As the political landscape and social conditions of American society have changed, so have the personnel policies and practices of local law enforcement departments and, ultimately, the racial and gender makeup of American police departments. We trace the growing diversity that now exists in American police departments and conclude by offering general, yet pertinent, policy implications to better facilitate public safety and public order in the present-day mosaic of post-9/11, twenty-first century American society.

Introduction: The Functions and Reformations of American Policing

Police have played and will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of American society and the life of American communities. As one of the most visible branches of civil government, police departments are called on to enforce the laws and maintain public safety and public order. However, the guiding philosophy, strategic designs, tactical approaches, and organizational structuring of police departments have changed with the ever expanding notion of American democracy and its more inclusive classification of, and regard for, American citizens, regardless of racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences.

Current attempts to redesign and restructure the police role have been guided by the identification of four dimensions— the philosophical, the strategic, the tactical, and the organizational (Cordner 1999). These dimensions seek to: (1) increase citizen involvement and input, (2) expand the role of law enforcement from one exclusively addressing crime fighting to one that fights crime in the context of enhancing the community welfare, (c) reintroduce more positive interactions and experiences with the public, as well as (d) build and facilitate active partnerships between the police and their constituents.

Consequently, these dimensions have played a key role in the ongoing efforts to compensate for the darker side of American policing, inclusive of the compelling evidence that identifies the old slave patrols as the progenitor and forerunner of contemporary policing (Williams and Murphy 1990; Walker 1977,1980). Moreover, these dimensions have ushered in a more coactive function of local law enforcement by facilitating the partnering or integration of the police with the community in the coproduction of public safety and order. This coactive function blends the more traditional reactive role (responding to calls for service) and proactive functions (police-initiated activities) with community partnering (police and citizens regularly meeting, listening, discussing, planning, and evaluating concerns that relate to public safety, broadly conceived) (Ottemeier and Wycoff 1997; Koven 1992).

However, the success of this coactive function (with its coproduction implications), especially when considering the multiethnic realities of post-9/11 America, is dependent upon more diverse police personnel who are sensitive to the cultures, traditions, and perceptions of others who make up and contribute to the present-day American mosaic (MacDonald 2003; Culver 2004).

The Changing Face and Responsive Nature of American Policing

The face of American policing traditionally has been white and its gender male. Even taking into account the growing racial and gender diversity of full-time sworn personnel in local police departments during the past twenty-five years, this historical description generally holds true today. The most recent national statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics on the gender and racial makeup of full-time sworn personnel in local police departments reveal that of the 440,920 full-time sworn officers, 89.4% were male and 10.6% were female (Hickman and Reeves 2003). In 2000, the estimated 46,569 female officers represented an increase of nearly 60% (or 17,300 officers) from 1990 figures (Hickman and Reeves 2003).

In terms of race and ethnicity, 22.7% of all full-time local police officers in 2000 were minorities. This represented an increase of about 61%, or 38,000 officers, from the 1990 levels. African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and other ethnic groups (that is, Asians, native Hawaiians, American Indians, and Alaska natives) accounted for 11.7%, 8.3%, and 2.7%, respectively, of all local police officers in 2000 (Hickman and Reeves 2003). In terms of numbers, the number of Hispanic or Latino officers represented an increase of 17,600 officers from the 1990 level, while that of African American officers represented an increase of 13,300 (Hickman and Reeves 2003).

Based upon the analysis of Hickman and Reeves (2003), much of the growing diversity in local police departments is taking place in larger police agencies. For example, in local agencies that serve a million or more citizens, women make up 16.5% of all full-time sworn police officers, compared to 15.5% in departments serving a population of 500,000 to 999,999, 14.2% in those serving 250,000 to 499,999, but only 8.2%, 7.0%, and 5.7% in those serving 50,000 to 99,999, 25,000 to 49,999, and 10,000 to 24,999, respectively.

Similarly, employment of blacks (25.2%) in 2000 was highest in those departments serving a population of 500,000 to 999,999, followed by 19.0% and 16.1% in those serving 250,000 to 499,999 and a million or more, respectively. Furthermore, Hispanic or Latino representation at 17.3% in 2000 was highest in those departments serving a population of a million or more, followed by 10.7% and 8.0% in those serving 250,000 to 499,999 and 100,000 to 249,999, respectively (Hickman and Reeves 2003).

These statistics reflect the growing diversity in local police departments; however, they fail to reflect the more responsive nature of local law enforcement to a more diverse American society. The American landscape has changed from the more idealistic analogy of the melting pot into the more realistic view of a salad bowl.

As such, police departments, both large and small, have become more responsive to the changing demands of their more diverse communities of constituents. For example, such police departments as those in Atlanta, metropolitan Washington, D. C., Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Mis-soula, Montana, have implemented and utilized gay and lesbian liaison officers and units to better understand and address the concerns of the gay, lesbian, and trans-gender community.

Similarly, the Chicago Police Department, through its Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) model, like other local police departments has embraced a preventive problem-solving approach (Goldstein 1990) and increased its efforts to overcome various language, cultural, and other barriers to connect with immigrants and other new residents of the community (Skogan et al. 2002). These efforts represent only a small sample of what is being done by local police departments to better learn from, understand, connect with, serve, and protect a more diverse American society.


Egon Bittner has noted that ”the role of the police is best understood as a mechanism for the distribution of nonnegotiable, coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies” (1970, 46). Similarly, MacDonald (2003) acknowledges that the growing ”challenge for police in multiethnic, liberal, democratic societies is to find the correct balance among the public goods at stake. They must enforce the law but also maintain racial and ethnic peace. These goals are incompatible to some extent . . . enforcing the law may disrupt the peace” (p. 233).

Both Bittner (1970) and MacDonald (2003) speak to the need for police to be adept at operating from a dichotomous nature—they must be able to employ coercive force when needed while understanding the very infrequent conditions that warrant such behavior. This is of greater import when considering the coac-tive function of contemporary law enforcement and its efforts to coproduce public safety and public order when coupled with the post-9/11 conditions facing a more multiethnic America.

Considering the perspectives of Bittner, MacDonald, and others, one viable approach to embrace this paradigm is to continue to exert more effort and energy in recruiting and retaining more diverse police officers—officers who are more sensitive toward and have a greater appreciation for diversity. However, for this approach to be most effective, local police departments must continue to tailor their approach to public safety and public order in a fashion that best fits with the changing nature of American society and that facilitates a symbiotic relationship.

Progress in terms of greater representation and enhanced sensitivity to the American mosaic is evident. The personnel policies and practices of local law enforcement departments have changed dramatically since the successful efforts by the American Federation Reform Society to install female ”matrons” in prisons in 1845, the utilization of African Americans as police officers in Washington, D.C., in 1861, and the subsequent hiring of Alice Stebbins Wells, America’s first female police officer, by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1909 (Cox 1996). The more recent hiring practices and personnel policies have been aided by presidential and legislative assistance, including the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice in 1967, the 1972 congressional amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the social and occupational ramifications of World War II and the civil rights movement (Cox 1996).

However, due to the present-day realities of a more heterogeneous, multiethnic, post-9/11 America, local police departments have many miles to go before they can rest. They must continue to seek greater diversity within their ranks and at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. Likewise, they must continue to find ways to better learn from, understand, connect with, and eventually serve the dynamic and ever-changing social landscape of the American mosaic by devising and implementing tailored approaches that foster a more collaborative and coproductive approach to public safety and public order.

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