Building Community Trust Through an Inclusive Police Workforce
During the years leading up to 2020, the policing profession has faced many challenges attracting talent and retaining experience, particularly among sworn officers. A robust national economy, as evidenced by exceptionally low unemployment, had been one contributing factor to diminished applicant interest in the police profession. In 2017 and 2019, both the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) characterized police recruiting and staffing as in “crisis.”
The current situation with COVID-19 further complicates existing challenges for police recruiting. With today’s police reform initiatives and social justice demands, recruiting and retention face an unprecedented “perfect storm” of staffing challenges together with historic opportunities for diversification and inclusion.
U.S. public confidence in police is at a near 30 year low, according to an August 2020 Gallup poll. Public opinion varies by locale, ethnicity, and gender. Two of the most prominent of the Peelian Principles of policing states that “the police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect” and “the degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force.” Today, the term “legitimacy” is often used to describe community confidence in their police. Legitimacy is also linked to public trust in the police services a community receives. The 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing prominently positioned “building trust and legitimacy” as the first focused topic area or “pillar” for recommended action. The President’s Task Force, together with several studies and reports in the U.S. and other democratic societies, point to police workforce diversity as an important element in building community trust and legitimacy.
In the U.S., women began entering criminal justice professions in the 19th century out of the growing recognition of society’s special needs to best serve women and juveniles. Women were hired, first as matrons then, in the 1890s, Chicago appointed Marie Owens as one of America’s first women sworn police officers to meet the needs for investigating and enforcing new child labor laws, truancy, and addressing increased presence of domestic violence as a result of industrial age urbanization. Police departments in San Francisco (CA), Portland (OR), and elsewhere followed in response to the effectiveness demonstrated by the progressive gender diversity in police service. Over 130 years later police workforce diversity remains an elusive, essential element of police reform. Today, American society has a much richer understanding of diverse communities coupled with an expectation that police service must justly serve their communities.
Barriers to Police Diversity Impede Community Trust
Addressing barriers to careers in the police profession enables police departments to develop and retain workforces reflective of the communities they serve. There are many barriers – internal and external – to careers in police professions. Similarly, there are internal and external stresses on retaining police officer diversity in the workforce. Police and community leaders must better recognize, address, and overcome, to the fullest extent possible, internal and external challenges to inclusive recruiting, hiring, and retention, without compromising high job-related standards and qualifications. Overcoming the recruiting, hiring, and retention challenges is ever more important as retirement-eligible officers of all ranks are leaving the profession. Also, agencies should expect greater job migration across the police profession and jurisdictions.
Attracting diverse young people requires different outreach approaches that connect with a diverse pool of prospective applicants with the wide range of police specialization. Police careers in the 21st century offer many technical tracks that, if effectively publicized, can resonate with every aspect of the diverse communities served. Successfully diverse police departments and agencies use an array of marketing materials depicting various aspects of policing, designed for target audiences as well as reaching out through various social media sources and in-person recruiting sessions with targeted groups. Effective recruiting today requires well developed strategic planning, inclusive leadership, and nontraditional execution. However, one of the greatest barriers police leaders and recruiters must overcome is the growingly negative public perception of policing. Inclusion and leadership are powerful countermeasures to negative perception through building legitimacy and trust.
Challenges in police staffing present opportunities for reform strategies that bring police services more closely connected with their communities of service.
Guardian Versus Warrior Policing
The public and many people within the police profession view law enforcement through an enforcement or warrior lens. For decades, police have been characterized as the front line on the “war on crime” and “war on drugs,” as well as the domestic front of the “global war on terrorism.” The entertainment industry has helped feed this warrior narrative with substantial help from “Dirty Harry” movies. The term “first responder” even downplays crime prevention and community partnership. The dichotomy between warrior versus guardian models of policing is still debated, principally in context of use of force issues. However, these distinctions are also relevant to attracting and retaining workforce diversity. Although both models have a place if prudently applied in relevant police situations. The predominance of one over the other, as a reflection of departmental culture and doctrine, impacts officer performance, workplace conditions, and the types of people serving within the department. This then directly impacts community trust and police legitimacy.
Assistant professor Kyle McLean of Florida State University describes the warrior mindset as traditional police methods of searching for, chasing down, and apprehending criminals. The guardian police mindset, however, ascribes to the public service community engagement, crime prevention, and public assistance as priorities. Recruiting materials that reflect high-risk enforcement action is one example of attracting warrior-model officers, which inherently emphasizes male-dominated aspects of policing. It also implicitly creates barriers across wide-ranging, underrepresented groups who may otherwise consider careers in a public safety policing profession. The reality of police service is that very little patrol and investigative time is spent on high-risk, dynamic action.
Police training, often designed on military training models, further reenforces a crime fighter model. Officer survival skills taught in training are critical. As John Steinbeck is often quoted in police training, “the final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental,” police agencies need to recruit, training, develop, and promote officers who demonstrate sound judgement, excellent situational awareness, critical decision-making abilities, and effective public interaction. Studies cited in an April 2020 article in Police Chief Magazine found that women and officers of color reported opportunities to be role models as their motivation to pursue a police career. Effective recruiting, training, and development, coupled with a supportive culture, prepares a diverse officer workforce to apply the most effective policing model (and mindset) to any situation and master the self-control needed to defuse and resolve tense situations while optimizing public trust.
