Police officers in local departments are increasingly diverse, educated and specialized, new government data shows.
From 1987 to 2013, the percentage of minority officers nationwide almost doubled, from 15% to 27%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the Department of Justice. The percentage was also up from the 25% reported in 2007, the last year the BJS survey was conducted.
The bureau’s report comes at a time when officer-involved shootings have focused more attention on diversity issues and police/community relations. In March 2015, a presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a series of recommendations designed to reduce crime and build trust between the public and police.
Agencies should “strive to create a workforce that encompasses a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities,” the task force’s report noted.
In all, the nation’s approximately 12,300 local police departments employed 130,000 minority officers in 2013, representing increases of about 78,000 officers from 1987 and 13,000 from 2007.
About 60% of the growth in the past decade comes from the rising number of Hispanic or Latino officers, who accounted for 12% of police officers in 2013.
The number of African-American officers also increased but not as dramatically. In 2013, African-Americans accounted for 12% of local police officers, up from about 9% in 1987. Officers identified as Pacific Islander, Asian, Alaska Native, American Indian or Native Hawaiian comprised 3% percent of police forces, about the same as in 2007 but four times higher than in 1987.
Similarly, more women were working as police officers. Departments employed 58,000 women in 2013, more than double the 27,000 in 1987. Nearly one in 10 first-line supervisors and 3% of police chiefs were female.
In the early 1980s, Jim Reynolds was a field training officer for the first female officers to join the Melbourne (Florida) Police Department and later served as the command officer responsible for recruiting.
Particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies, recruiting women and minority officers can be challenging, said Reynolds, who retired as the department’s deputy chief and now is Academic Program Chair for Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Florida Institute of Technology.
Larger agencies can typically offer a greater array of benefits to new recruits, including paid police academy training.
“That is something virtually no small agency or few medium-sized departments can do,” Reynolds said. “Still, we have to try to ensure that our police agencies reflect the communities they serve.”
In general, departments in larger jurisdictions were more diverse than those in smaller ones, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. They also were more likely to require officers to have a college degree, though departments of all sizes have increased education requirements for new recruits.
In 2013, 32% of departments required new officers to have a degree or some college coursework, twice as high as in 1993. Almost one-quarter of officers were employed by departments that called for entry-level officers to have at least an associate’s degree.
As police departments have become more community-oriented, their officers have assumed increasingly specialized roles, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. In 2013, most departments with more than 100 officers operated specialized units to combat issues such as domestic violence, juvenile crime, gangs and child abuse.
Overall, police ranks are growing. Local departments employed about 477,000 full-time sworn personnel in 2013, up 35% since 1987. Still, many departments are small, with 48% employing fewer than 10 sworn officers.