The State of American Law Enforcement - The Blue Mosaic

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?

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

"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."


Educated Officers

Whatever their background, newly appointed officers quickly find themselves part of a fraternity, one whose sole criteria for membership is to wear the badge with honor. But within their organizations, they are also increasingly expected to have better interpersonal skills, acquire better knowledge of the law, and have some degree of technological savvy. While not formally written in their job descriptions, they are also expected to become proficient multi-taskers. More than that, they have to be smart.

"Thirty years ago, it was a 'how tough are you' mentality that ruled," notes one lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "If you could kick ass and take names, we wanted you on our team. Today, we want to know if you know how to write. Because if you can't legally justify what you did or didn't do, then you're no good to us."

A 2003 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 18 percent of local law enforcement agencies required new officers to have some education beyond high school, nearly double the requirement from a decade before. Increasingly departments require that officers come into the job with two-year or four-year degrees.

To hedge their bets, many existing officers supplement their expertise through higher education, acquiring various degrees and often on the company dime. And they have plenty of choices as to where to study. More than 1,700 institutions across the nation offer degree programs in criminal justice administration and police science, many of them in Web-based programs. In the 2003-2004 academic year, 452,000 students were enrolled in such programs, and many agencies have implemented their own college programs or entered into joint programs with college institutions.

Nationally, such statistics are heartening. But in some urban areas such as Los Angeles County, only 50 percent of students graduate from local high schools. This makes it hard for some agencies to find educationally qualified personnel, particularly at a time when the state of California has some 10,000 law enforcement vacancies alone.

Lt. Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department notes that sometimes some academic catch-up may be in order. "With all the challenges of recruitment and retention, most agencies do not have the luxury of mandating their candidate pools have master's degrees," states Lt. Parker. "However, Sheriff Lee Baca has built a culture within the Sheriff's Department that rewards and encourages higher education."

Toward this end, the LASD has coordinated with several accredited universities in developing degree programs that allow students to be taught on site; other programs are conducted entirely online. This innovative university partnership affords multilateral benefits for all involved: Students are able to acquire a variety of associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees without lengthy commutes and inflexible schedules. The department attains a better educated demographic within its ranks. And the universities enjoy enrollments they might not have had otherwise.

But an officer's education does not end in the classroom or with the academy. Today's patrol officers are required to attend all manner of training seminars. They are immersed in cultural sensitivity training and gender equity protocol before being sent off for tolerance seminars, verbal judo courses, and tactical exercises. Some even attend investigative courses and training in specialized fields. And on top of all this community policing training has become mandatory for new recruits in more than a third of all local police departments.

How Old is "Old"

With all of these training programs piled atop the conventional aggravations such as street dangers, the judicial system's revolving doors, and family stress it isn't surprising to find many veteran 21st-century officers channeling Tom Petty and screaming: "Let me up! I've had enough!"

"You have to be a doctor, a psychiatrist, a bad guy, and a good guy in one minute," Det. Carl McLaughlin of the New York Police Department told The City Journal.

One cop expressed frustration with the job and people's belief that a cop can just walk away from his or her career. "I love it when I hear people say, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' "They make it sound like it's easy to just jump ship. But once you've got 10 years, you're invested. What else are you going to do?"

As veteran officers who joined the force at age 21 struggle with job burnout and eye early retirement by age 45, departments also struggle to recruit sufficient men and women to maintain adequate staffing. Nationwide recruitment for the period from 2000 to 2004 fell far below the previous four-year period, and even further below the four-year period before then.

As a result, several departments have relaxed their hiring standards to attract a wider array of individuals. Some agencies have been willing to trade educational experience for military experience. Others overlook past minor drug or gang activity in favor of greater life experience.

One significant change in the ranks of law enforcement is the recruitment of older officers who are starting second and maybe even third careers. Across the country, agencies have relaxed maximum age requirements.

Unlike corporate America, law enforcement and firefighting agencies are exempt from certain laws that prevent discrimination based on age. The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), as amended in 1996, allows individual states to enforce maximum age limits for hiring law enforcement recruits.

But not all states or agencies are on board with the notion that an officer's advanced age could hamper his ability to perform the strenuous tasks that are required in law enforcement. New York has a maximum hiring age of 35 years, while California has no maximum age limit at all.

The San Francisco Police Department recently hired a 56-year-old grandfather into its ranks. After working for 36 years for Pacific Gas and Electric, and eight years as a reserve officer, he was eligible to apply for the police department after the department lifted its maximum age requirement.

Similar stories are playing out all across the country.

The ADEA also allows agencies to set mandatory retirement ages within certain guidelines. Which raises the question: When is someone too old to be a cop? The shooting death of a 76-year-old deputy sheriff in Broward County (Fla.), has sparked debates about mandatory age requirements in law enforcement.

Dep. Paul Rein was shot to death with his own gun while he was transporting a prisoner. Although he was reportedly very fit, his murder raises questions about the role of senior citizens working in law enforcement. Several large agencies have officers over the age of 65, but most of them perform duties that are less strenuous and less hazardous than those of younger cops.

Diverse But Unified

So the question remains. Just who wears the badge in 21st-century America?

Statistically, the average cop is likely white, male, with an associate's degree or better, and he is probably on the downhill run toward retirement.

But that description doesn't do justice to what is really happening in our ranks. Men and women of all ancestries, educational backgrounds, and ages are working as officers.

We are everyone and no one individual. The very connotation of the uniform ensures a degree of anonymity for the individual officer, and intrigue and speculation for the public we serve, perhaps, it is as it should be.

As public servants, we exercise authority over the very constituents we serve; a constituency that does not always see us acting in their best interests. Our controversies are played out in clear view of the public eye. Our growth and maturation are charted against society's changing cultural mores.

Beneath the uniform we are as diverse as we are unified. Each and every one of us is a dichotomy: agreeably challenged and disagreeably frustrated. We are laureled, lionized, deified, chastised, castigated, and demoralized—and often for the same thing.

Who we are depends upon how closely you choose to look at us. Like a mural created with hundreds of thousands of mosaic tiles, the ranks of law enforcement officers in this country project an image that is viewed differently by each individual that gazes upon it.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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