Police diversity and #biasinbritain 2.

As a followup to last week’s post, I will discuss how the emerging results of police diversity in the UK compare to trends in the US and why it is important to increase ethnic diversity in the police force.

In the United States, police forces have already started taking steps to increase ethnic diversity in the 1970s and 1980s. According to a 2015 report which uses data from 2013, the average under-representation of ethnic minorities was 24.5% (i.e., approximately a quarter fewer people from BME background were employed by the police than what would have been required in case of perfect representation according to census data). In the UK – using last week’s numbers – this measure of under-representation is more than twice as large: 56.3%. In the US, on average 27% of officers were from BME background which is a marked increase from the 17% recorded in 1990. Yet this change could not keep pace with the browning of the US population, which means that as a whole police forces in the US have become less representative of the population than they used to be.

But why is it important that the police represent the public in terms of ethnicity? Generally speaking, the police are the most visible representatives of the justice system. To use Muir’s (1977) much-cited book title, the police are ‘street corner politicians’ who are responsible to implement and execute the ever-changing laws. The police can only be effective if people believe that they should be obeyed and that they have the same right and wrong as they do (i.e., that they are legitimate). It has been long established in the psychological literature that if people perceive others to be alike, then they will be more likely to engage and identify with them (Heider 1958) which, in turn, can engender legitimacy. Although there are several identity-relevant aspects which can become salient during a police-citizen encounter, gender and ethnicity are usually two of the most important aspects.

In a similar vein, the group-engagement model (Blader & Tyler, 2009; Tyler & Blader, 2003) has argued that encounters with the police carry identity-relevant information which influences people’s attitudes regarding the legitimacy of the police. If the police officers treat people with dignity and respect and happen to be more similar to the citizens those citizens will be more likely to identify with law-abiding citizenship (i.e., the superordinate group the police represent). Identification with the police helps people to reaffirm their social standing in their respective communities and makes them proud to be a member of the group they identify with. There is some evidence that the group engagement model works (e.g., Bradford et al., 2015; Bradford et al., 2017), however, there has been no examination whether the police officers’ race affects this identification.

It is a more complicated question how racial representativity can be and should be achieved in police forces but several alternatives have been used including targeted advertising, early recruitment, and racial quotas.


Blader, S. L., & Tyler, T. R. (2009). Testing and extending the group engagement model: Linkages between social identity, procedural justice, economic outcomes, and extrarole behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(2), 445–464.
Bradford, B., Hohl, K., Jackson, J., & MacQueen, S. (2015). Obeying the Rules of the Road. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 31(2), 171–191.
Bradford, B., Milani, J., & Jackson, J. (2017). Identity, legitimacy and “making sense” of police use of force. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 40(3), 614–627.
Diversity on the Force: Where Police Don’t Mirror Communities – Special report (2015)  http://media.navigatored.com/documents/policediversityreport.pdf
Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Wiley.
Muir, W. K. (1977). Streetcorner Politicians. University of Chicago Press.
Tyler, T. R., & Blader, S. L. (2003). The Group Engagement Model: Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Cooperative Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(4), 349–361.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.