Police Officers Explain Why Diversity in Law Enforcement Matters
Conversations about diversity carry a lot of weight in any industry. But when it comes to law enforcement, this critical topic can get swept into a confusing tangle of headlines, laws and politics.
But law enforcement officers are often the first people to see the value in diverse hiring choices. On the force, your partner or your team could be the difference between life and death, solving the crime or not solving it. And as much confidence you might have in your own wits and abilities—you don’t want all the officers out there to think like you. The more skills, perspectives and insights a police department can apply to the job—the better!
“People from different cultures and backgrounds have different demeanors and ways of carrying themselves,” says Major Albert Guerra of the Miami Police Department. “Diversity in the Force ensures that we are prepared for these cultural differences and help us avoid unfortunate misunderstandings.”
Most people don’t exactly think of law enforcement as a “people-person” career choice—but the job is exactly that. Officers spend tons of time interacting with people. Whether it’s their team, their suspects or general members of the public, law enforcement professionals need communication skills for a far greater number of populations and occasions than your average citizen. As our experts are quick to point out—navigating that can often be a matter of diversity in law enforcement.
Wondering what diversity really adds to the force? Read on to hear what law enforcement professionals say.
Communicating with cultural nuance
If you’ve spent most of your time in one culture, it’s hard to recognize the many different ways people communicate in body language and subtle conversational cues. If you were to suddenly step into a foreign culture, you’d realize in a hurry that people don’t exactly say what they mean. There’s a lot going on under the surface.
This can be a dangerous place of confusion when it comes to law enforcement. If you are an officer approaching an unknown and potentially fraught situation, and people are behaving in unexpected ways—it’s hard to know what to do. It’s not just the extreme scenarios where this helps, either—a diverse police unit can help make everyday police work more comfortable.
“For instance, in Miami, we have a large Latin population,” Guerra says. “Latin people sometimes speak to each other in close proximity that would make someone of a different culture uncomfortable.” Guerra goes on to say that officers who come from Latin cultures themselves pave the way for more effective work in those communities. “By encouraging diversity, we also enable better relationships with members of the community.”
Adding to diversity training
Many police departments require diversity training on some level. It isn’t safe for officers or civilians to leave room for serious assumption-based misunderstandings. But just trying to avoid danger or criticism is a different motivation from truly celebrating the benefits that diversity can bring.
Commander Freddie Cruz II of the City of Miami Police Department says diversity training is required in Miami so officers can learn about all the cultures they will interact with on the job. But Cruz advises students and prospective officers to go a step farther.
“In Miami, we really celebrate diversity. Anyone considering a career in law enforcement should consider studying different social and ethnic groups to add to the firsthand experiences in their different cultures."
On top of bolstering your understanding of different perspectives, you might also glean important insights into what makes people tick.
Earning public trust
When a police department is trusted by its community, the job works like it should. But trust can be a very hard thing to earn in law enforcement—especially since officers tend to appear in a citizen’s life when something has gone wrong. Paul Grattan, a sergeant at a large metropolitan police agency, says having police officers who represent a wide range of experiences, ethnicities, religious backgrounds and more means citizens will see officers who look like them.
“My experience has been that citizens are more naturally inclined to trust and open up to people with whom they share something—whether they go to the same church, listen to the same music or have similar family backgrounds,” Grattan says.
“Police agencies that are rich in diversity are simply more likely to garner individual trust among a group of citizens because the agency is reflective of the community and is inclusive of officers of many backgrounds and experiences.”
This matters for more than just general public perception. When people trust you as a police officer, they enable you to do your job and get to the bottom of problems faster. “The tenet that ‘people like to talk to people like themselves’ is true,” says Mark Anderson, director of training and development for Anderson Investigative Associates. “We cannot be all things to all people, but having a representation of all people allows us to more effectively serve and gain the information necessary to fulfill our mission.”
Maximizing interviews and solving crimes faster
Law enforcement professionals need to be able to nurture trust and encourage everyone they work with to be as cooperative as possible. Think of situations where officers are interviewing people connected to a case—the information they gather can make all the difference in the world.
“I used to think I was the best person for each interview, but really, this is not true,” Anderson says. No matter how well you know your stuff—people with different backgrounds, experiences and personalities than yours will be the better choice depending on the interview. “This diversity also helps in planning, preparation and execution for greater success. I understand what I understand well, but that’s certainly not everything.”
When Anderson teaches classes on training and preparation for interviews, he highlights “The need to seek the best team or individual to aid in relationship- and rapport-building and ultimately maximize the amount of truthful information obtained.”
Understanding the people we work with
There can be so many barriers to understanding someone—especially when tensions are high and everyone is on their guard. You can arrest someone without understanding them, but you can’t address larger problems or investigate recurrent issues without a glimpse into motives.
“Nothing is more diverse than they body of people you speak to in the interviewing arena—who they are, what they have done, their reasons and rationale—it is amazing,” Andersons says. “If this interview is coming after a significant investigation you should be keenly attuned to the violation, the players, the possible crimes, the modus operandi—but I also challenge my students to consistently observe the soft issues.”
These soft issues are the interrelationship of the actors, the personalities of everyone involved, what they value, who they associate with, etc., according to Anderson. “The more I have researched and understood the interviewee, who they are and what their biases are, the more able I am going to be to find commonality with them—that’s when they will tell me the truth. Diversity of personnel and experience can become so valuable to assist this transition.”
Changing the perception of what a police officer should look like
Close your eyes and picture a police officer for a moment. What do you see? What is this person like? The stereotypes and depictions of professionals in law enforcement just don’t cover the spectrum of personalities and skills you’ll find in a police department.
“My agency works hard to shatter misconceptions that a police officer needs to fit a certain mold in talent or ability—particularly during recruitment,” Grattan says. Grattan explains that diversity in skill sets, family circumstances, training and education, prior work experience, language proficiencies, cultural exposure, family history, hobbies, talents, volunteerism and military service is all so necessary in a group of police officers.
“This helps us understand that being a police officer may be right for someone in spite of preconceived notions about what a cop is,” Grattan says. “Officers who bring diverse experience to the table only increase our collective ability to solve problems.”
Do you see yourself in law enforcement?
Diversity in law enforcement helps us understand that all kinds of people are needed in this job. If your image of a police officer involves a certain kind of person or a certain personality type—consider how someone different would be really essential to balance the demands of the job.
Besides, the best skills and traits to have as a police officer aren’t always what people typically expect. Check out our article, “8 Often Overlooked Qualities You Need to Be a Great Police Officer,” to see what really matters on the job.