Cultural Diversity Training in Criminal Justice: A Progressive or Conservative Reform?

Article excerpt

IT IS DISCONCERTING TO FIND ONESELF IN THE MIDST OF A PROGRESSIVE AND CRITICAL movement in criminal justice and to face the possibility that efforts aimed at challenging structures of control will serve to strengthen them instead. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the current movement to develop cultural diversity awareness training for police officers and other criminal justice personnel is already showing signs of supporting rather than transforming the status quo. After all, our own research locates all major criminal justice innovations in the United States (e.g., public police, institutionalization, community-based corrections) within the context of social structures of accumulation and efforts by the capitalist state to control problem populations (Barlow, Barlow, and Chiricos, 1993). Still, dramatic and tragic incidents have drawn public attention to the racist nature of U.S. law enforcement and have created a window of opportunity for efforts to bring multicultural education to police officers. It seems like the right thing to do.

At the same time, participants in the current movement to develop cultural diversity training for police officers will do well to heed the counsel of history and look critically at the impetus for the movement as well as its outcomes. In this article, we describe the cultural diversity training movement as arising out of a growing sense of urgency regarding the tensions in police-minority relations; we discuss our own observations from having been intimately involved in this movement at the local, state, and national levels during the past four years;(1) finally, these observations are located within a broader historical perspective on criminal justice innovations in the United States.

The Movement

Cultural diversity, cultural sensitivity, or race relations training are a central component of many recent proposals for reform in the area of police-community relations.(2) Police departments and training bureaus across the nation are developing cultural diversity awareness training programs with conspicuous urgency, often in response to grievous incidents in interactions between police and racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities. The videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers is certainly among the most dramatic and tragic of such incidents. The Christopher Commission -- appointed to investigate police-community relations in Los Angeles County in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and videotaping, the acquittal of the accused officers, and the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles -- strongly recommended increasing efforts in cultural sensitivity training for Los Angeles police officers (Christopher Commission, 1992).

Little more than a decade earlier, events remarkably similar to those in Los Angeles in 1992 transpired around the police beating of another African-American man, Arthur McDuffie, in Miami.(3) The Liberty City riot, which ensued following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Arthur McDuffie to death, was "more violent and destructive than any of the American urban disorders of the 1960s" and, like the recent Los Angeles riots, became the impetus for efforts to improve relations between police and minorities (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993: 182). A central component of these efforts, according to Deputy Director Eduardo Gonzalez of the Metro-Dade Police Department, has been the development of "Humanity and Community Relations" training in the Miami-Dade County area (Gonzalez, 1992).

In the period between Arthur McDuffie in Miami and Rodney King in Los Angeles, police-minority relations across the nation have been characterized by tensions that typically remain just below the surface until something happens to bring them to the forefront of community and, at times, national concern. The growing movement to develop cultural diversity awareness training for police officers reflects a recognition among law enforcement administrators and experts that the situation is becoming untenable. …