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

Article excerpt


Several decades ago, when social scientists were discovering the police, and the Supreme Court was beginning to construct the modern law of criminal procedure, American law enforcement was structured roughly the same way it is today. Policing was largely a local responsibility. Departments were organized hierarchically and quasi-militarily. Line officers exercised wide discretion. Patrol and detective functions were separated, and most officers were assigned to patrol. Detectives, like supervisors, started out as patrol officers and were promoted from within. The critical operational unit was the squad: a handful of line officers supervised by a sergeant, or in the case of detectives, by a lieutenant. Officers generally began police work when young and made it their career. All of this remains true today. "As a legal and organizational entity," David Garland is right to observe, "the public police look much the same today as they did thirty years ago." (1)

In other respects, though, American policing has been transformed. Three changes are particularly notable. First, the mantra of community policing has replaced the orthodoxy of police professionalism. Second, civilian oversight, once resisted tooth-and-nail by the police, has become unexceptionable. Third, and most striking of all, police workforces have grown much more diverse. The virtually all-white, virtually all-male 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. Today's Los Angeles Police Department is not the homogeneous workplace celebrated on Dragnet--and neither is the police force of any other large American city.

This article focuses on the last of these changes, the dramatic shift in the demographics of police departments--in who the police are. What implications should this transformation have for how we think about and regulate the police? The same question can, and should, be asked about community policing and civilian oversight. But workforce diversity is at once the most dramatic and the least scrutinized major change that American policing has undergone over the past several decades. There is a widespread sense that the change has been revolutionary, (2) but it is hard to know quite what to make of it. So often the change is simply ignored. Law enforcement is analyzed as though it were still monolithically white, male, and straight. (3) The Dragnet picture of American law enforcement continues to lurk, in particular, in the background of most criminal procedure scholarship---even when that scholarship pays careful attention to the race, gender, and sexual orientation of the people being policed.

Those scholars who have not ignored the new demographics of American policing have tended to reach one of two polar conclusions about their implications. Either the growing diversity of American police forces changes almost nothing, or it changes almost everything. Usually the new demographics are treated as cosmetic or, at best, largely symbolic. The nature of policing, the argument goes, is overwhelmingly a matter of occupational outlook and organizational culture, not of the personal characteristics of new recruits. "Blue is blue": the job shapes the officer, not the other way around. (4) Officers of all backgrounds are assumed either to make peace with the "white, masculine, heterosexual ethos" (5) of policing, or to have difficulty lasting. At the other extreme, the growing diversity of American police forces is sometimes cited as grounds for a complete rethinking of criminal procedure and, more generally, our entire approach to law enforcement. Here the line of thinking is that the integration of police forces, coupled with the increased political power of minority groups, has made the restrictions the Supreme Court placed on law enforcement in the 1960s obsolete. …