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Police Diversity and the Limitations Thereof

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Yesterday, researchers published a study in Science that examines how Chicago police officers’ racial & gender identities might influence how they engage with Black & Latinx citizens.

It’s already generating a lot of buzz, and it’s worth saying a few words about it. (Note: this is a very slightly modified version of a tweet thread I did yesterday afternoon, so I apologize if LGM community members are seeing this twice.)

The core question that the researchers are exploring is whether or not diversifying police forces — hiring more officers of color and hiring more women and making it a job less dominated by white men — has a meaningful impact on the frequency with which officers stop, arrest, and use force against citizens of color. (Sidebar: the research only extends to officers and citizens who self-identify as Black, Latinx, or white. This is perhaps a conversation for another day, but this itself is its own limitation given Chicagoland’s large populations of Indigenous people (65,000+), Arabs and Arab-Americans (150,000+), and Asians and Asian-Americans (160,000+), all of whom face varying forms and degrees of discriminatory policing, surveillance, and punishment.)

Researchers built a truly impressive data set of police officers’ behavior and engagements with citizens between 2012 and 2015, and to summarize their takeaway: the study clearly shows that Black officers especially, and Latinx and women officers to a lesser extent, are much less likely to stop, arrest, and use force against Black citizens for minor offenses than are white male cops. (There was little variance amongst officers when they were responding to reported violence.)

The implication is, thus, that diversifying the police will make them less harmful to the people that police generally harm the most in a city like Chicago.

The fact that officers of color and women are less likely to harmfully engage citizens of color overall is undeniably a net positive. Anything that reduces the amount of contact folks have with police is a good thing!

However, this is, at the end of the day, still examining what policing looks like from an individualized rather than a structural perspective. It’s a “bad apples” analysis on steroids, channeled through particular racial and gendered lenses.

The researchers’ data does suggest that greater officer diversity would reduce the amount of unwanted contact people of color have with police. But their own data also shows that racist policing is absolutely, stubbornly structural! They just don’t comment on that.

There’s an uncomfortable truth that’s buried in the study: while Black, Latinx, and female cops stop, arrest, and use force against Black & Latinx citizens less frequently than their white counterparts do, those same cops (the ones who aren’t white men) are still much more likely to stop, arrest and use force against Black and Latinx citizens that they are to do those things to white people.

Taking the diversification argument to its logical conclusion: You could fire every last white man who works for the CPD and replace him with an officer of color or a woman, and you’re still going to have a system that is racist: one where people of color encounter police less than they do now, but still encounter them in wild disproportion relative to white folks.

This is, I would argue, the fundamental limitation of the study. It’s asking an interesting and not-unimportant question, but it’s not asking the most important one — even when it’s right there in the data, begging to be asked.

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