Affirmative Action: A Tool for Justice?

Affirmative action is a policy that directly or indirectly awards jobs, promotions, and other resources to individuals on the basis of membership in a protected group in order to compensate those groups for past discrimination. Through affirmative action, police departments have taken positive steps to correct past racial and sexual discrimination. A key aspect of affirmative action plans is the commitment to ensure that the percentage of minorities or women in particular job categories within a police force approximates the percentage of those groups in the adult labor force. To hire more racial minorities and women, police organizations have recruited more aggressively, revised entrance requirements, and set quotas. For example, a police department might require that 30 percent of the members of each new class of police recruits be black until the department's total officer population reflects the racial composition of the community.

Affirmative action should be used

Generally, affirmative action is a civil rights policy premised on the concepts of group rights and equality of results. Equality of results is different from equality of opportunity insofar as the former concentrates on similar outcomes and the latter focuses on removing discrimination from the process of getting a job, a promotion, or some other socially desired good or service. The arguments for affirmative action justify a race‐ and gender‐conscious approach to hiring in criminal justice.

  1. Affirmative action demonstrates a commitment to the principle of equality.

  2. Affirmative action provides thousands of jobs for racial minorities and women.

  3. Affirmative action improves police‐community relations.

Affirmative action should not be used

Arguments against affirmative action dwell on its costs and question the justice that supposedly goes with compensating members of a protected group for past wrongs done to other members of the same group during earlier periods of history.

  1. Affirmative action is nothing more than reverse discrimination. It is wrong for a police department to give preferential treatment to members of a minority group who are not themselves victims of discrimination in order to redress past societal discrimination. Moreover, some white officers view affirmative action as a threat to their job security and their careers.

  2. Affirmative action has caused police administrators to lower standards to hire racial minorities and women.

Evaluating affirmative action

Through affirmative action, many departments have increased their complement of officers from racial minority groups. A study of the fifty largest cities in the United States found that from 1983 to 1992, police departments “made uneven progress in the employment of African‐American and Hispanic officers.” Today, minority police officers make up about 20 percent of the officers in all local police departments, and African‐Americans head one‐fourth of the nation's 50 largest police departments. Females are still underrepresented. The FBI reported in 1994 that women officers had risen to almost 12 percent of the total number of officers in departments serving more than 50,000 people. An additional problem is that female officers make up only a tiny percentage of all supervisors in city and state law enforcement agencies.

There is simply no credible evidence that police departments have lowered standards to recruit qualified women and racial minority police officers.

The power of the reverse discrimination argument depends on the details of specific departments' affirmative action policies. Such policies must conform to the requirements set down in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). In an ambiguous ruling, the Supreme Court held that quotas were unconstitutional but that race could continue to be used as a factor in admissions and hiring decisions.