How to Make a Police Force More Diverse

American police departments are often far less diverse than the communities they serve. As a consequence, many police forces are less effective than they could be — a failing on its own terms and because there are proven ways to make them more diverse.

The numbers are striking: 72% of full-time, sworn officers in the U.S. are White, 11% are Black, and 13% are Hispanic. But only 57% of serious crime victims are White. When it comes to gender, the mismatch is even more striking: 12% of sworn officers are women, but half of serious crime victims are women.

Research shows that White officers are more lenient toward white civilians than toward Black civilians, and quicker to use force against civilians in black neighborhoods. This reduces trust between Black civilians and law enforcement, which in turn reduces the likelihood that witnesses will report crimes and cooperate with investigations. A similar dynamic exists between women and law enforcement.

Law enforcement cannot do its job without the trust and cooperation of the people it serves and protects. Still, the question presents itself: Would a police force that looks more like its community be more effective?

In the 1970s, courts began ordering police departments to institute affirmative-action policies to increase the diversity of their ranks. Researchers have used those court orders, which occurred over many years for many departments, as natural experiments to measure their effectiveness. By comparing trends among departments, it is possible to quantify the impact of court-ordered affirmative action.

It was not obvious that court orders would be effective at increasing race or gender diversity. Departments might have simply defied the orders or, more innocuously, been unable to find qualified Black or female applicants. But the evidence shows that those court orders were effective in leading to an increase in hiring of Black and female officers. And this, in turn, made the police departments more effective.

Requiring police departments to hire more women increased the likelihood that violent crimes against women were reported to police. This was especially true for domestic violence. The higher likelihood of reporting made it easier for police to protect would-be victims: Rates of intimate partner homicide and non-fatal domestic abuse fell as a result of hiring more female officers.

Another set of court orders required police departments to hire more Black officers. Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, researchers found that these orders caused a sudden drop in Black victimization rates. (Black crime victims are consistently less likely to report crimes to police, which means that looking at reported crime rates alone would not tell the full story.) This beneficial effect appears to be due to police officers’ taking the crimes reported by Black victims more seriously.

An additional benefit is that Black crime victims became less likely to cite distrust of police as a reason not to report crime to law enforcement. In other words, the court orders successfully increased trust between Black communities and law enforcement.

There remains the question of how exactly to make police departments more diverse. Many police departments are already working toward this end, and have made progress in recent years. But most struggle to recruit a broader applicant pool — particularly in the current atmosphere. They can’t hire people who don’t apply. How can departments attract more civilians who would make good officers?

A field experiment in Chattanooga, Tenn., found that emphasizing the challenge of the job, or the long-term career prospects of being an officer, were the most effective ways to attract a more diverse set of applicants. In particular, people of color and women who saw the advertisements were four times more likely to apply to become a police officer than those who didn’t. Standard messages related to serving the community were not effective, perhaps because people motivated by public service didn’t need the nudge. So one of the ways to expand the applicant pool may be to change not just the methods of recruitment but the message.

Some police departments are also rethinking their eligibility requirements, including residency restrictions, education requirements and bans on marijuana use. Existing criteria may reduce the diversity of the applicant pool more than they help increase the quality of law enforcement. It is worth reconsidering which requirements are essential and which aren’t.

Police departments across the U.S. face many challenges, and simply hiring more Black and female officers will not address all of them. But research shows that diversity matters. Recruiting and hiring more police officers who look like the people they are sworn to protect and serve would be an important first step toward improving trust and public safety.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jennifer Doleac is an associate professor of economics and director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M University. She is also the host of Probable Causation, a podcast about law, economics and crime.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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