At every step of their interaction with Florida’s criminal legal system, people of color are far more likely to encounter someone white holding the power to influence their fate.
There are signs of progress, reaching to the top: In recent years, some Florida counties have elected their first Black state attorney, first Black or Hispanic sheriff or first Black public defender.
Yet the system remains overwhelmingly white, from police on the street to judges in the courtroom. A Tampa Bay Times survey of 425 Florida and Tampa Bay top officials found close to 80 percent were white, though 53 percent of the state is.
About a third of Florida’s jail population and more than half of its prison population is Black. That’s compared to about 15 percent of Floridians. Much of that imbalance was driven by drug-war policies over 40 years that focused more on punishment than treatment. Those policies disproportionately fell on people of color.
More than a quarter of the state’s population identifies as Hispanic, and experts predict that percentage will increase. Yet in many jurisdictions, including in Tampa Bay, Hispanic representation has not caught up.
Asian-Americans comprise 3 percent of Florida’s demographics, but they are the state’s fastest-growing ethnic group. None of the top state officials surveyed in this story were of Asian descent. Three in Tampa Bay were.
Prioritizing diversity in police agencies, prosecutors offices and the judicial bench is not an instant remedy to a deeply rooted systemic problem, experts warn.
But research suggests that a focus on diversity may have measurable impacts. Recent studies found evidence officers of color were less likely to use force and made fewer stops and arrests than white officers, particularly in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“Departments that are diverse tend to be open to other kinds of reform,” said David Sklansky, a Stanford Law School professor. “There’s a lot of evidence that it changes the dynamics — makes them more vibrant, less monolithic in opinion, more open to criticism and feedback from the community.”
As a Hillsborough County judge, Daryl Manning draws on his decades of legal experience when presiding over his courtroom. He also carries his background as a Black man who grew up in Queens, N.Y., listening to Arabic, Spanish, Cantonese and Vietnamese on his school bus. His Army service in the Middle East alongside soldiers from across the U.S. influenced him as well.
That perspective helps him stay vigilant to his duty to focus on facts instead of perception, he said. For example, when he encounters a defendant who won’t meet his eyes or learns a person fled from police, he recognizes it may be a sign of cultural and societal factors.
“Historically, individuals in certain communities felt oppressed by law enforcement,” he said. “Just because they ran from police doesn’t mean they are engaged in criminal activity or guilty.” Instead, they may have been taught to always avoid police, he said.
Understanding the context of people’s lives is important when so many lack access to adequate legal representation. A polished suit and tie doesn’t make you more worthy of justice, he said.
Even after six years on the bench, he regularly checks himself.
“You see somebody come in with a grungy T-shirt or dirty shoes, you may automatically think: this person is low-income, they probably stole something,” he said. “You have to recognize that and quickly put that out of your mind.”
A major barrier for increasing diversity in Florida courtrooms, experts say, is the significant upfront costs needed to enter the legal profession. People from communities without generational wealth may take on debt to complete their studies, then find it unsustainable to work in a lower-paying public defender or state attorney’s office.
Circuit and county judges in Florida are 78 percent white. District judges are 86 percent white.
Judges in Florida are either appointed or elected, and launching a campaign requires deep pockets.
Manning, who came to Florida two decades ago with no connections, found those barriers were not insurmountable. He worked in the Office of the Attorney General, grew his network and was appointed to the bench in 2015 by Gov. Rick Scott.
But, he said, “We can’t stick our heads in the sand and think things will get better on their own without an active stance.”
In Tampa Bay, the lack of representation has been slow to change at law enforcement agencies over the last decade, the Times analysis found.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are the front lines of the criminal justice system. They have wide discretion in their interactions with the public, and stereotypes and subconscious biases can have fatal consequences.
An officer can show up to a 911 call and perceive a man with a gun. Or see a child with a toy.
At a traffic stop, they can see a driver with an expired license and pile on tickets he can’t afford, or let him off with a warning once they see his daughters in the back seat. At a mental health emergency, they can interpret signs of distress as aggression and respond with force. Or see it as a cry for help.
From the 1980s to the turn of the century, many U.S. police departments made strides toward increasing representation, driven by affirmative action policies, Sklansky said
Then affirmative action became more controversial, and progress stalled.
“It’s harder to get decrees ordering police departments to take steps to diversify,” he said. Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder have renewed pressure on the issue.
The Times requested the most recent demographic staff data from six major Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies. In the data provided, most are more than 70 percent white.
The higher in rank, the sharper the disparity.
Some Tampa Bay agencies bristled at comparisons of police force demographics to residential census data. They said a more accurate comparison would be to local workforce data, which is what the Department of Justice uses to measure compliance with anti-discrimination requirements for federal grant eligibility.
