteps.