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Not Your Father's Police Department: Making Sense of the New Demographics of Law Enforcement


David Alan Sklansky


Stanford University


Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 96, Spring 2006
UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 885446

Abstract:     
Over the past thirty-five years the demographics of American law enforcement have been transformed. The virtually all-white, virtually all-male police departments of the 1950s and 1960s have given way to departments with large numbers of female and minority officers, often led by female or minority chiefs. Openly gay and lesbian officers, too, are increasingly commonplace. This article explores the nature and extent of this transformation, its effects, and its ramifications for how we think about and regulate the police.

The demographic transformation of the police workforce is far from complete, and it has gone further in some departments than in others. On the whole, though, the changes are widespread and dramatic. They could have three kinds of possible effects: competence effects (ways in which minority officers, female officers, and openly gay and lesbian officers may have distinctive sets of abilities), community effects (ways in which the demographic diversity of a police department may affect its relations with the community it serves), and organizational effects (ways in which workforce diversity effect the internal dynamics of the department itself). The third category has received the least attention and is probably the most important. In particular, there is mounting evidence - increasingly commonplace among police ethnographers, but largely unfamiliar to legal academics and the broader public - that the demographic transformation of American law enforcement has done much to break down the police subculture, by weakening both the occupational solidarity and the social insularity of the police. When police departments began adopting affirmative action policies three decades ago, even some police officials sympathetic to the policies worried about factionalism and a decline in esprit de corps. As it has turned out, though, the decline in occupational solidarity is very good news. Police effectiveness does not appear to have suffered, a range of police pathologies have been ameliorated, and police reform has grown easier and less perilous.

I explore four sets of ramifications of the changing demographics of law enforcement. The first set concerns affirmative action. Here law enforcement appears to be a striking success story, but a success story in danger of ending prematurely. The evidence is strong that the demographic transformation of American law enforcement over the past few decades owes much to race-conscious remedies, typically imposed pursuant to consent decree or other court order. There are lessons here for the debate over affirmative action more broadly, and grounds for concern about future progress integrating police departments as court-ordered hiring and promotion plans expire or are rescinded. The second set of implications concerns the debate over litigation as a strategy for social reform. Here, again, the integration of police departments is a noteworthy success story - one that casts doubt on sweeping generalizations about the ineffectiveness of courts in catalyzing social large-scale change. The third set of ramifications concerns police reform. Here the lessons are twofold: continued diversification of law enforcement workplaces deserves more attention as a key component of police reform, and the diversification already accomplished should prompt reconsideration of avenues of reform previously thought too dangerous because of the solidarity and insularity of the police. The fourth and final set of implications concerns criminal procedure. The changing demographics of American law enforcement falls far short of making Warren Court criminal procedure obsolete, but it does justify more careful and nuanced thinking about race, gender, and sexuality dynamics in policing.

There is a story running through this article, about a profound insight ossifying into orthodoxy. The insight was that police behavior is overwhelmingly determined by a homogeneous occupational subculture, a subculture shaped by the nature of the job itself and marked by paranoia, insularity, and intolerance. This became the orthodox view of the police for good reason: it had tremendous explanatory power when it was first developed in the late 1950s, and made even more sense by the end of the 1960s, as the police felt themselves increasingly under siege. Even today, police solidarity and insularity are hardly things of the past. But neither are they what they used to be. In large part because of the demographic transformation of law enforcement, police officers are far less unified today and far less likely to have an us-them view of civilians. But our beliefs about the police have had trouble keeping pace with the changes on the ground. We still tend to believe that police behavior is shaped by a monolithic professional subculture, to which all recruits either assimilate or fall victim. That belief has made it hard for us to see the ways in which policing has changed as police officers themselves have changed - the ways in which the new diversity of police workforces has altered the dynamics of law enforcement.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 36

Keywords: police, diversity, affirmative action, discrimination, race, gender, sexual orientation, criminal procedure

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Date posted: February 22, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Sklansky, David Alan, Not Your Father's Police Department: Making Sense of the New Demographics of Law Enforcement. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 96, Spring 2006; UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 885446. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=885446

Contact Information

David Alan Sklansky (Contact Author)
Stanford University ( email )
Stanford, CA 94305
United States
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