“That’s a cop-out,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a criminal justice and law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The underrepresentation of minority people in police departments is a crisis situation, because those are the communities that are policed the most.”
Experts say agencies that want to make significant progress on building a diverse workforce should review every stage of the recruiting, hiring, training and promotion process to identify barriers.
Some recommendations are simple: Make your hiring application easy to navigate and use encouraging language. Send diverse officers on targeted recruiting trips. If an applicant drops out half way, call to follow up.
They also recommend reviewing hiring standards to see if they disproportionately block certain candidates. “Look at the criteria and ask: do we really need this? How does this affect us doing our job?” said Nelson Lim, a co-author of a study about diversifying police departments for RAND Corp., a nonprofit global think tank partially funded by the U.S. government.
Assessments that only involve a written test also can be a choke point, Lim said. “Most departments don’t really look at: Are these exams culturally biased? Or are there any items in the test having a disparate impact on some demographic group?”
If an agency realized that credit score requirements or physical fitness tests are disqualifying certain applicants, they could consider giving those recruits a time frame to catch up instead of knocking them out, Lim said.
Exit interviews and surveys among staff also can reveal internal dynamics that limit growth and push officers out of the profession, said Hans Menos of the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit research center led by a Yale University professor.
“Can you change from working in the jail to patrol pretty easily?” he said. “Do you have opportunities to join a specialized unit? Or do you get sidelined into one area and can’t get out?”
Jones-Brown said the focus should be on shifting training from a militarized approach to equipping officers with cultural expertise.
“Middle-class officers, even Black ones, may still see urban minority poor residents as ‘less than,’ ” she said. “They will be more comfortable buying into a culture that says: This population needs to be contained and controlled rather than assisted.”
Of all the agencies surveyed, the Tampa Police Department patrols the most diverse population, is the least reflective of it and has made the least progress.
The agency was 69 percent white in 2010 and remained 69 percent white in 2020. About 57 percent of Tampa residents identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or other.
Officials have worried about the disparity for decades. In 1987, when 10 percent of officers at the department were Black, Mayor Sandy Freedman launched a mentorship program to provide one-on-one support to Black job candidates, aiming to cut the dropout rate and push the force to more closely mirror the population. In 2006, Chief Stephen Hogue touted a new recruitment video that highlighted diversity and the department’s specialty units.
But a generation later, the numbers have barely budged. In 2020, the percentage of Black officers was about 12 percent.
A group of Black former high-ranking Tampa leaders, including retired Chief Bennie Holder, retired Assistant Chief Tina Wright and retired Lt. Clarence Nathan, have proposed creating a study group to help Black officers prepare for promotion, similar to a program that existed until 2015.
Interim Chief Ruben Delgado said the department is taking steps to emphasize diversity, including creating an extra recruiting position.
Currently, the agency offers scholarships to some job candidates so they can afford the $8,000 cost of attending the police academy. But the pool is usually limited to about 20 people. Delgado wants qualified applicants who don’t make the initial round to stay on the path and plans to help find them employment in other jobs, such as communications, forensics or the records division. They will then be invited to join the next scholarship class, he said.
Lt. Kim Hill, who oversees recruiting, has been working to identify and eliminate barriers that keep minority candidates from making it into the agency.
Following up with applicants who never completed the high school equivalency test requirement, she learned of financial and transportation issues. “The common theme was: I can’t get off work, I can’t get to the testing center,” she said.
She also noticed that the test was knocking out promising candidates who had already fulfilled the college education requirements. Recently, the agency eliminated the test.
Hill said more outreach trips aren’t necessarily the answer.
“Everyone wants to hear that we’ve gone to a historically Black college or university, and we’ve done recruiting,” she said. “It looks good on paper when we say we went. But we’re not actually getting anybody.”
She wants the agency to invest in building relationships through youth programs and perhaps creating something similar to the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in high schools.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the region’s largest force, also has struggled to recruit and tried to analyze the hiring process.
After he took office in 2017, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister modified hiring standards that were knocking out promising candidates. Tattoos are no longer a disqualifier, marijuana use is only prohibited within the past year, and a four-year degree is not required. The agency now offers tuition incentives.
“I just think that it was time for the Sheriff’s Office to evolve to target the applicants that we know would have the passion to improve our service to our community,” Chronister said.
He said he also ramped up recruiting efforts among veterans and at historically Black colleges, launched mentorship programs and supported affinity groups within the agency for Black, Hispanic, Asian and LGBTQ officers. He hired the agency’s first female chief deputy and promoted its first Black colonel.
