Minorities Within the Police Workforce Research Paper

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It is important for police forces to serve all communities. Questions about the just use of police powers have fostered criminological research, not least in relation to their racially discriminatory use. Notions like racial profiling, for example, have signalled police unfairness and injustice. It has become clear that some communities are policed in ways that are unfair and unjust. Research, however, has also turned attention to justice and fairness within police forces. Questions about black and other minority ethnic officers’ experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination as an aspect of relationships with colleagues; of whether and, if so, why women are underrepresented in the police ranks; about unequal promotion opportunities for majority and minority ethnic and other minority officers within the workforce; and many other related questions have been explored by social scientists.

Social inequalities within the police workforce might follow those found in wider society, but there might also be a distinct experience of prejudice and discrimination among minority ethnic and women officers. Gay officers’ experiences might be different from those of other minorities. Race and gender are not fixed characteristics of individuals: they are social constructs and, if policies to alleviate discrimination and prejudice from within police forces are to be developed, it is necessary to understand how they are articulated and sustained.


Many societies retain deeply embedded laws, policies, customs, norms, and related ideas that sustain social inequalities. Equality between men and women, between the members of majority and minority ethnic groups, between people of different sexual orientations, and between able bodied people and those with physical disabilities has therefore become a major theme of politics, law and policy across the world. Societies are at different points of development when their attempts to reform and create a more equal society are evaluated. Although often faltering, major reforms of law and policy, as well as many other aspects of social change, have nevertheless contributed to attempts to form societies within which social inequalities diminish and, ideally, become wholly insignificant. Indeed, reforms to create social equality have stimulated phenomena like the civil rights movement in the USA and womens’ movements that reach across continents. What has come to be called “identity politics,” where participants engage in debates and action about inequalities on the basis of one criterion, their personal identification as a woman, black, or gay, for example, is recognized as a keynote of contemporary politics (Phillips 2007; Young 1990).

Police forces are not immune from these wider social trends. Discriminatory policing of ethnic minorities has become a subject of significance in many societies and of criminological research (Lamberth 2003). The failure of police officers adequately to protect women who are victims of domestic violence has gained public and criminological attention (Council of Europe 2002). A glance at programs for all the major criminology conferences will reveal sessions on ethnicity and gender as standard subjects, and scholarly societies like the American Society of Criminology have established women’s and Afro-American sections. Criminology has not been immune from identity politics.

When a person is recruited into a constabulary, they join an institution that predates their membership. This means that police recruits are socialized into a structure of existing relationships and ideas, some of which relate to minorities and, therefore, to prejudice and discrimination. Individuals respond to these relationships and ideas in different ways but always with reference to what have become dominant, powerful, taken-for-granted ideas, and relationships that officers accept as commonsense (Holdaway 1983). In this sense, the police is an institution with a structure that frames individual officers’ ideas and actions, including ideas about and actions related to women officers and ethnic minority officers that include views about their appropriate career paths, the ways in which they understand policing, their place within a wider social hierarchy of equality and status, and many other subjects. These ideas and related actions, appropriately called aspects of the police occupational culture, can be prejudicial and discriminatory to minorities serving in the police workforce. Criminological research has therefore to some extent focussed upon the police workforce and the experiences of women, ethnic minorities, and gay officers within it.

Two aspects of prejudice and discrimination within the police workforce are of particular importance. The first is the mediation and expression of wider social inequalities that lead to prejudice and/or discrimination within constabularies. Police officers, police policies, and related actions are not immune from widely held assumptions about women, for example. There is a strong view, for instance, that policing is a man’s job; that masculinity, so called, is essential to an officer’s fulfilment of his duties (Brown 2007).

The second point is that, during the last two decades, an increasing number of applicants for recruitment to the police have been women, members of ethnic minorities, and gay people. They are more than familiar with being categorized by others in prejudicial and discriminatory ways. Despite expectations to the contrary conveyed in recruitment literature and policy statements, the experience of being a member of a constabulary becomes different for women officers and for those from majority and minority ethnic groups. Indeed, the experience can lead to a view that prejudice and discrimination pervade police culture (Holdaway 1991).

