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The State of American Law Enforcement - The Blue Mosaic

Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

February 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

"Training Day" and Rafael Perez aside, the law enforcement community in the United States enjoys a high degree of credibility with the public it serves. In fact, the public's trust in law enforcement has actually improved over the span of the past three decades, dipping somewhat during the Rodney King era and reaching a favorable spike after 9/11.

Studies show that citizens not only view us as being more honest and ethical than they did 30 years ago, but also more capable of protecting them against acts of violence. No doubt, the profession has benefited from two decades of the TV show "C.O.P.S." as well as a growing recognition—even in the eyes of many of our detractors—of just how untenable law enforcement work can be. It is this reality that partially accounts for ours being one of the 10 most prestigious professions. Other professionals may earn higher salaries, but our dedicated public service puts law officers perennially within reach of firefighters and nurses among the nation's most admired occupations.

Unfortunately, many of the same factors that promote favorable impressions of our community are the very things that exact a toll on us individually. The slings and arrows we absorb, while provoking begrudging admiration for our ability to endure them, nonetheless hurt. And our willingness to go toward those dangers from which others flee still puts us in harm's way. In other words, we have a really tough job.

Which begs the question who becomes a cop? Who are the men and women that comprise the ranks of a profession where they can be killed for no reason other than the fact that they are cops? What changes in our makeup have we seen over the past decades? How do we view ourselves? And how are we judged by the public that we serve today?

Who We Are

The drives that find individuals becoming police officers are varied, differently weighted, and sometime wholly unique to that individual. They run the gamut from childhood dreams, to reformist fantasies, to following a parent's footsteps.

Studies from the 1960s and 1970s revealed that when asked why they became cops, two-thirds of that era's police officers cited pay and job security as primary motivators. Other studies suggested that applicants were apt to decide on policing only after a series of vocational missteps. In contrast, today's cops are more likely to speak of a desire to do good or to help their fellow man.

Law enforcement has always appealed to mercenaries and altruists alike. And that's just as true today, maybe even more so. Those who gravitate toward law enforcement today are increasingly diverse. So, too, are their motivations. And observation would suggest that it isn't always the salary that pushes them toward the application line, particularly at a time when 25 percent of police and sheriff patrol officers put their lives on the line for less than $36,000 per year.

So just who wears the badge in 21st-century America? Let's take a hard look

Police Women

For decades, the military provided the largest pool of security-vetted law enforcement candidates. Veteran hiring practices were a win-win for the agency and the candidate. The military veteran found a comfortable niche in the paramilitary culture of law enforcement, and the profession acquired someone of presumed maturity.

Another pool that accounted for a large influx of officers was the gene pool, with many regional agencies attracting successions of family lines, such as in Boston and New York City.

For these reasons and because of institutional racism and society's belief in traditional gender roles, cops in this country have always been primarily white males. But over the past 30 years that has been changing.

The most recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics say there are considerably more than 730,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States and that they work for some 17,800 state and local law enforcement agencies. Most agencies employ fewer than 100 officers. However, two-third of American officers work for agencies that do employ 100 or more officers, but account for nearly two-thirds of all sworn personnel in the nation. Thus, the policies and practices of larger agencies have a significant effect on the demographics of officers across the nation. Not the least of these policies relates to the recruitment of women and minorities.

That women today comprise nearly 12 percent (according to some surveys) of all sworn personnel is noteworthy, given that women constituted a mere two percent of the police population during the 1970s, a time when they were largely relegated to the sidelines and worked "specialized" assignments such as juvenile investigations and enforcement. Interestingly, even when women officers were viewed as "secretaries with a badge," they were ensured parity in pay within the same rank. Of course, attitudes of the day made it extremely difficult for female officers to rise in rank.

Today, the female officer is much more visible. She works patrol, major crime investigations, even SWAT. And it's virtually guaranteed that, going forward, the percentage of females in law enforcement will increase. After all, despite annual increases in the number of female officers, the percentage of women in law enforcement doesn't come close to proportional representation for a gender that constitutes 51 percent of the general population. This reality has given impetus for some larger agencies to make a strong push toward the goal of attaining 25 percent female representation in the ranks.

People of Color

The other big demographic change in American law enforcement is the rising percentage of racial and ethnic minorities among the police population.

In the last few years, the ranks of Hispanic officers have increased greatly. Some agencies—the Los Angeles Police Department and the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department, to name two—have seen a 50-percent increase in the number of Hispanic officers.

Unfortunately, African Americans have been harder to recruit. The LAPD recently conducted a survey which revealed that matriarchal bias among some African-American women led them to actively discourage their sons and loved ones from joining the force. Much of this prejudice was attributed to past abuses they'd witnessed at the hands of police personnel. Worse, black officers often find themselves castigated and accused of having "sold out" and "working for the man."

And racism is still part of our culture. Which means that some black officers face race baiting on the job and ostracism in their own families and communities. So it's little wonder that recruiters at big agencies are still searching for a magic bullet that will help them recruit African-American officers.

Some agencies are even required by federal mandate to hire more African-American officers. And that can give rise to a belief among white officers that they are being discriminated against. Where one stands on this matter is largely a case of whose ox is taking it in the shorts.


The widespread belief that women and minority officers are favored for promotion has triggered hostility in some white male cops. This hostility has manifested in the placement of pornographic images and unflattering crime teletypes involving women officers where other female officers would find them and the scribbling of racist epithets in men's room stalls and on the lockers of minority employees.

Reprisals and retaliations for past sins of discrimination have also been meted out when some of those impacted by such acts ascended to power. A former Milwaukee police chief repeatedly and intentionally bypassed 17 white male officers for promotions in favor of less qualified candidates; another official fired a white female Dayton police major to effect "retroactive forced diversity."

Thankfully, such episodes occur with diminishing frequency as more and more people entering the profession bring with them decidedly different values and principles and others come to recognize the futility of such folly.

But finding a niche where one feels comfortable can still be a challenge. When segments of similarly disposed people congregate, their cache in numbers provides them with exponentially greater political and social clout. It follows that many local, regional, and national police associations have sprung up across the country predicated upon race, gender, religious beliefs, or some other common interest.

While there are still flashpoints and the collective sins of our past are relatively fresh in our memory, it is equally undeniable that men and women of all backgrounds have proven their worth to the law enforcement community and work together better today than ever. If there are issues, they are less individually based than systemically founded.

For the vast majority of officers, the color and cut that trumps all others is that of the uniform, and officers can be relied upon to back up one another and assist as necessary.

Openly Gay

Once collectively in the closet, gay and lesbian officers are increasingly accepted among our ranks. They are visibly participant in any number of civic events throughout the country, and they are actively recruited by police agencies, particularly those that have large LGBT constituencies.

The Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) puts its New York City police officer membership at 800. Still, advocates say that gay male officers are more likely to come out than lesbian officers because women already feel gender-related pressure within the profession.

One incident speaks volumes as to how far we've come. With the news that his partner was coming out of the closet, one officer simply said, "I know he's gay, but I don't give a damn. He's my partner and I love him—and anyone that don't like it can kiss my redneck ass."

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