The share of minority officers at the agency increased 3 percentage points over the past 10 years. Most of that growth appears to be with Hispanic deputies, reflecting that growing population in Hillsborough, which was 30 percent Hispanic in 2019.
High-profile police misconduct cases across the country have made it challenging to recruit in communities of color, Chronister said. Other law enforcement leaders said the same.
But he hopes an open, encouraging message resonates.
“To be a successful 21st century law enforcement agency, it is vital that you have a workforce that reflects the community that you serve,” he said. “When you look around the country, and you see a lot of the problems agencies are having, it’s because they don’t have the diversity.”
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is 78 percent white.
Broadly, that reflects the county’s demographics, which is 75 percent white. But the pool of Black deputies is sharply tilted toward employment in the jail and courts. Patrol officers, who interact most with residents over tickets and arrests, are 84 percent white.
On the patrol side, supervisors, sergeant and above, were 92 percent white in 2021. Out of 137 high-ranking leaders, six are Black, four are Hispanic and one is Asian.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the gap between patrol deputies and detention and corrections deputies reflects the preferences of job candidates.
“We get people to come in and apply and say that they don’t want to be on the street, they want to be detention deputies,” he said. “We can’t force it, if that’s what they want.”
Grenald Ferguson, a Black deputy who worked in detention and corrections and retired in 2019, said that moving to patrol never seemed like a workable option. In 2012, the patrol side was short-staffed, and supervisors invited him to move over. But he would have lost seniority and had to start from the bottom, on midnight shifts. He stayed put.
Gualtieri said there is consideration for experience and similar base pay for those who move from detention to patrol, but he sees losing seniority as a question of fairness.
“You can’t leapfrog over people that have been on patrol for five years,” he said.
Ferguson often served warrants, Baker Act notices and evictions in majority-Black neighborhoods, and said he witnessed how the dearth of diversity contributed to a lack of trust in those communities.
For example, he saw white deputies bring extra back up when serving evictions. “They were acting like it’s a bad place,” he said.
When Ferguson handled similar situations, he didn’t take an aggressive stance. Sensitive to the fear a deputy’s visit could provoke, sometimes he’d stay in his car and allow the person to approach for the papers.
When it came to serving warrants on hard-to-find people, Ferguson felt some white colleagues made minimal effort, letting paperwork languish.
He said he felt “most deputies didn’t care because it was in Black communities.”
Ferguson had grown up in the area and didn’t want to let victims down. He’d put out feelers with neighbors and relatives, knock on doors and leave notes. Sometimes, people with warrants called him, asking that he be the one to arrest them.
“You get a ton more out of walking and talking with people,” he said. “If you only show up when something bad happens, they won’t respect you.”
Gualtieri said Ferguson’s comments were “baseless.”
“The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has and will treat all people appropriately regardless of race,” he said. “Racial disparity has no place in policing, and we do not make any decisions based on race or individual traits.”
The sheriff has faced pressure to improve staff diversity.
In 2014, his office came under scrutiny when Pinellas County was released from federal diversity mandates, stemming from civil rights abuses — all except his agency.
Gualtieri fought the federal consent decree in court, and it was dissolved in 2018. Both sides acknowledged that the original goals had not been met.
“It was so antiquated, so meaningless,” Gualtieri said of the decree, which was established in the 1970s. “It would be nice to have a number that is commensurate with the percentage in the population in the community. I don’t know if we’ll ever get that.”
During his 2020 election campaign, Gualtieri responded to criticism from his opponent about his virtually all-white command staff. Out of 32 command-staff employees that serve as his advisers, two are Black or Hispanic. One oversees judicial operations. The other works in the support services bureau.
Gualtieri blames that lack of diversity at top levels on a five-year hiring freeze during the Great Recession. He said that hampered his agency’s ability to recruit and promote diverse candidates.
“We lost a lot of people who otherwise could have been eligible for those positions — they simply are not there, and I can’t create something that doesn’t exist,” he said. “We need to let it take its time, and when those people get in position, at the right time, it will change.”
Between 2012 and 2021, the number of minority deputies on the patrol side has grown by 4 percentage points.
“We are making some progress,” Gualtieri said, “but there’s room to do more.”
On a summer day in 2021, a year after protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, Black officers from the St. Petersburg Police Department sat scattered among the pews of Gospel Ministry Church. They were talking to neighborhood residents skeptical of the police. It was part of an effort called “Black and Blue” launched by local activists Brother John Muhammad and Jabaar Edmond.
Some residents were frank about their fears and skepticism.