This is not to suggest that all police officers are individuals who are racists, women haters, or homophobic. Neither is it to suggest that all officers from minorities perceive and respond to prejudice and discrimination in the same way. Police officers are not clones. Rather, the research described and analyzed in this research paper charts contours of relationships, beliefs, ideas, and related actions that form a framework for police employment and, therefore, the experience of officers from minority groups in the workforce. Particular importance is given to the occupational culture of the police, which is precisely the context within which categorizations and understandings of group membership vie with and yield to each other. Categorizations, remember, are external to and therefore imposed upon women, ethnic minorities, and gay people. Ascriptions of group membership, however, are subjective responses to categorizations that may lead to particular actions. The institution of the police and its occupational culture are not set in stone. Rather, they should be conceptualized as processes of interaction between categorizations and understandings of group membership (Brubaker et al. 2004).

Police forces are obviously not the only work institutions that exhibit prejudice and discrimination within employment. They are however particularly important because they are a central state institution, policing on behalf of the whole population. Inequalities within police forces that demonstrate a failure to address prejudice and discrimination portray a central institution of the state with a workforce that is not representative of the general population and one that perpetuates rather than ameliorates prejudicial and discriminatory experiences of policing for minorities. This is why the experiences of minorities within the police workforce are important and have captured the attention of criminologists.

Researching Minorities Within Police Forces

Questions about whether or not a police workforce is representative of the population it serves are usually researched by statistical comparison of the percentages of a particular minority within the general population and their number within the police workforce. Controls for the age profile of the minority population ensure that only people within the recruitment age range, requisite educational qualifications, and other variables are included in the analysis. The research task here, however, is rather uncomplicated.

Other studies, mostly about women officers, have used questionnaires to ask a sample about aspects of their work. They have then often compared findings with a sample of male officers asked the same questions. Subjects of relevance, for example, have been the balance between police work and family commitments, attitudes towards police work and particular aspects of it, and relationships with male officers (Brown and Savage 1992).

“Race” and “gender,” however, are not facts that can be measured straightforwardly. Their meanings differ across societies, within different contexts and they change. The category “Asian police officer,” for example, means a person from the Indian subcontinent in England, but in the USA a person with origins in Japan, China, Indonesia, or other close geographical areas. As far as membership of an ethnic group is concerned, some British Asian police officers regard themselves as “black” and some do not. Some Asian officers prefer to signify their ethnicity by identifying with their affiliation to Islam – they are Muslim police officers – others do not and call themselves “Asian” or “black.” Similarly, characteristics attributed to women officers by male officers have been found to be highly partial: their natural ability to deal with children, for example.

The main point here is that “race,” “ethnicity,” and “gender” are social constructs. We attribute particular meanings to them within particular contexts, often assuming they are shared generally and constitute commonsense. From this perspective, interesting research questions arise about the meanings attributed to women and to ethnic minority officers. Analysis of the interaction between categorizations and ascriptions of ethnicity and of gender within the particular context of the police workforce reveals social processes through which race, ethnicity, and gender are constructed, sustained, and, maybe, changed (Holdaway 1997a). The systematic analysis of qualitative data from interviews with minority and majority ethnic and with women police officers, of policy documents, and employment law informs research of this type.

Although gender and ethnicity are distinct subjects for research, they are combined in this research paper. The aim is to make clear a theoretical perspective based on the view that they are both social constructions, understood through an analysis of similar social processes that constitute and sustain them within constabularies.

Beginnings: The Power Of Ideas About Subordination

The general recruitment of women into the police is a relatively recent phenomenon, realized within a historical legacy of resistance to the idea that policing can be an occupation for females (Brown 2000; Heidensohn 1992). Comparing the history of women police officers in many European societies, Jennifer Brown and her colleagues concluded that, “The idea of women officers appears to have been met with both incredulity and hostility wherever the suggestions were first made” (Brown et al. 1999).

