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Police departments more racially diverse than people think

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Image courtesy of the NYPD
Image courtesy of the NYPD


The faces of today’s U.S. police departments have become more racially diversified with the percentage of minority officers nearly doubling from 1987 to 2013.

According to Newsweek, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported Thursday that in 2013 racial or ethnic minorities made up 27 percent of local police officers. This is an increase from 15 percent in 1987 and 25 percent in 2007.

How does this translate in terms of numbers in the force? There were 130,000 minority local police officers in the U.S. in 2013. That is an increase of 78,000 officers from 1987.

The BJS outlined in its report that there are over 12,000 local police departments in the U.S., which employ around 477,000 sworn officers. Non-sworn staff comprised of approximately 128,000 additional employees.

The trend across departments in larger jurisdictions showed an increase in female officers, as well as officers from Hispanic, Latino, Black, Asian, American Indian and other minority backgrounds. Female, Hispanic and Latino officers saw the biggest increase in the force, with their numbers nearly doubling from 1987. Smaller jurisdictions also saw changes, but at considerably lower percentages.

However, Newsweek reported that increased diversity did not necessarily mean relations between police and communities of color are more harmonious. Research conducted by other sources and were not tied to the BJS study showed that greater diversity of officers within police departments did not equate to better relationships within communities.

Alex S. Vitale, an associate professor of sociology, said black and white officers “aren’t really different” in terms of reports of excessive use of force and arrests. Vitale, who teaches at Brooklyn College, stated that some research even suggests that “black officers are more likely to make arrests than their white counterparts in the same circumstances.”

“The overarching reality is that these officers are part of an institution that has very clear expectations and demands and they respond to the demands in the way that white officers do,” said Vitale. “Black communities often express a desire to have police officers that match the demographics of the community, but when communities are surveyed about their satisfaction with the police, communities with more diverse police forces don’t report higher satisfaction.”

Founder of the Center of Race, Crime and Justice at City University of New York, Professor Delores Jones-Brown said that the effects of a more racially and ethnically diverse police force is still unclear.

“The research is divided on the issue of whether or not diversifying police departments has any specific impacts,” she explained. “There’s one set of research that says that regardless of the identity of the police officer, they become part of a police culture and in that police culture there is an ‘us-versus-them’ personality.”

Nonetheless, the research does not mean that diverse police departments cannot improve relations with communities of color. “The idea is that the diversity can be a good thing but it should not be looked at as a panacea,” Jones-Brown said. “A combination of diversity and better training should lead to better results.”

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