Opinion: Diversity issues in law enforcement

Today the police say, “Did that capture your attention?” This line captivates the minds of many Americans; the ability to know what police are doing and how they are doing it. At some point or another, all of us have seen the TV series COPS or Live PD. Some key points that should be examined by any community are the diversity of our policing institutions and how they interact with diversity in their communities.

Diversity Within Policing

They work for us; they work for me. But who are they? They are an institution made up of predominantly Caucasian and male officers. However, as we can see in the last Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement report from 2016, several agencies are making efforts to hire outside of their typical candidates. Colorado’s State Patrol, for example, is now allowing immigrants to protect and serve its citizens as long as they have documentation—but they are not required to be US citizens. Similarly, the Burlington Police Department in Vermont also allows both residents and immigrants to serve its citizens. Agencies are also utilizing community interests for the retention of officers who are people of color or females within the male dominated workforce. One example of this closer to home is the Lexington Police Department which is approximately 35 minutes north of EKU. They utilize internal diversity committees to assist administrators’ understanding of the complex relationship between police and a diverse population, mostly utilizing community or business membership on those committees.

The simple fact prevailing is that strained public-police relationships and lack of legitimacy of our institutions of criminal justice are lowering the number of applicants to police departments. Researchers believe this same reputation of strained relations is keeping our police from becoming diversified like the communities they serve. A great example would be the lack of LGBTQ+ applicants in policing, as this social minority reaches across races. According to research conducted by UCLA’s Williams Center, LGBTQ+ individuals are six times more likely to be stopped by police. The research also found that one in four LGBTQ+ citizens stated they would not call the police for assistance in an emergency.

Those who typically have negative experiences in policing do not want to be a member of the police force. Women are often stigmatized by their male counterparts outside of just policing, but policing is a male dominated career which discourages female applicants. Similarly, for people of color the police as an institution has never had more than subpar relationships with their communities, resulting in less applicants being people of color. 

Policing Diversity

What are they doing to help us? This is a frequent question and issue within communities with prevailing diversity.  In 1990, Hubert Williams and Patrick Murphy explained that lack of police relationships with underrepresented communities promoted this infuriation with the policing machine. Their work, called The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View, was published and is currently maintained by the National Institute of Justice. Williams and Murphy point out that this debate has been raging throughout many years of our society.  

In modern times, there has been an emergence of specific policing units and other federal protections implemented into departments. ­Back to the 2016 Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement report, many departments reported they utilize what are called Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), grants which provide requirements specifically relating to nondiscriminatory practices. 

These grants provide for increased data collection, enforcement of federal regulations prohibiting bias-based profiling (including sexual orientation, race and gender identity) and supporting the End Racial Profiling Act of 2020. According to the Williams Institute, approximately 13,000 of our nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies are funded through COPS grants which require nondiscriminatory practices or else agencies are terminated from funding. While it seems like an accomplishment, there are still about 5,000 agencies that are not utilizing these grants and likely have lesser standards of accountability.

What about Kentucky? We can see from both the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) and the Lexington Police Department that efforts are being made to address their underserved communities. According to the LMPD Command website, their Community Policing Unit has gone as far as employing liaisons for respective communities. On the website, they highlight their LGBTQ+ Community Liaison where the appointed officer’s team specifically coordinates LGBTQ+ Citizens Police Academies and addresses community issues between Louisville’s LGBTQ+ population and their officers. The end goal is building trust with police. Similarly, in Lexington they have formed a Police Community Services Unit which is designed to provide both information and programs to their community. If you live in Lexington, I encourage you to check out some of their events which are listed on social media and their website. Although not as specific as LMPD, they do have community and youth programs directed to target underserved residents. Both of these departments are attempting to address issues of equity at first encounters with the criminal justice system. After all, something is better than nothing—right?

Moving Forward

Police departments are at least attempting to make a conscious effort to serve their underrepresented populations; however, is it enough? That should depend on your personal perspective or experiences with the justice system. Although we have a community services unit in Louisville, and we attempt to expand police services, we must always keep in mind that bad policing does exist and often comes with grave consequences. We saw bad policing emerge within Kentucky resulting in the tragic and wrongful death of Breonna Taylor in March of 2020.

How do we prevent bad policing? The answer is to vote and be an advocate of community change. The mayor, your city council and even business owners all have a say in who becomes the chief of a city police department. Even better, you can play a tremendous role in your local sheriff’s election. 

A sheriff serves as a chief law enforcement of a county, and in almost all states happens to be directly elected from the population of their county. That said, your vote determines the future of how your hometown will respond to social changes. Take the time to engage in activism because it could save lives in the end.

Nicholas Glover is a junior criminal justice major at EKU.

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