Initial advances in the recruitment of women are due more to pressures from circumstances external to constabularies than the fostering of the idea within the police or by governments that, indeed, policing is as much a job for women as for men. In England, for example, women could only fill the void left by the diminution of men available for recruitment following national conscription in 1914 (Brown et al. 1999). Expediency rather than views about equality was in the ascendancy. Elsewhere and to some extent in England, the advancement of women into constabularies developed by a perceived need for the policing of moral concerns suited to women’s attentions. Bathers who lacked adequate clothing, the spread of venereal disease in postwar Cologne, the care of lost and wayward children, fears about the sexual promiscuity of women at a time when men were at war, and a need to police prostitution formed in different societies a rationale for the recruitment of women into forces (Brown et al. 1999). The suitability of women to care for children, to prescribe and police women’s morals, and, by default, not to engage in the round of routine policing that includes arresting criminals, investigating crime, and patrolling the streets sustained ideas about women’s roles.

The origins of these ideas lay beyond constabularies. Given expression within the particular context of policing, however, characterizations of women as “naturally” morally sensitive, as the carers of children, in summary, as different and supporters of rather than independent from or equal to male officers were sustained. Women recruited into this context and who did not wholly share these and related dominant ideas had to develop strategies and tactics to accommodate their own understandings and related styles of policing.

A historical context of subordination to white, often colonial, or immigrant ruling minorities is a key point for understanding the early recruitment of ethnic minorities into the police. The legacy of slavery, itself a policing system, forms the background and to some extent continuing context of the position of Afro-American officers in the USA (Dulaney 1996). In Africa and in India, colonial rule framed recruitment from indigenous populations. When first recruited into constabularies, indigenous Africans and Indians entered the rank and file. Colonial rule established a continuing, natural “officer class” for what were usually white immigrants into Africa, India, and the USA. Whereas a notion of “femininity” framed women officers, different, lasting ideas about the innate intellectual and moral inferiority of indigenous people structured commonsense views about the recruitment of ethnic minorities into the police.

Following the abolition of slavery and the movement of Afro-American, former slaves from southern to northern states, the policing of exclusive, black areas of cities had to be considered (Dulaney 1996). In most northern cities, black officers were recruited to police black communities. They were prohibited from arresting white suspects and not promoted above the rank of sergeant. In many places black officers were not allowed to wear uniforms similar to those worn by white officers. Slavery ended but confining the work of black officers in terms of what was suited to the innate characteristics of “blacks” perpetuated what would eventually be regarded by Afro-American officers as systemic racism.

Understanding Origins And The Perpetuation Of Structures And Ideas

The history of ethnic and gender relations within particular societies is of importance when the contemporary situation of police recruitment is analyzed. The point is not that slavery and colonial rule remain, perhaps in a covert form. It is not that the notion of women as traditionally feminine wholly perpetuates police recruitment. Ideas and hierarchical relationships that flowed from them have nevertheless been influential and resistant to change. They have formed a structure, sometimes tightly woven, sometimes much less so, with a legacy that for many years and now places constraints on women and ethnic minority officers. Highly partial categorizations related to the long-standing subordination of ethnic minorities and of women officers remain and to some extent have become taken for granted as “commonsense.”

Women and ethnic minority officers work within this structure of constraint, but their experiences of policing have not been determined wholly by it. Police officers, as said earlier, are not clones (Holdaway 1997b). Some will have accepted and maybe taken for granted constraints of gender or ethnicity. Others, experiencing the symptoms of gender and racialized inequalities within policing, have responded in ways that challenge apparent commonsense. Human beings are creative and in the next section constraints that have led to distinct responses to reform are discussed.

The Beginnings Of Change

Social change is complex and many different circumstances should be taken into account when understanding why the recruitment of women and of ethnic minorities into the police are subjects of public debate and policy. Although every society exhibits unique points, key features that research needs to consider apply to all of them.

The first point is that basic changes in the governance of a significant group previously denied police employment, sometimes realized through political settlement, sometimes through protest and violent conflict, provide opportunities for women and minorities to enter new sectors of the labor market. The abolition of slavery in the USA created opportunities for recruitment to the police; the end of colonial rule in parts of Africa and in India opened up similar prospects. In England, although not central to police recruitment, a women’s political protest movement, the suffragettes, lobbied successfully for the extension of the political franchise to women, acting as an agent of general change to ideas about suitable employment for women (Brown et al. 1999).

