Racial tensions between police and the public are a pressing concern in even the most advanced democracies. The simmering undercurrent of public distrust in the police has been captured in opinion polls in both the US and the UK. As demonstrated by national protests after the killings of Mark Duggan (London, 2011) and Michael Brown (Ferguson, 2014), these tensions have the potential to provoke civil disorder on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dramatic changes in the ethnic representativeness of UK police forces offer valuable insights for redressing injustice and discrimination, both actual and perceived. Between 2000 and 2010, the UK government targeted a significant increase in the share of ethnic minority police officers in every force. By investigating trends in substantiated misconduct complaints against officers over this time, I found strong evidence of a reduction in police misconduct as ethnic representativeness increased.
So, what is the key to achieving such progress? And what lessons from the UK can be applied to tackling more severe problems in the US?
A public confidence crisis
In the aftermath of events in Ferguson in August 2014, a Washington Post article questioned whether “diverse police forces treat their communities more fairly than almost-all-white ones.” Demographic changes in the US, particularly in suburban towns across the country, have compounded a long-running tendency for white people to be over-represented in many police forces. While concerns have been increasingly raised that community trust in the police is thus undermined, this has been little tested in prior studies.
This article may have been right to recognize that such challenges cannot merely be resolved by increasing the number of racial minority officers. Representativeness in law enforcement goes beyond mere symbolism. What seems to be crucial is the impact of increasing racial diversity on integrity within the force.
Tackling prejudices by raising integrity
Without open discussion of how minority citizens are treated, police practices that are prejudiced, unfair, or corrupt may remain unchallenged. Greater representation of ethnic minorities strengthens their voice within the force, promoting dialogue on these controversial issues. Indeed, the increased presence of minority officers can inspire their colleagues to end the culture of ignoring or condoning misconduct.
But this is not simply a matter of increasing nonminority officers’ interactions with minority colleagues. Rather, by discussing how the force treats minority citizens, officers reappraise the prevailing ethical climate in their force and take responsibility for improving their individual and collective integrity. This may be reflected in a reduced tendency to act on implicit assumptions about minorities being more unlawful than whites.
These transformative changes are gradual and cumulative, with greater representativeness contributing to shifts in attitudes and behaviors among all officers, especially in relation to minorities. Of course, such fundamental cultural changes will likely provoke tension among colleagues, especially in forces for which racial diversity marks a radical departure. But it is only by challenging what has long been the status quo that real progress can be made.
The UK’s experiment
Back in 1999, the UK government launched an ambitious program to increase the ethnic representativeness of forces throughout the country. Their ambitious goal was for the share of each force’s ethnic minority officers to be proportional to populations in the community it served. For some forces, this necessitated extensive recruitment of ethnic minority officers.
Public workforce demographics are generally stable over time, so this experiment provided a unique opportunity to test the impacts of a large change over a relatively short timeframe. I wanted to test whether an increase in ethnic minority representation would lead to reduced incidences of police misconduct.
By studying data on 42 police forces in England and Wales from 2000 to 2010, I found that an increase in the proportion of ethnic minority police officers brought a significant decrease in the number of substantiated misconduct complaints as well as the share of ethnic minorities being subject to stop and searches. The share of complaints brought by black citizens also decreased, though this reduction did not extend to other minority citizens. This reinforces the impression of inconsistency in how different ethnic minorities are treated by the police
Applying these lessons in the US
When police officers act unlawfully, whether through disproportionate force or discrimination against ethnic minorities, holding them to account is crucial to maintaining public confidence. Throughout the US, especially among African Americans, the public have little faith in police departments’ handling of officer misconduct.
The case of Chicago is illustrative. As reported in a USA Today article (January 2017), the Justice Department found the city’s police to be “beset by widespread racial bias, poor training, and feckless oversight of officers accused of misconduct.” That probe reinforced data released in 2015, showing that 61% of complaints against police were filed by African Americans, almost double their 32% share of the city’s population.
Reflecting on those data in November 2015, a Washington Post article flagged the worrying trend that misconduct complaints against police officers were less likely to result in disciplinary action when the complainant was black. This article neatly captured the heart of this problem: “the cops…can’t guarantee safety without the public’s trust.”
As the UK experiment demonstrates, police force integrity is crucial to both reducing incidences of officer misconduct and increasing public confidence that transgressors will be held accountable. Increasing ethnic representativeness can facilitate raising forces’ integrity, but patience and perseverance are required.
Please see the following articles:
Hong, S. (2016). Representative bureaucracy, organizational integrity, and citizen coproduction: Does an increase in police ethnic representativeness reduce crime?. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(1), 11-33.
Hong, S. (2017). Does Increasing Ethnic Representativeness Reduce Police Misconduct?. Public Administration Review, 77(2), 195-205.
Hong, S. (2017). Black in blue: Racial profiling and representative bureaucracy in policing revisited. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 27(4), 547-561.