Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Being Black, or Being a Cop: The Problem of Race in American Law Enforcement (1)

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Being Black, or Being a Cop: The Problem of Race in American Law Enforcement (1)

Article excerpt


Police misconduct dates back three centuries (Skolnick, 1966; Niederhoffer, 1967). According to Johnson (2001) and Johnson and Cox (2004/2005), over several decades, various structural, organizational and socio-professional methods have been applied to change American police practices and procedures in an attempt to eliminate misconduct. These attempts have been founded in the (mistaken) belief that police misconduct is the result of a few officers gone "rogue" (Johnson, 2001; Johnson & Cox, 2004/2005).

The work of Klockars et. al. (1997, 2000, 2004, 2005) was one of the first to espouse the idea that police misconduct has "organizational implications." Following the lead of Klockars, Johnson's (2001) affirms that the organizational subculture influences the behavior of its police officers. Johnson's investigation uncovered that the institutional influence begins during basic training. Johnson and Cox (2004/2005) advanced the earlier findings, noting that living up to the expectations of society as "protectors" places the profession in the ethical dilemma of doing what is necessary for achieving the goals set for the common good of the community (see Bok, 1999; Johnson, 2005b). The negative side of the cohesiveness and "solidarity implied by "thin blue line" (Bolton, 2003; Title, 1995) is an attitude which tolerates and potentially even encourages misconduct.

Although Klockars, et. al. (2000) and Johnson (2001) have researched this seemingly important finding, no real consideration for other factors such as race, were explored in those works. Research has suggested that the uncertain relationship between black officers and their departments leaves them feeling as though they are second-class citizens and "outsiders in their own departments" (Title, 1995; Sun, 2003). These examinations reveal that some black officers reject the culture and subculture of policing (Sun, 2003). Yet, little if any research has demonstrated that the behavior of black officers is significantly different than those of their brethren. While some of the literature on black police issues examines the attitudes of black officers and their relationship to their organization (Sun, 2003) that research does not explore how black officers view the deviant behavior of fellow officers. The few empirical studies that focus on deviance by law enforcement consider race as a coincidental factor (Hickman, et. al. 2001). The question is, are black officers, despite the organizational biases they confront within the profession, nonetheless, subject to the same pressures and expectations to act "beyond" the law as their white counterparts? There is as yet insufficient empirical data on this subject. The goal of this paper is to explore the organizational and socio-political influences on the black officer that potentially could push the black officer to succumb to the negative pressure to act unethically as well as the pressures that potentially help the black officer resist such influences.

To achieve this latter goal this work is divided into four sections. The first looks at the historical relationship between blacks and law enforcement. The second explores the organizational culture and how it may affect behaviors between the two groups. The third initiative explores if there are personality differences among black and white officers. Finally the issue of diversity and misconduct is examined.

Blacks And Law Enforcement

Johnson (2000) argues that the American cultural perspective that asserts white superiority can be traced back to formative years of the United States. Although the Founding Fathers worked hard to ensure "freedom, liberty and justice for all," these virtues were tacitly (and often explicitly) reserved for whites. Several landmark court cases support this theme. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 US 393 (1856) affirmed the unspoken belief that blacks were second-class citizens. The Taney Court ruled since the black is inferior to the white, therefore, they did not need to be afforded black equal rights (Yoder, 1995). …

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