No matter how dramatic events that create change might be, the past nevertheless continues to constrain the present. It was some time before black officers patrolled white areas of the USA (Dulaney 1996). A key influence was the entry of Afro-Americans into city politics and the lobbying for the election of black mayors, who then appointed black police officer, including some chiefs. The civil rights movement would eventually pave the way for greater change. Similarly, it was many years before women officers in England undertook routine rather than specialist duties. In India, the caste system prohibited members of particular social groups from police employment. Apart from this constraint, after the end of colonial rule, it was some time before indigenous Indians could hold police rank. The same situation applies to the context of independence in many African societies.

Legal change, which can follow wider political changes of the type described, has also been very important for minorities’ and women’s recruitment to the police (Jones 1986; Heidensohn 1992). In the USA, the introduction of positive discrimination laws and related quotas for ethnic minority officers allowed the mounting of important legal challenges in cities like New York, where a deficit of Afro-American officers was apparent (Leinen 1984). With limited success, federal law in Ontario, Canada, has required constabularies to justify why they have not realized targets for the recruitment of women and for ethnic minorities (Todd and Todd 1992). In England, the Equality Act, 2010, is the latest legislation that builds on the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act, 1976. Public bodies now have a statutory duty to demonstrate that their policies do not discriminate against legally defined minorities within their workforce.

Once equalities legislation has been passed, chief officers can introduce policies based on positive or affirmative action and, sometimes, positive discrimination (Edwards 1987). They can and in many countries have been required to publish equalities policy statements. Combined with legislation, these policies have a number of important functions. Law and policy publicly states actions to which a police force should aspire and against which they are monitored. They make clear what should be occurring in police forces and therefore offer a tangible reference point for redress when minorities within the police workforce are underrepresented or are the subjects of prejudice and/or discrimination. They therefore offer a protection, providing a measure of confidence among potential recruits and serving officers.

Cases brought by officers who allege discrimination in employment indicate a further function of equalities legislation, which is to create cases that become public landmarks for minorities in police forces (Leinen 1984). Such cases symbolize police forces’ and chief officers’ lack of commitment to legislation and that chief officers can be brought to account. Reporting of cases raises the public profile of inequality within the police; litigants are named and precedents are set.

Legislation also plays a part in placing a subject like equal opportunities in the police on the wider public policy agenda, which leads to further action within and out with constabularies.

Governments begin routinely to collect statistics about the number of people from different groups – ethnic minorities and women, for example – entering police employment. In many cases the under-recruitment from these groups is revealed and further questions are asked about why this is so. Regulatory bodies concerned with monitoring and in some instances the prosecution of police forces (among other public bodies) become the justification for these organizations’ existence. Regulatory bodies rarely work to abolish themselves.

These conditions relevant to the beginnings of change also have a wider relevance than, for example, individual acts of legislation being passed, discrete cases being brought, and unconnected policies being developed and regulated. They do not constitute a necessary, fixed point of development but are important features of a social process leading to changing the position of women and ethnic minorities within constabularies. The personal experience of, for example, a woman who is hesitant about police recruitment or of a black British person concerned about the possible experience of police employment is not viewed as events in the lives of untypical people. They are recognized as a part of a shared experience within an identified institution and therefore amenable to public comment. As the sociologist C. Wright Mills put it, “personal issues” become “public problems” (Mills 1959). Once realized, the status of a public issue changes. It begins to be secured as a recognized subject of public debate and confirms a reality of police employment for women and for ethnic minorities. Its dismissal as a personal grudge of a few individuals or a partial concern of minorities is challenged strongly.