“I’m telling you, I’m afraid to be here right now,” one man said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat this — when I come out and see police there, I go back in my house.”
Maj. Matthew Furse had come to the meeting because he wanted residents to have a more trusting relationship with police and believed that meant talking openly about shortcomings.
When asked about the challenges of being a Black officer, he recounted an early mistake. Years ago, a white supervisor told him to give a man a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the road in front of his house. That man was Edmond, who sat across from him in the church.
Furse believed giving a ticket was excessive, but he obeyed.
“I didn’t speak up,” he said. “That bothered me for many years — ate me up.” Last year, at a church event, he apologized to Edmond in front of his children.
Raised near Edmond in Childs Park at the height of the drug war in the 1980s, Furse grew up watching white officers tear through the neighborhood, jumping out of green vans to arrest his neighbors.
“From a child’s perspective, it seemed like it was running and gunning — they wanted to come in and sweep through to snatch up drug dealers, but no true corrective measures were going on,” he said. “The same issues persisted even after they pulled out. It was more like a hunt than effective policing.”
As a teenager, he mistrusted the police. When he decided to join the force in 2003, some friends and family criticized his decision or cut ties. But over time, he became someone they could turn to, to better understand the legal system.
Still, for more than a decade, Furse was cynical about the potential for promotion.
“There were different groups or cliques of people who had their buddies they would kind of lift up,” he said. It quashed his ambition.
Today, Furse is one of the department’s top leaders, in the only Tampa Bay police agency run by a Black chief.
In 2014, when Anthony Holloway became police chief, the agency was in turmoil over accusations of discrimination, especially in promotions. Black officers complained they were being shut out from higher ranks by favoritism and disciplined more harshly.
Holloway revamped the exams and added an interview component, so that officers had a chance to make their case. A wider group of officers began taking and passing the assessments.
He also took an active role in encouraging officers of color to prepare for promotion. Often, he found promising candidates who didn’t have the confidence to apply, he said.
It matched his personal experience. When he started his career, he never dreamed of being a chief because he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like him at that level. It was mentors who pushed him.
With Holloway’s encouragement, Furse sat for the sergeant exam and was promoted in 2015. He moved up to lieutenant in 2018 and broadened his leadership skills by working in the detective division. Along the way, he displayed a talent for motivating and developing younger officers.
Soon, Holloway made him a major.
Since Holloway came into office, the command staff has gone from 26 percent minority to 43 percent.
Recruitment, to keep the leadership pipeline going, is still a challenge, Holloway acknowledged. The number of minority officers has grown by about 3 percentage points since 2014. He focuses on outreach trips at colleges and military bases and shows up at graduation ceremonies with business cards. He also has launched mentorship groups within the department.
Community activists intent on police reform, like Muhammad and Edmond, have monitored Holloway’s tenure and the changing face of his department with a mixture of optimism and impatience, looking to see how internal diversity translates into policy and practice.
“It does matter to have Black people there, but Black people that have the mindset to serve the community is more important than having just, you know, Black faces,” Muhammad said.
Holloway takes their calls and is open to new strategies, such as testing a program to have social workers respond to mental health calls.
Yet those strides feel overdue, not something to celebrate, Muhammad and Edmond said. They still want to see a stronger emphasis on community policing and a firmer retreat from focusing on low-level infractions.
Building trust is a slow road and can be threatened in an instant. When police officers fired 50 rounds at 20-year-old Dominique Harris during an arrest attempt last year, a Facebook video of the confrontation set off a fresh round of fear in the community, Muhammad said.
Harris had tried to ram his car past a blockade of police vehicles and shot an officer, but some only saw an excessive use of force.
“We’re fighting, you know, years and years of tradition,” Muhammad said.
This story has been updated with more context on the Dominique Harris case. The percentage of white officials has also been updated based on information received since publication.
Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.
Have a tip related to this story? Email the reporter at [email protected].
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
About the records:
The Tampa Bay Times requested detailed staff demographics from six major law enforcement agencies in the region. All provided Equal Employment Opportunity Plans regularly submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. The St. Petersburg Police Department’s plans, besides the most recent one, only included the categories “white” and “minority.” The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office shared an extra record showing the demographics of staff employed in the Department of Detention and Corrections and the share employed on patrol. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did not have an equivalent document.
The U.S. Census allows responders to identify by both ethnicity and race and includes a category called “non-Hispanic white” to capture the share of the population that identifies as white and not of Hispanic descent. Local population demographics in this report are based on the U.S. Census category “non-Hispanic white.” Law enforcement agencies do not make that distinction in their Equal Employment Opportunity Plans, and only identify employees by one category or the other.