More diverse police forces are only the first step

Nova Safo Dec 8, 2014
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More diverse police forces are only the first step

Nova Safo Dec 8, 2014
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As nationwide protests about police killings continue, the idea of diversifying police forces to better reflect their communities has taken hold. But forces in many big cities have become increasingly diverse over decades, with a mixed record of success in affecting changes in tactics and improving community relationships. 

David Sklansky of Stanford Law School, who has studied demographics changes in U.S. police departments and wrote a paper on the subject, found that the pace of change has varied greatly among departments. But when that demographic transformation has occurred, it has gone a long way toward breaking down entrenched police subcultures of institutional solidarity and insularity, Slansky says.

“What you see is enormous change, enormous progress but uneven progress and incomplete progress,” he says. “Departments, as they’ve diversified, have become more dynamic, lively places, where there’s much more discussion, and much greater range of opinions voiced.” 

The police department in New York, for example, now has the most diverse force in its history. As of 2010, a majority of its patrol officers were reportedly from minority populations. Yet recent protests in New York have drawn attention to complaints about police use of force and aggressive tactics such as “stop and frisk,” which permits police to stop people they suspect of wrongdoing and search them. The department has largely discontinued the practice under New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

“There’s a lot of distrust,” says Terrell Jones, a community worker who helps low-income people affected by drug abuse. Jones recalled negative experiences with New York police dating to the 1970s and his teenage years.

“Me being a man of color … I can remember when I was young, I was beat up by the police for just sitting on my block,” Jones says. “And nothing has changed. It has gotten worse.” 

Protesters in New York City hold signs referencing the ”broken windows” policing strategy, which targets lower-level crimes in urban settings.

Adding more minority patrol officers to the rank and file doesn’t necessarily improve the relationship with a community, says Nelson Lim, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp.’s Center on Quality Policing. 

“The scientific literature on minority officers’ behavior, whether they’re substantively different from white officers … is mixed,” Lim says. A diverse workforce is still important because it makes it easier for police departments to change their tactics, he says, with the key ingredient being leadership both from politicians and police managers.

“I cannot overemphasize the leadership,” Lim says. If departments develop good relationships with minority communities, he adds, “you will see the change.”

Note: This story also aired on the Marketplace Morning Report on 12/08/2014. You can listen to that segment using the audio player below.

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