Experience After Joining

Most research about women police officers has been concerned with documenting dimensions of prejudice and discrimination. One of the much cited, early studies is Susan Martin’s participant observer research with Washington’s police. She summarized women officers’ experiences in the following way:

(Women) are excluded from the information exchange network and informal social life.. . Police women’s behaviour is circumscribed by the stereotypical roles in which they are cast.. . which reminds women that as females they are sex objects, vulnerable to harassment yet held responsible for the outcomes of the interaction. (Martin 1980)

Attempts to integrate women into the police workforce have been challenged by what some have called a “cult of masculinity” articulated through the occupational culture (Heidensohn 2005). Among others, beliefs about the need for physical strength, bravado, and reliability to support colleagues in trouble have framed women officers’ experiences of police work. Jokes and stories about women officers have sustained these views. Women have been excluded from socializing and working with male colleagues. Before considering them as colleagues who can be trusted, male officers have wanted to determine where their loyalties lie. Reviewing research studies undertaken in a good number of societies, Jennifer Brown found policemen exhibit hostile attitudes about women as patrol partners in the USA, Sweden, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and India (Brown 1997).

A number of important consequences have arisen from these circumstances. One is that women have not been promoted in adequate numbers to the supervisory ranks (Silvestri 2003). The other is that women officers are underrepresented in some specialist areas of policing traditionally regarded as most suitable for men. Brown found this in firearms squads in English constabularies (Brown and Sargent 1994). Westmarland found during her study of a provincial force that women were working disproportionately in specialisms related to child victims (Heidensohn 2005). More recent work has found that women working in the London Metropolitan Police child abuse units have been afforded a low status (Heidensohn 2005, p. 569).

Ethnic minority officers have a similar experience of discrimination and prejudice. Studies conducted in England and Wales documented the widespread use of racist language by white officers, racist jokes and stories, exclusion from socializing with white colleagues, and a diminished status within the workforce (Holdaway and Barron 1997). Research in American police forces has documented similar findings (Bolton and Feagin 2004).

The occupational culture has been analyzed to understand more precisely how race and ethnicity are articulated through it. A routine and necessary use of typifications which lend themselves to stereotypes of race (and gender), the demands of perceived teamwork as fundamental to policing, and the telling of stories and jokes that can articulate race prejudice sustaining discrimination have been found to be important (Holdaway 1997a). Officers’ racialized identities were dominated by their ethnic majority colleagues’ categorization of them as “black” rather than of police officers who happen to be black. White officers place the racialized identity of colleagues in the ascendancy.

Further dimensions of discrimination have been charted, identifying a lack of promotion prospects, premature resignation from constabularies, and unwillingness by senior officers to understand the context within which their minority ethnic officers work (Holdaway and Barron 1997).


One of the most interesting changes in policing has been the response of ethnic minority and of women officers to experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Ethnic minority and women police associations have worked within a context of legal change, where sex and race discrimination laws have become prominent and public expectations about the composition and management of the police workforce have been supportive.

Police forces are hierarchical organizations. Policy is developed by senior officers, with more junior ranks expected to implement it. An important feature of change in the position of ethnic minority and women officers, however, has been the reversal of this policy process (Holdaway 2009). Women and ethnic minority officers have formed police associations with memberships based solely on gender or ethnic identification.

The associations have in many respects become social movements within police forces. Forms of identity politics have entered debates and action to change police policy. Virtually all of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales have a Black Police Association and representative membership of the British Association of Police Women. American police forces have hundreds and probably thousands of similar associations. Discrimination and prejudice is challenged by all of these associations, as it is by larger groupings, the National Black Police Association and the European Network of Women Police, for example.

Criminologists can continue to describe and to some extent analyze the outcomes of associations’ actions. The experience of officers can be documented. Previous studies can be repeated to assess the extent and character of change. This type of work will provide interesting information but not address important theoretical and related, empirical questions about the ways in which “race” and “gender” are constructed and sustained within the police.

It was argued in an early part of this research paper that race and gender are social constructions. From this theoretical perspective it becomes possible to research changing meanings of such phenomena and, therefore, the ways in which race and gender are articulated within police forces, processes that lead to the changes, specific contexts within which prejudice and discrimination are experienced, and to compare and contrast what might be similar processes that marginalize minorities within the police workforce.

