Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Are We There Yet? Perceptive Roles of African American Police Officers in Small Agency Settings

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Are We There Yet? Perceptive Roles of African American Police Officers in Small Agency Settings

Article excerpt


For the most part, scholarship on African American's in the criminal justice system has been focused along two specific approaches: a victim-centered approach or a perpetrator-centered approach. In the first, scholars have explored the ways in which members of the African American community have been either disadvantaged or subordinated by this system (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Carr, Napolitano, & Keating, 2007; Gabbidon, & Higgins, 2009; Gabbidon, Higgins & Potter, 2011; Hagan, Shedd & Payne, 2005; Hurst, Frank & Browning, 2000; Reisig, McCluskey, Mastrofski, & Terrill, 2004; Zhao, Lai, Ren & Lawton, 2011). In the second, and more frequently considered, a focus has been on African Americans as perpetrators of crime and considers whether a special relationship exists between race and criminal behavior (Dixon, 2008; Dixon & Linz, 2000; Entner Wright & Younts, 2009; Fine, Freudenberg, Payne, Perkins, Smith & Wanger, 2003; Fridell, 2008; Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000; Hurwitz & Peffley, 2010; Oliver, 2003; Oliver, Jackson, Moses & Dangerfield, 2004; Welch, 2007). 1

Yet neither of these approaches invites us to consider the participation of African American's as members and full partners in the criminal justice system and its workings, particularly in smaller law enforcement agencies. In each of these approaches African American's are considered as either suspects of criminal behavior or defendants in formal court proceedings, rather than active participants and full partners in the administration, implementation and service delivery of the criminal justice system.

Men and women of color working in the professional ranks of the criminal justice system play an important and pivotal role in the way justice for all is dispensed. How they view themselves and their profession as a part of that process provides insight into the impact that role has on the profession itself. Very little, however, is known of how African American police officers perceive themselves and their situation in police departments today, as opposed to the difficulties they experienced in the past. Consequently, there were two main research objectives to this study. The first was to develop research methodology specific for use with African American police officers. The second main objective was to conduct an investigation to identify the perceptual beliefs of these officers regarding their role in their agency and their role in the community.

Perception plays a key and significant role in social behavior as it constitutes an important part of the police officer's sense of reality, and there has been a substantial interest in the perceptions of law enforcement officers. The subculture of police officers is often characterized by several distinct sets of values and beliefs, with most of the current research in this area focusing on the characteristics and values of a sample set of officers which invariably are majority White. And research on the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of African American police officers has mostly consisted of studies related to their service in large, urban areas (Sun, 2003; Weitzer, Tuch, & Skogan, 2008; Zhao, Lai, Ren & Lovrich, 2011).

According to surveys conducted in 2007, 11.9% of all sworn law enforcement officers nationwide were African American, an estimated 55,267 officers. This same study also found that nearly one half of all agencies employed fewer than 10 officers, and three-fourths of local agencies served fewer than 10,000 residents (Reaves, 2010). This would seem to indicate that the majority of these officers are more likely to be employed in these smaller agencies, notwithstanding their large presence in such places as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

Yet many of these smaller agencies often find themselves at a disadvantage due to the lack of minority officers and females in their force matrices, ft would be reasonable to presume, then, that where their presence was found in these smaller agencies, African American officers were employed in single and double digits, rather than in the hundreds. …

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