The present crisis in policing has gathered the winds of reform, generating important conversations about what policing should look like in the 21st century. A clear consensus is often hard to achieve given the constituencies involved, yet there is almost universal agreement that our profession can begin to turn the ship around through improved hiring practices. This avenue of reform is typically framed within the context of racial and ethnic diversity, the ideal being that a police agency should reflect the face of the community. This is indeed an important end that can enhance police legitimacy. The call to increase the number of women in policing is less pronounced, but no less important. In fact, increasing female representation is arguably one of the most effective ways to reduce the rate of extralegal force. We would be remiss, however, to straighten our rudder upon reaching some semblance of diversity on these fronts alone.
To their credit, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing adopted a broader conceptualization of diversity, opining that “Law enforcement agencies should strive to create a workforce that contains a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness dealing with all communities”. This expanded view is helpful, yet the benefits of a diverse police force extend beyond community engagement in ways that can advance law enforcement organizations and the field of policing itself.
Every workplace has an organizational culture, but the policing variety is particularly potent. Police recruits are ushered into a culture imbued with tradition, ceremony, and strong normative expectations. It is in this environment where tepid worldviews quickly meld in conformity to the noble cause. Our common culture unites us in important ways while simultaneously constraining our profession from advancement. As the Task Force on 21st Century Policing astutely noted, “Organizational culture eats policy for lunch”. Our intransigence towards reform is partially rooted in a lack of diversity. Innovation does not flow from insular echo chambers. Policing needs diversity, yet diversity of experience and thought are often overlooked and underappreciated. Perhaps it is because these qualities are latent, not readily apparent to the naked eye.
The uniform that I wear is blue and the vocation that it represents is historically blue-collar. Most police officers hail from working class backgrounds and tend to lean right politically (I am guilty on both counts). Neither trait is patently visible, yet both influence the way in which I see the world. My perspective has value, but in no way is it superlative. Other viewpoints and personal experiences are historically underrepresented or altogether absent in policing circles. We need these voices to join our high calling.
How can police organizations acquire latent forms of diversity? Educational prerequisites are a good starting point, although this is hardly a new idea. Nearly every blue ribbon panel convened to study policing in the last 85 years has stressed the importance of officer education. Cops will debate the relative importance of book smarts vs. street smarts ad nauseam (to thrive, officers need both). Besides behavioral corollaries like higher performance and lower rates of misconduct, education confers knowledge and new ways of thinking upon the learner. To capitalize on these benefits, police organizations should encourage officers of all ranks to pursue higher learning. This can be achieved by subsidizing tuition or even incentivizing the promotional process in ways that recognize the value of education.
It is worth considering what course of study, if any, should be given preference when it comes to hiring and promotion. The vast body of criminal justice research produced over the last four decades has been a boon for policing and familiarity with this literature is invaluable. However, candidates with seemingly unrelated degrees should be given due consideration. American policing is quickly becoming a catchall for a host of social ills which may or may not have a clear nexus to crime. In this context even a classic liberal arts curriculum with its emphasis on critical thinking and moral reasoning has value.
Perhaps what officers study is less important than who they study with. When police officers pursue higher education, they often do so alongside a diverse population of students and instructors who subscribe to dissimilar views. Exposure to the free exchange of ideas promotes personal growth and also provides a unique opportunity for officers to function as de facto ambassadors, representing their agencies and the policing profession. One of my graduate school professors disclosed that, were I not in his class, he would have to “invent” me in spirit to balance out classroom discussions on law and public policy.
Education is by no means the only source of latent diversity. Policing is often described as a calling, but sometimes the vocational call comes later in life. Employment experience outside of policing or another closely aligned field should not be discounted. I have military service and security work on my resume, but also spent two years teaching at a private school for students with dyslexia. Candidates from non-traditional fields have skills that are unexpectedly translatable. They are further advantaged by their ability to draw from alternative frames of reference and engage in innovative problem solving.
Other personal experiences not commonly captured on a resume also have value. Living abroad, engaging in volunteer work, and even pursuing spiritual growth are all inwardly transformative activities. Such undertakings can foster empathy and awareness in ways that help us begin to see across the chasms of race, class, culture, and systems of belief in America.
Expanding diversity in policing, latent or otherwise, is not an easy task. There are a variety of hurdles to overcome in the hiring process including homophily (the tendency to favor candidates that resemble those doing the hiring) and self-selection (candidates who pursue or avoid certain professions that may be typecast in various ways). Despite the challenges, policing needs to abandon its tradition of self-limiting homogeneity. Identifying and developing diversity of thought and experience can bolster the organization’s capacity for problem solving and prime the pump for innovations that will lead our profession well into the 21st century.
Jeremiah Johnson is patrol sergeant serving with the Darien Police Department in Connecticut. During his 14 year law enforcement career, Jeremiah has worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, accreditation manager, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant, and acting lieutenant. He holds a BA in Sociology from Geneva College, an MS in Justice Administration from Western Connecticut State University, an MA in Criminal Justice from John Jay College, and a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York Graduate Center. His dissertation research focused on the role of relational networks in diffusing law enforcement innovations.