Race and gender are now matters for police policy. That has not always been the case. Race prejudice and discrimination were once phenomena of relevance to individuals who sometimes sought legal remedies – individual cases – to deal with the difficulties faced. The same could be said of gender and the situation of women officers. Once defined as phenomena to be addressed by policy, the meaning and status of race and of gender change. They are phenomena representing a collective experience requiring the attention of senior officers. What was an individual experience of a black officer or a women officer is now an organizational problem. In England what was once defined as race prejudice and/or discrimination and sometimes as “equal opportunities” became “institutional racism,” called “systemic racism” in North America and Canada. The history of women’s and ethnic minority police associations can be understood as aspects of a process within which race and gender are refined as they are related to a distinct, shared experience of police employment (Holdaway and O’Neil 2006). Differences between male and female officers and between black and white officers are emphasized within this process and presented as the widely shared experience of police employment. The notions of women officers and of black officers, for example, are accepted as representing particular experiences of police employment related to distinct realms of policy. While apparently secure, such experiences require the continuing vigilance of women’s and black police associations. Their work sustains particular constructions of the relevance of gender, race, and ethnicity to police work and its management by senior officers.

One feature of the development of black police associations in the USA and in the UK has been an awareness of a distinct experience of police employment among minority ethnic officers who, despite having a dark skin color, do not identify as “black.” These officers cannot unite with black officers, who define the experience of race prejudice and discrimination as common to all colleagues from minority ethnic groups (Holdaway and O’Neill 2004). The consequence of this situation has been the development of many police associations representing different ethnic groups – Asian, Greek, Italian, and Turkish police associations, for example. Other associations have been formed by the criteria of religious affiliation and in the UK, for example, there are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh police associations. The difference between these associations and those for black colleagues is a focus upon culture rather than race. Their claim is that unless particular cultural practices are recognized by a police force, they experience discrimination and prejudice. Halal food, access to prayer rooms in police stations, and freedom from work on the Sabbath have become subjects of policy.

Each ethnic group of officers, with its distinct culture, has been recognized, leading to conflicting understandings of minorities within the police workforce. Black officers argue that there is one experience of race discrimination, irrespective of membership of an ethnic minority group. To argue otherwise is to cause division, to weaken the claims of those who experience discrimination, and to privilege partial, cultural interests above those shared by all ethnic groups. Multicultural policies recognize differences between many groups; race policies address a fundamental, shared reality of discrimination.

Police forces throughout the world have responded to the claims of women officers and, though to a lesser extent, minority ethnic officers. Work is not yet finished, but policies to address many of the problems encountered by the members of these groups have been developed. Despite this situation, research in the UK suggests that while overt prejudice and discrimination has all but disappeared, their covert forms frame the reality of police employment. When asked for examples of covert discrimination and/or prejudice, as part of a study of black police associations, black officers presented examples that relied on their ability as a black person to know the motive lying behind a white person’s action. They could sense it in a way a white person could not identify prejudice or discrimination (Holdaway and O’Neill 2005). It would be interesting to research women police experiences to understand whether they identify with similar forms of prejudice or discrimination.

The difficulty with these explanations of covert racism, as it is called, is that they rest on an assumption that black police officers are essentially different from white officers. They have a privileged access to the motives of white officers because, and only because, they are black. Their claim is an essential one, which is in conflict with ideas about race equality because claims to race equality are dependent on the assumption that all human beings are essentially the same. Black officers who define covert racism in these terms are thus arguing that they are the same as the ethnic majority but also essentially different.

An implicit argument here is that future research about minorities in the police workforce is that both similarities and differences between women and minority ethnic officers characterize experiences of discrimination and prejudice. Research has so far focussed upon differences between majority and minority groups in the police, which are important and the continuing subject of policy. Comparative research within and between police forces could however analyze in greater detail whether or not similar processes and forms of prejudice and discrimination lead to what are defined as essentially different experiences. We know, for example, that racist and sexist jokes, that exclusion from informal networks, and that stereotyping are processes that marginalize officers from both groups. Closer attention to this matter could clarify the essential and phenomenal forms of marginalization and exclusion within police forces and, maybe, in other work organizations.


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