Diversity in Law Enforcement is Essential to Good Policing

September 8, 2014

The death of 18 year-old Michael Brown last month grabbed national headlines not only because the life of an unarmed youth was tragically stolen, but because of the underlying racial tensions that it exposed in the community of Ferguson, Mo. However, the growing protests and subsequent coverage showed that the racial tensions exposed are, in fact, pervasive across the country.

Brown’s death was merely one more instance of oppression the nation’s African American community felt at the hands of law enforcement; the reaction of the citizens was merely a reflection of the bubbling frustration that the community had been feeling.

In Ferguson, two-thirds of the residents are black. The police force is fifty-two strong and of the fifty-two police officers, only three are black. Ferguson is no exception. According to a government survey of 100 police departments across the country by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of white officers in these departments was more than 30 percentage points higher than the communities they served. Moreover, while minority officers make up less than 25 percent of police departments, the national minority population is nearly 40 percent and is rapidly growing.

Diversity is particularly important in the law enforcement context because policing is most successful when it has the support of the community it serves. A lack of diversity does not mean that individual officers or even the department itself has racist undertones. However, a lack of diversity leads to a deficit of institutional knowledge of certain aspects of the community. Minorities tend to view police less favorably when officers do not represent the diversity of their communities. This creates tension between police departments and communities, which makes the job of policing that much harder and ultimately less effective.

Furthermore, police officers—in uniform or in squad cars—are very visible parts of American communities; thus, a diverse police department publicly displays a commitment to equal treatment of the law. This soft capital is needed in order for trust to be established. Trust, then, translates into the community working with law enforcement, as opposed to working against because they are suspects.

This begs the question: why are the nation’s law enforcement and national security apparatuses not more reflective of the communities they serve?

Firstly, numerous barriers exist barring minority applicants from joining the police force. Thus, more must be done to bolster the diversity of law enforcement across the nation. Recruitment and retention standards should be reevaluated in order to attract and retain more diverse candidates while not compromising the quality of officers accepted.

Secondly, the Supreme Court has also gotten in the way of more diverse police departments. In a 2009 landmark case, Ricci v. DeStefano, the Court effectively rejected an effort by a Connecticut city to make its fire department more diverse. The Court’s reasoning can and has been applied to the police department context in U.S. v. Brennan. These rulings are unfortunate and devalue state and community interests. However, until these judicial decisions are overturned, police departments must be careful in the way diversity initiatives are structured so they are not struck down by the courts.

The mistrust of state power is not exclusive to African Americans. The American Muslim community similarly views the country’s national security apparatus with suspicion. While Susan Rice, an African American woman, is President Obama’s National Security Advisor, there are few American Muslims on the National Security staff. Similarly, there are no American Muslims serving in senior policy positions.

If most of the national security apparatus is unjustly focused on American Muslims and most of our foreign policy is focused on majority-Muslim countries, it would be in the United States’ best interest to appoint American Muslims to senior-level policy positions in order to provide a broader perspective and to ensure that the American Muslim community is involved in the political process and not marginalized. Diversity matters.

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