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Accountability for Social Equity in Policing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean McCandless
November 22, 2016

police-1665104_640Long before “Ferguson” became a household name that some use to suggest law enforcement is unfair toward minorities, citizen groups, political leaders, and law enforcement agencies debated the need for reform. Many argued reform is warranted given issues of racial profiling; disparities in stop, search and arrest rates; police training; lack of racial representativeness; and poor community relationships. Suggestions for reform are numerous, including mandated body cameras, outlaw chokeholds, change how shootings are investigated, limit military equipment, improve training, foster racial parity in agencies and throughout government, among many others. Depending on locale, law enforcement agencies have been proactive, open or resistant to adopting these reforms. Regardless, agencies are increasingly recognizing they need to achieve accountability for social equity.

What does achieving accountability for social equity mean? Gooden, using Johnson and Svara’s Justice for All as a guide, provides a seven-part answer (see Table 1). As seen below, public agencies must acknowledge the roles they play in creating social equity problems. From there, agencies need to target outreach to underserved or high-need groups, promote social equity performance measurement, build partnerships with organizations and communities, and more. In short, agencies must take fairness seriously and shift organizational cultures to address inequities.

Table 1: Accountability for social equity

Speaking out about social equity problems attributable to public agencies
Targeting outreach to underserved or high-need groups
Promoting process equity
Giving issues of fairness priority
Measuring social equity and tracking progress
Giving everyone a place at the table
Building partnerships with organizations and communities to address equity

My research on social equity in policing focuses on this framework. To better understand how accountability for social equity is achieved, I interviewed police, elected leaders and citizens in 11 U.S. cities (hereafter “locales”) to investigate the effects of state laws, state and local elected leaders, city dynamics (e.g., history of race relations, socio-economic disparities), administrative culture, practices like community policing and social equity performance measurement (SEPM), programs to make departments more racially representative, and trainings. I used citizen perceptions as a proxy for accountability for social equity: the more positive the perceptions of the police, the closer agencies were to achieving accountability for social equity.

The findings reveal that achieving accountability for social equity is far more complex than I had anticipated. In some locales, members of minority communities felt that agencies were largely fair and that police treated them respectfully. In these locales—all of which were medium-sized—I found extensive use of community policing and SEPM, and agencies often were more racially representative. To citizens, agencies undertook all seven steps in Gooden, Johnson and Svara’s framework. Further, elected leaders uniformly supported agencies in social equity reform and have prompted greater inclusion of minorities in political debates.

In other locales, members of minority communities felt that agencies were profoundly unfair, treated minorities disrespectfully and reinforced racist systems. In these locales—which tended to be large—community engagement programs are understaffed, agencies have budgetary issues, agencies were often highly unrepresentative, and many police felt that some programs meant to enhance social equity misdiagnosed problems and made policing more difficult and dangerous. To citizens, agencies insufficiently tried to foster accountability for social equity and that progress was often stymied by lack of resources and lack of interest on all sides. Elected leaders were often vociferously divided on the need for agencies to undertake these actions.

In other locales, perceptions were mixed. Citizens felt agencies excelled in some ways and needed improvement in others. In these locales—which tended to be large—agencies placed greater importance on community policing and SEPM and uniformly employed programs meant to achieve racial parity on the force. To citizens, agencies acknowledged some social equity problems attributable to police but often did not give everyone a place at the table. Police noted progress in targeting outreach and changing agency practice but noted that change is slow. Elected leaders exhibited divisions in how to define social equity problems and how best to remedy them, but they showed greater intra-group agreement than in locales with negative perceptions.

These findings suggest that accountability for social equity is like a systems model with inputs, black boxes, outputs (i.e., policing practice), outcomes (i.e., perceptions of social equity), feedback and environments. Inputs are numerous such as legal requirements, competing demands from elected leaders, budgetary support for reforms, and more. The black box is also packed. But it is becoming clear that when agencies feel social equity programs are feasible, when chiefs reinforce programs’ importance, and when those throughout the ranks buy into the programs, the policing practices that result are associated with more positive perceptions of social equity. The effect of the environment needs further investigation, but one finding is emerging: when locales are more socio-economically integrated, perceptions of social equity are more positive. City size also appears to play a role, which I will explore in future studies.

However, the big lesson is clear. When agencies and elected bodies give everyone a place at the table and when agencies make fairness a priority and target outreach to historically disadvantaged groups, perceptions of social equity will likely be more positive.


Author: Sean McCandless is a doctoral candidate in the UC Denver School of Public Affairs. He was a 2016 Founders Fellow and 2016 ASPA International Young Scholar.

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