Negative Public Perception – An Obstacle to Police Diversity
Negative public perception of police poses internal and external barriers within applicant pools – perceptions may vary depending on applicants’ demographics, education, socioeconomic situation, and experience. Police agencies must work to clearly understand public perceptions among different groups and neighborhoods within their jurisdiction. An October 2020 survey in Maryland reveals a predictably wide gap between Black and White residents with nearly twice as many Blacks reporting an “unfavorable” view of police. As an example, Maryland police agencies must focus on overcoming this unfavorable view by changing external messaging, changing internal policies and procedures, and addressing diverse community’s perceptions with demonstrated performance on a community-by-community basis. Progress and achievements in police services must be widely publicized – internally and externally – within the ranks as well as throughout the communities. For the prospective applicants from communities holding “unfavorable” views of police, it is much harder to pursue career aspirations in police service when faced with ridicule from friends and family.
Negative perceptions are not limited to racial or cultural characteristics. The police profession continues to be viewed as a male-dominated career field. Gender inclusion, like other groups, is vital to aligning police values and vision with those of communities. According to the Pew Research Center, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in sworn police positions. In 2013, women comprised only 12% of sworn police workforce, while making up 51% of the U.S. adult population. Women face many barriers to police professions, although these barriers are fewer and more subtle than in the past.
In 2016, New Jersey Police Training Commission (NJPTC) changed the Basic Law Enforcement Course Physical Conditioning Testing Procedures that resulted in a significantly higher failure rate among women than men. The previous physical conditioning testing standard produced a 2-4% failure rate for women and a less than 1% failure rate for men. The 2016 new standard increased the gender gap 13 times of women trainees failing the test compared with male trainees. Under the 2016 standards, the NJPTC instituted a series of nine tries for a trainee to pass the physical conditioning test during their first few weeks of a five-month basic police training curriculum. Trainees that failed to meet the test parameters on their ninth try were dropped from the academy class. As reported by USA Today, in an article by Asbury Park Press, women trainees failed NJPTC’s physical conditioning testing standards at a rate of 31% in 2017 and 27% in 2018, while their male counterparts remained in the low single percentile. Barriers, like those imposed in New Jersey, deny police agencies access to diverse candidates. Physical fitness standards for police vary considerably by jurisdiction. Enhancing physical conditioning programs and trainee evaluation by ensuring direct nexus to job task analysis, while allowing for gender and age variances, coupled with ample structured conditioning time in training has proven effective in removing barriers. Federal agencies, many states, and the military apply data supported variations in standards to account for gender and age while testing at the end of basic training – after trainees are provided structured physical conditioning during training.
Calls for increasing female representation alone in sworn ranks of police agencies can lead to counterproductive tokenism. As part of Los Angeles reform strategies after the Rodney King incident, City Council called for Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to achieve over 40% women in sworn rank. Today, LAPD is slightly above the national average, with about 18% women serving in police officer ranks. Targeted hiring and career advancement for the expressed purpose of making change, singles out the targeted group, even gender, creating a special class within the academy sessions and in the department. It produces an unfair culture with unrealistic and disparate expectations. Singling out a certain group or groups is counterproductive if not coupled with whole-of-department transformation strategy to a sustained culture of inclusion.
In terms of promotions and advancement, the special interest “escalator” can create different, but real, problems than the “glass ceiling.” Promotions that lack trust of process fairness and qualification relevance deny the person promoted a fair opportunity at legitimacy of rank or specialty that is also counterproductive. This form of “targeted balancing” generates higher turnover within the very groups that are essential to creating diversity and contributes to fostering further distrust within broader communities. Gender mainstreaming, a process of assessing implications for women and men, integrates understanding of each group’s experiences and concerns holistically throughout the organization’s structure, hierarchy, operations, and societal dimensions. Mainstreaming is globally proven as an effective approach to achieving sustainable gender equality.
Police Work-Life Balance
Balancing police work with family and daily life poses special challenges for workforce diversity. Police service is a stressful occupation. Dr. Ellen Scrivner, former deputy superintendent for administration at Chicago Police Department observed that the police officer may witness more human tragedy in a few years of their career than the average citizen experiences in a lifetime. Those experiences, coupled with the dynamic demands of the job, pose a strain on police families as well. Policing is particularly challenging for women to navigate work-life balance. Additionally, in the modern family structure, police careers pose challenges for single parents and families in which both parents work. Balancing family with work is a higher priority with upcoming officers today than in was the past.
Shift work, unpredictable hours and job-related stresses pose universal barriers to the profession with varying impact by group. In a July 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ), one police department reported a number of innovative accommodations to address officers’ child care needs. Although family balance accommodations greatly assist women officers, the department noted that an increasing number of male officers are taking advantage of family services, including the departments child care assistance. Officers caring for elderly and special needs family members face similar challenges with their career balance.
Police Recruiting & Officer Development – Meeting Community Needs
All police departments and law enforcement agencies draw men and women from American communities and – once selected, trained, and hired – the workforce continues to be a part of the communities. While the workforce may reside outside of the actual agency jurisdiction, these men and women spend their work hours as a part of the jurisdictional community. Effective policing also requires the trust and vigorous support of the community to prevent and report suspected criminality. Very few criminal investigations are closed solely on forensic scientific evidence. Citizen support is essential.
Out of the escalating policing challenges in the 21st century, police departments are afforded unprecedented motivation to change the organizational culture and workforce to rebuild community trust. Providing career opportunities that attract an inclusive applicant pool include mainstreaming police workforce diversity, effectively attracting community representation, building a guardian spirit of service, while retaining important officer survival skills.
This article is Part 2 of a four-part series on New Age of Police Reform. The next part will review prominent trends in police accountability, procedural justice, and use of force:
Podcast – Law Enforcement’s Perfect Storm 2020
Part 1 – Introduction to the New Age of Police Reform
Part 2 – Building Community Trust Through an Inclusive Police Workforce
Part 3 – Police Accountability & Oversight: Redundancies & Opportunities
Part 4 – National Police Reform: Intergovernmental Friction & Cohesion