Does an Increased Share of Black Police Officers Decrease Racial Discrimination in Law Enforcement?

By Sunyoung Pyo (Catholic University of Korea)

The police force’s discriminatory treatment toward Black residents has long been a significant social issue in the U.S. (Gaston 2019; Homes, Painter II and Smith 2019). There is substantial empirical evidence showing that Black people are more likely than White people to be stopped-and-frisked and to be arrested for minor offenses (Cooley et al. 2020; Gelman, Fagan and Kiss 2007). The issue of discriminatory policing has become more publicly salient over the last few years following several high-profile police-involved deaths of Black residents.

Several policy proposals have been put forward to address the issue of racial discrimination by the police force. Among these policy proposals, a policy that has received significant scholarly and political attention as a way to eliminate institutionalized racial bias within police organizations is to increase the share of Black officers in police forces. This reform reflects the critique that police forces have historically been dominated by White males (Ba et al. 2021). The benefits of increasing racial diversity in bureaucracies have been actively examined through the lens of representative bureaucracy theory. Representative bureaucracy theory predicts that police agencies with a higher minority representation would commit fewer discriminatory policing activities (Hong 2017; Nicholson-Crotty, Nicholson-Crotty and Fernandez 2017; Sharp 2014).

Despite the predictions of representative bureaucracy theory, empirical evidence concerning the link between increased racial representation in the police force and discriminatory policing activities is inconclusive. Some studies even found that increased racial representation may increase the disparity in law enforcement outcomes toward minority residents (Ochs 2011; Wilkins and Williams 2008). Given these previous findings, more empirical evidence is necessary to understand the circumstances in which increased racial representation in the police force promotes or hinders fair law enforcement outcomes toward racial minority residents.

In this regard, my current study examines whether increasing Black representation in police forces is negatively associated with racial discrimination in law enforcement using panel data collected from 326 U.S. local police agencies. Two law enforcement outcomes were particularly examined: police-involved deaths and order maintenance arrests of Black residents. This study further examines whether and how the association between Black representation and law enforcement outcomes differs according to the organizational and environmental contexts of the police agencies.

Results show that an increased share of Black officers is associated with decreased police-involved deaths of Black residents, but is not significantly associated with a change in order maintenance arrests of Black suspects. In addition, the variables indicating organizational and environmental contexts of the police agencies did not have a significant moderating effect, except for the percent of White officers. Specifically, in the agencies with a large share of White officers, the percentage of Black officers is negatively associated with the police-involved deaths of Black residents only when the percentage of Black officers is relatively small; once the percentage became larger than about 15%, their relationship became positive.

The first conclusion that can be drawn from the results is that the benefits of increasing the share of Black officers may manifest differently according to the natures of officers’ decision-making. Officers often rely on automatic or intuitive decisions when using deadly force, which make their decision extremely discretionary (Headley and Wright II 2020). On the other hand, officers have to consider “legal and policy restrictions when making an arrest that prompt officers to be deliberate, logical, conscious, and rational in decision-making” (Headley and Wright II 2020, 1054). Given this difference between the two outcomes, the current findings can be interpreted as follows: in cases of decision-making that rely heavily on the immediate discretionary judgment of individual officers (e.g. when using deadly force), enhancing Black representation may be effective in reducing discriminatory practices against Black residents. In cases of less automated decision-making (e.g. arrests), on the other hand, increasing Black representation may not be directly linked to increased advocacy for Black residents in the police force.

Second, the findings from the examination of the moderating role of the percent of White officers suggests that organizational socialization plays an important role in explaining the link of a share of Black officers to racial discrimination in policing. Police forces have unique culture that emphasizes solidarity and loyalty, which exert strong pressure on police officers to behave in accordance with their colleagues (Wilkins and Williams 2008, 656). The current finding showed that the negative association between Black representation and the police-involved deaths of Black residents disappears when the percentage of Black officers surpasses a certain point, especially in organizations consisting of a large group of White officers. This finding suggests that Black officers may become reluctant to advocate for minority clients in organizations with increased pressure to act in accordance with the dominant White police culture. Additionally, Black officers may become even more reluctant to advocate for minority clients when they are more visible within the organization (i.e. when they comprise a larger percentage of the organization).

In sum, the current finding implies that there are benefits of enhancing Black representation in police forces for reducing racial disparities in policing, at least for certain policing outcomes such as police-involved deaths. Although such benefits may not be prominent for types of decision-making that are strongly influenced by organizational pressure, this does not negate the necessity of enhancing Black representation in the police force. Given the recent increased political and social pressure to change a long-standing White-dominant police culture, it is possible that increasing the number of Black officers may have a positive influence across diverse policing outcomes in the long term.

Read the full UAR article here.


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Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash

Author Biography

Sunyoung Pyo is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at the Catholic University of Korea. Her research specializes in criminal justice policies and policing, with a focus on issues of police accountability and transparency, and racial and gender representation in the police force. Her work has appeared in Policy Sciences, Urban Affairs Review, and The American Review of Public Administration