Employment Discrimination

Police perform best when they have public support. One way to assure public support is to hire persons who reflect the gender and cultural diversity of communities in the United States.

The nature of the problem

For most of U.S. history, almost all police were white men. Before the 1960s, police departments in the United States were guilty of employment discrimination with respect to racial minorities and women. Police agencies operated on the sexist premise that policing was a man's job. Until 1972, female police officers were rare. Many male police officers opposed assigning women to patrol work on the grounds that women don't have the physical size and strength to handle the job. Subsequent evaluations of female officers on patrol found their performance to be as effective as that of males. As for the experience of blacks in law enforcement, it parallels the history of black participation in almost every other form of government service. Before the 1970s, some police departments didn't hire nonwhites. Police organizations only grudgingly accepted blacks as police officers.

Following the application of civil rights legislation to local police departments, the profile of the police in the U.S. began to change. In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act extended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit race, gender, religious, and national origin discrimination in public employment. The U.S. Justice Department and individual citizens sued police departments. Some of these suits got rid of particular discriminatory employment practices (for example, height and upper‐body strength requirements that eliminated many females). Others produced court orders mandating that police departments hire more racial minorities or women.

Even after police agencies hired racial minorities and women, they discriminated in promotions and job assignments. As recently as 1998, black FBI agents' lawyers have accused the FBI of racial discrimination in promotions. Police agencies segregated racial minorities and women within police bureaucracies. Until the Indianapolis Police Department assigned Betty Blankenship and Elizabeth Coffal to patrol in 1968, police agencies relegated policewomen to social worker roles. Male police executives assumed that women's inherently compassionate nature equipped them to perform certain police duties better than men, such as handling female and juvenile cases. Similarly, some police departments assigned all their black, Hispanic, or Asian officers to a single patrol area or beat that reflected their racial or ethnic background. Federal courts eventually ruled that this kind of racial segregation is discriminatory.