Racial representation that reflects the diversity of a community is a key ingredient in improving relations between police and the communities they serve. This was one of the key recommendations in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released in 2015.
The rationale is simple: Officers whose demographic characteristics reflect the communities in which they serve are more likely to have an interest in promoting equity, and to understand the racial perspectives and dynamics, within those communities. But does a racially representative force actually lead to better policing outcomes?
In a review of James Forman Jr.’s “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” Devon Carbado and L. Song Richardson highlight a surprising finding: Over-policing in black neighborhoods implicates not only white officers, but black officers as well. Due to racial anxiety induced by their white peers, black officers “may experience stronger incentives” than their white counterparts to over-police and employ violence in order to avoid looking “soft” on crime.
Thus, while diversifying the racial makeup of our police forces is a critical dimension of reform, it is not the only step we need to take. In addition to creating departments that are more racially reflective of the communities they serve, we need to properly conceptualize what a truly “reflective” police force should look like.
It may be the case that, when it comes to policing outcomes, fair geographic representation is just as important as fair racial representation.
It is no secret that police forces across the nation are predominantly white. Using Department of Justice survey data, one study found that this is the case even in majority black jurisdictions. Given this reality, some departments have doubled down on efforts to reform their recruitment practices so that their officers are more racially representative of the communities they serve.
While improving racial representation in our police forces is an important goal, we must also consider whether problems will persist if we designate race as the only necessary consideration when creating a force that reflects community demographics.
One element frequently neglected by departments that hire minority officers is residency.
Officers from outside jurisdictions — regardless of whether their race matches that of those they are sworn to protect — may not have a vested interest in policing equitably. On the other hand, recruits of any race who live inside the jurisdiction of a given department have an immediate connection in the communities they serve, which may help offset the pressure to over-police that some black officers experience.
Racial and geographic disparities in officer hiring are inextricably linked, meaning that solving one disparity could exacerbate the other. For instance, it may be the case that trying to recruit from a wider pool of racially underrepresented populations could result in the hiring of more recruits from areas outside a given department’s jurisdiction.
Departments thus need to be cognizant of both elements simultaneously. In other words, if the goal is to create not only a more representative police force, but a more effective one, departments need to consider race along with place of residence when recruiting new officers.
We should ensure that the individuals joining the police force have a stake in promoting equity and understand the communities within which they work, something that is not necessarily the case if race is the only factor considered.
The locales from which officers are hired represent a critical dimension that departments need to consider in the recruitment reform process. Otherwise, we may see “racially reflective” police forces that continue or exacerbate the problems we already have.
Abdul Rad is an associate fellow with the R Street Institute. Arthur Rizer, a former police officer and Department of Justice prosecutor, and a retired U.S. Army officer, is the Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at R Street. They welcome comments from readers.